Six Questions XX
Interview conducted via email by Joseph S. Hopkins, December 2018
English writer Paul Kingsnorth is perhaps best known to Six Questions readers for his novel The Wake (Gray Wolf Press, 2014). The Wake received critical praise and significant media attention (see, for example, coverage in The Guardian, The New York Times, and NPR), and features a variety of topics rarely represented in modern popular culture.
The novel’s protagonist, Buccmaster of Holland, is to some extent inspired by Hereward the Wake, a figure celebrated in English folklore for his resistance to the 11th century Norman invasion of England. Buccmaster venerates the deities of Anglo-Saxon paganism, a topic the author mentions throughout the novel, and Kingsnorth’s decision to pen The Wake in a surprisingly approachable blend of Modern English and elements of Old English—what he refers to as a “shadow-tongue”—makes the book particularly notable to audiences interested in the relevance, employment, and reception of Old English in the modern era.
Referencing the early Germanic concept of fate, Kingsnorth founded the Wyrd School in 2018, which describes itself as “a writing school unlike any other”. Readers can find a complete list of Kingsnorth’s published work and information about his activities on his website.
1. Where did you grow up?
I’m from the southeast of England: that’s where my family has been for many centuries. I grew up in various towns and suburbs in the southeast, but my parents moved around a lot, and during my childhood I never stayed anywhere for more than five years or so, so I always felt pretty rootless. I have never had a hometown, for example. This has probably influenced my lifelong search for roots. My writing is really about the breaking of the link between people and places, and what that means for both culture and nature.
2. Can you remember when you first encountered Norse mythology or, more generally, Germanic mythology? And what was the context?
I imagine Tolkien was probably responsible, as he was for so many people. I was an avid reader as a child, and I got through a lot of fantasy books. I became interested in the Norse world in particular. Something about that mythworld grabbed me. I did a lot of reading about it, I learned to read the runes, I was desperate to visit Norway and wander romantically around the fjords. For a while I entertained the notion that I might be a reincarnated Viking. And in fact, more recently, research into our family history has revealed that we are descended from Vikings: specifically, from the Viking Earls of the Orkney Isles. So perhaps it’s in the blood. Or perhaps it’s just Tolkein.
3. How would you describe your religious beliefs (or lack thereof)?
The spiritual pull gets more powerful as you get older. I’ve been fitfully practising Zen Buddhism for some years. More recently, I’ve begun training in one of the mystery religions of the Western esoteric tradition, but I’m not going to say more than that at present. I’m still a fumbling beginner.
4. How would you describe your political beliefs (or lack thereof)?
My non-fiction writing has long focused on the immense damage which industrial capitalism has done both to the diversity of human cultures and to the web of life on Earth. For a long time I was a fresh-faced anti-capitalist of the left, but I became more and more uncomfortable with the left’s dismissive attitude to traditions, rooted cultures and small-scale ways of life, and I’ve become uncomfortable more broadly with the raging individualism that is at the heart of contemporary Western culture, across the board. Our problems seem deeper than any economic arrangements. Modernity as a whole seems to me to be a projection of the id. We are eating the world to feed our desires. This is surely a spiritual challenge more than a political one.
I’m more interested these days in taking my cues from traditional and indigenous societies, who in my view mostly worked out the answers to a lot of the big questions about how to be human a very long time ago. We threw all that out with the Enlightenment, and look where that got us. I’m influenced in this by time I have spent with tribal peoples in the past, by my life now in the rural west of Ireland, and by my wife’s Sikh heritage, which is still very much a living tradition in a modern world.
I’m not sure what all of this makes me, but it tends to get me called a lot of names. 'Romantic Luddite’ is one insult I have had thrown me more than once over the years. As it happens, I don’t see it as an insult. Perhaps I should see it as the answer to your question instead.
5. Do you have a formal academic background in Germanic studies? If not, where do you do your research on the topic?
Not at all. I have a history degree from Oxford University, but I’ve no expertise in anything Germanic or anything else, really. I’m a writer. I spend time in libraries and on the Internet and wandering in the fields, and that’s where I find my stories.
6. How does Norse mythology and/or general Germanic mythology influence your creative output?
The main influence is on my first novel, and probably my best-known book, The Wake, which is set during the Norman conquest of England in 1066. It’s narrated by a resistance fighter who stands up against the invaders, but he is also one of the last followers of the old pagan religions of the Anglo-Saxons, which of course are a variant of the Aesir. Curiously, when I began to write the novel, I had no intention really of touching on this mythology, or of featuring any of the old gods or mythical characters of Anglo-Saxon England. That was something which began to happen unbidden in the writing. It didn’t always feel like it was entirely in my control. I have written a little bit more about this strange process in this article, if anyone’s interested.
Joseph S. Hopkins would like to thank Paul Kingsnorth for his participation.