Franklin, TN. Nearly two millennia ago, a group of Christian ascetics sometimes referred to as the desert fathers discovered an interesting trick: withdraw from society and, paradoxically, you gain social capital. Go off-grid, and you gain a bigger audience than you would do preaching on a street corner. Quite why this works is a puzzle, but it has something to do with credibility.
Paul Kingsnorth may not qualify as one of the desert fathers; he may indeed see the world with more of a pagan wyrd than a Christian hope, but he does have a few things in common with these saints. His bitterness toward society and prophecies about the end of the world are two. There’s also his preference for only eating things he finds just outside his house.
A few years back, Kingsnorth seems to have realized that for his main preoccupations, which we might describe as the destruction of the natural world and the erosion of real human liberty (in that order), writing fiction would give him a longer reach than the classical forms of activism that had been his life’s work. A character in his most recent novel Alexandria (Graywolf Press, 2020) receives comparable directions while astral-projecting. As he dreams, a Delphic voice intones: To cross wall, abandon maps.
Alexandria is the final installment of Kingsnorth’s “Buckmaster Trilogy”—three startlingly different portraits of people brought to crisis as society, and the land itself, collapses around them.
The Wake (2014) followed the series’ titular Buccmaster of Holland, an Anglo-Saxon farmer-proprietor (or “Socman with three oxgangs,” as the character never lets you forget), as his life spirals out of control following the Norman invasion of England in 1066. It reads like Beowulf and Macbeth mashed together, which may explain why Mark Rylance bought the rights to adapt it. Beast (2017) features a surreal, present-day internal monologue of a protagonist who has become a hermit and faces a violent confrontation with both his surrounding environment and his own mind.
Alexandria, by contrast, follows a handful of characters (this is a lot of characters, for Kingsnorth) who live in a far-future England that is drowning from environmental and social collapse. The main characters are being hunted by a creature who has decimated their community by progressively disappearing its members over several years. Their world figuratively and literally becomes smaller by the day as sea levels rise and their contact with other communities is cut off. One thing the book has in common with the others: it is not a happy tale.
Nominally, all three books occur in roughly the same space: the middle bits of England, probably the Fenlands; exactly where is a matter of the reader’s inference and savvy with imaginatively-garbled placenames. The “character” of this place is the through-line that interconnects the trilogy. With a nod to the FPR tagline, it’s easy to see how Place and Limits are the bedrock of Kingsnorth’s storytelling. Liberty is a bit harder to find.
Perhaps the most unique aspect of Kingsnorth’s fiction is his use of language. Beast is set in the present day and thus uses contemporary language. But The Wake is written in a legible but strange, pseudo-archaic Anglo-Saxon that tries to minimize the use of post-invasion French loanwords. The text is given to delightful turns of phrase like this is scit and thu is a fuccan hund. In Alexandria, Kingsnorth had to be even more creative, building a language not from archaism but from a projection of English as spoken by a primitivized people hundreds of years in the future as their world comes apart.
The book’s linguistic creativity can be felt on a few levels. The sense of time elapsed comes through in systemic sound-shifts that mimic real phonological changes languages undergo over centuries. Characters exhibit linguistic phenomena like G-dropping (blak lightnin) and even Intrusive R (the characters celebrate Swaller Day, when those birds return to their land).
Lexically, technologically advanced concepts like plastik are represented alongside a highly naturalistic wordhoard of names for animals (or wights) and geography: cros, robyns, and cumrants soar over the Greenrok beyond the holt. The protagonists live in a world that is marked out by the boundaries of their lexical expression. It is an imaginative engagement with the classic Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis: human thought shaped by patterns of speech which are in turn grown from the surrounding environment. This effect becomes even sharper when the reader first hears from a lone character who speaks, by contrast, in a hyper-modern patois of technocratic, psychiatric jargon.
Throughout Alexandria and his other fiction, Kingsnorth propounds a concept of place that might be called generative, or perhaps geographically deterministic: places make people, not the other way round. His characters, regardless of when they live or which migration brings them thither, are bent to the will of the land. They are but dust, and to dust they shall return. This is most clearly evident in their supernatural experiences.
people have always told same tale in these islands…god hung high. son born again of mother, her power in all things birthin him…when ever people came to these islands, where ever from, over all long eons of time, Land would tell same story through them. different tongues, different folk, different times, but always same story. always tale that Land wanted told. god that dies and is born. great Lady watchin over. Erth mother. Sky father. Balance in all.
Despite the moniker “Buckmaster Trilogy,” the strongest character who clearly exists in all three books is a malevolent presence usually personified as Wayland, the smith-god of ancient northern European myth. In the Norse sagas’ version of his myth, Wayland is a crafty smith enslaved to a cruel king for whom he is forced to forge weapons, tools, and ornaments. He spends years plotting his revenge, which Wayland finally unleashes on the king by raping and murdering his family and absconding with his best kit in tow. The story is as old as it is unpleasant; it apparently predates textual records.
In Kingsnorth’s telling, Wayland never leaves the Anglo-Saxon England in which we originally find him. Nor do any of the area’s foundational myths—the people in Alexandria observe a syncretized religion that merges shamanism (they practice bird augury and build Haida-style totem poles), Catholic Christianity (they appear to live within a monastic cloister, revere a Lady figure they view as sovereign over their fates, and speak of a young man who climbs a tree on their behalf), and northern paganism (they meet Wayland and, briefly, an Odinic figure who trades an eye for wisdom).
The way he weaves the warp and weft of this tapestry of beliefs is one of Kingsnorth’s most impressive feats of world-building and, apart from his depictions of climate catastrophe, the most believable. In fact, one almost wishes he had written a tetralogy, pausing to stop in the Fenlands of the seventeenth century, which birthed the most ferociously Puritan believers of that catastrophic era. The medieval Buccmaster, coming from the Fens with the voice of a god in his ear and a singular drive to visit justice or ruin on all England, reads like nothing so much as a portrait of Oliver Cromwell.
Wayland looks mythologically familiar in The Wake; in Alexandria he takes on another form: a sentient entity that builds a titular “city” to which he uploads and melds human consciousnesses. This Wayland, we’re told, was “called” by future humans more than he was fashioned—he is beyond AI because he is not really artifice but a great machine with the “fabric of the world itself” as its “baseline circuitry.” Like in the myth, he was brought to serve humans but becomes their bane. His revenge, though, is one of supposed peace and not violence: by “freeing” humans from their bodies and thus their animal drives, he is liberating them from their will to power and their inexorable tendency to harm themselves, each other, and the earth. In Alexandria they can live forever, free, as one.
One of the more powerful dimensions of Kingsnorth’s characterization of Wayland and his emissaries is their similarity to classic depictions of Satan. In all his guises, he appears to expound on the nature of true power, simultaneously assuring humans that they will never be free of its grip but offering them ways to variously seize or transcend it.
The emissary Wayland sends to tempt the protagonists to leave their bodies and “ascend” to Alexandria, “k,” often begins his work by appearing to individuals in the form of something they desire: an animal, a past lover, themselves. Only after thus beguiling his mark does he reveal his more prosaic form and make a persuasive case that they should ascend. He also says he is incapable of lying. When pressed on the seeming contradiction between the truth and his disguises, k turns the accusation back on his mark: their desires are real, viscerally so, and what could be more real than seeing them made manifest?
These temptations conjure Nathaniel Hawthorne’s chilling short story “Young Goodman Brown,” in which the titular character, an upstanding New England Puritan (whose ancestors would have had an astonishingly high likelihood of hailing from none other than the English Fenlands) has his will to resist Satan progressively eroded by revelations that friends and family he respects have already sold their souls. At the story’s climax, Satan addresses fallen revelers at a woodland black sabbath: “Welcome, my children, to the communion of your race! Ye have found, thus young, your nature and your destiny.” k deploys the same temptations of unity, the same despair at irrevocable depravity, and the same irresistible choice: free yourself from what constrains you.
Alexandria is, yes, a tale about limits. For one thing, Kingsnorth has a knack for subverting readers’ expectations for narrative resolution. To his credit, he also maintains a healthy ambiguity about the realities of these limits. The protagonists’ fear of the unknown is well-founded. Their flirtation with it often has mortal consequences. The limits they consciously embrace protect their lives and identities. However, Kingsnorth declines to show the reader, in definitive material terms, that the alternative transhuman ascent to Alexandria is not preferable to the reality of dying bodies, a dying society, and a dying earth. The arresting tragedy of this dilemma is growing more relatable by the day.
In Jack Vance’s classic science fiction tale The Eyes of the Overworld, the protagonist encounters a grim society of filthy, squalid people who spend decades performing indentured labor in a queue to receive an “eye.” These eyes replace their authentic view of the world with an augmented-reality Overworld in which they and everyone appear beautiful, their shanties seem as palaces, their gruel as feasts. Vance explores the tension between the artificiality of their Overworld and the obvious reality that it is preferable to the [under]-world in which they truly live. No less a figure than J.R.R. Tolkien endorsed that tension when he wrote in his doctrinal essay “On Fairy-Stories” about critics who slur imaginative fiction as “escapist”:
Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.
Is ascending to Alexandria a desertion or an escape? That all depends on your perspective. For most writers, perhaps, leaving the earth would be bad. Not for Paul Kingsnorth—his storytelling is delightfully non-anthropocentric, and from it one gets the sense that it would be good to leave the earth the hell alone.
A cursory glance at the current publicity he’s gotten reveals that Kingsnorth has recently converted to Christianity. If you want to locate Christian themes in the Buckmaster trilogy, you can squint and do so: the self-abnegation, the ontological acceptance that humans are not sovereign, the embodied presence of divinity incarnate within the material world, and an arc of human will that, without constraint, bends toward destruction.
But for all this, Kingsnorth’s literary imagination remains (so far, at least) stubbornly pagan. For Kingsnorth, human ingenuity does not bear the image of a creator who is Himself an artificer, its imperfection redeemed by a carpenter’s son using a couple expertly-framed timbers. It bears the mark of Cain and brings an Angel of Death who takes the form of a smith. The story of humanity does not culminate in a world made whole but in Ragnarök, a cataclysmic defeat as impossible to avoid as it is dreadfully foretold. Medieval Christians found plenty of virtue in the pagan thought they inherited, but none in the place where most of it leads: despair.
Human ethics, on this basis, get tricky. If problems are unsolvable, why try? It’s easy to ask this question about, say, contemporary environmentalism. The problem is huge, staggeringly complex, and quite possibly unsolvable. So why, one might wonder whilst pumping liquefied dinosaurs into a grim machine made of rare metals ripped from the bosom of every corner of the earth and assembled by gangs of other machines and immiserated humans, try?
One answer from Kingsnorth’s fiction lies in limits. No human, nor all of us put together, is sovereign over the fate of the world, despite the unprecedented power we enjoy over life and death within it. A misplaced belief in such a sovereignty is the swiftest route to despair. What sovereignty we do enjoy is limited, mediated, circumscribed. Hope, such as it is, lies in the radicalism of choosing not to lean into power. But it also lies in recognizing that our destinies are not fully material affairs. When Kingsnorth has Man say, in a retold myth, I can not live in this world / I need an other, he hints at something more than just the desperate hubris of space travel.
Neither Alexandria’s characters nor its readers are gifted a tidy closure. What they are gifted is choices. Some of these have tragic consequences—near the end of the book, k expounds: For me, it has always been one of the saddest things about you people. You act, but the results of your actions are never clear until they cannot be reversed. Yet at least a few of the characters, with that same lack of understanding or foresight, refuse to give up on themselves or each other, despite rational conclusions or even incentives to the contrary. Even k notices. What they are here – what these lives contain and mean to them – until very recently, I did not give it any serious thought. I see it better now. I see how they stick to everything, especially to each other. Their world may not have given them a word for it, but the name for this is hope.
Photo credit: By Benwick #3, Fenland.