When will the world end?
In Paul Kingsnorth’s reckoning, it already has lots of times, in fact. “Worlds are always ending — that, it turns out, is one of my themes, or tics, or obsessions” — he confessed that in his 2017 collection Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist. It’s easy enough to see from the outside. His 2003 debut, One No, Many Yeses was a piece of frontline reporting on different communities around the world who felt that their worlds were dissolving in the homogenising acid of global capitalism. His most recent book, Alexandria, is a venerable entry in the canon of dystopian novels. The years between those books took in the 2008 financial crash, the populist ructions of 2016, and COVID-19 — all, in their own way, the ends of various worlds. Anyone you meet at the end of the world is at a funny time in their life. In either ushering in or attempting to prevent armageddon, people will do all sorts of queer things. If we were to cast Kingsnorth’s apocalyptic obsession in the form of a question, it may be this: what happens to people when they feel their world is ending?
This question is a helpful rubric for Kingsnorth’s spiritual Buckmaster trilogy. Each novel gives us a first-person perspective on the ends of different worlds, each a millenia apart. The Wake (2014) follows Buccmaster of Holland, an Anglo-Saxon farmer rebelling against the Norman Conquest of 1066; Beast (2016) follows Edward Buckmaster in the present day, a man who burnt his bridges with civilisation out on a West Country moor; Alexandria (2020) follows a post-apocalyptic cult in the English fens a thousand years into the future, hoping for a new dawn before they all fall prey to a mysterious technological predator.
In each novel, the respective apocalypses are unavoidable. There is no cavalry, no blowing up the asteroid. The protagonists (we won’t call them heroes) arrive like the Watchmen, hearing Ozymandias telling them he did it thirty-five minutes ago. One of the trilogy’s key spiritual ties, then, is how one lives with the inevitable. In an age of dystopian obsession and seemingly intractable existential threats to historic forms of human existence (or human existence at all), Kingsorth’s novels have much to teach us about the different ways human beings act when the stars fall from heaven.
So then: how do we live at the end of the world?
they tacs our names our names they tacs our tales our songs. i was grown from this ground the ground they has tacan my ground from me all that i is they tacs all
In 1065, Buccmaster of Holland has it all. He is a free socman of England, owner of three oxgangs — though he rues how England has forgotten the earthy, virile Old Gods of the Anglo-Saxons. But in the Battle of Hastings in 1066, Buccmaster loses everything. Desolate, he flees into the woodland, soon gathering a band of waifs and strays who imagine themselves as ‘grene men’ — spirits of the forest who may be able to rescue England by striking against the invaders.
But Buccmaster unravels, plagued by increasingly feverish visions; his ragtag rebels amount to little. At one point they are shown a new Norman castle under construction — a technological terror so dreadful that Buccmaster lets out a rare admission of hopelessness: “this is a thing from an other world from a blaec place from hel itself. Naht has there efer been in angland lic this naht efer in the world and stand there i feels we is lost all lost now for efer.” The doubt passes though, and Buccmaster digs his heels into expelling the Normans. However, his men slowly lose hope, and the novel climaxes with an altercation between them and Buccmaster, just as Norman soldiers burst through the trees. Buccmaster flees, ranting and raving into the woods, forever a fugitive of the past.
Buccmaster is a man radicalised at the end of the world. Rage, rage against the dying of the light, because it’s better to burn out than fade away. And the reader, on one level, can’t blame him. The sense of a world lost elicits deep aches of sympathy, amplified by the fact that, a millenia on, we know that his efforts will amount to less than zero. The English-speaking world is inconceivable without the Norman Conquest — not least of all because it is English speaking, and modern English is heavily indebted to the influence of Norman French. The Wake is written in a form of bastardised Old English — a “shadow tongue”, designed to give as close a sense of Anglo-Saxon speech as possible by excising all French influence. Reading Buccmaster speaking of “the holt” rather than “the forest”, or noting his total lack of the letters ‘k’, ‘v’, ‘j’, or ‘q’, evokes the incommunicable scale of what the Normans destroyed. The Wake can be seen as a novelisation of Kingsnorth’s 2008 non-fiction work Real England. In Real England, Kingsnorth travels his homeland, encountering local groups attempting to preserve distinctive English traditions from the corrosion of globalised capitalism: local pubs and real ale, canals and houseboaters, markets and town centres.The reader can’t help but admire such folk — modern day green men who, like Buccmaster, wed themselves to the long defeat of an England.
And yet Buccmaster is, frankly, an odious figure. He is overbearing and abusive, and his arc is one of increasingly delusional self-aggrandisement. Visions of Weland the Smith, a figure of Old Germanic legend, drive Buccmaster to believe, Elijah-like, that he is the only true-born Englishman left, destined for the throne. When his men refuse to brutally execute a captured bishop, his exceptionalism peaks: “well here it was here now was the weacness and the smallness of angland. These men is standan locan at me their cyng their great ealdor.” This arrogance is what pushes Buccmaster into such radical recalcitrance.
Yet the novel hints that Buccmaster’s national identity is a deceptively woven fabrication. For all his English pride, he disdains all parts of England but his own. His proud status as a socman (a farmer answerable only to the king, not the local thegn) was something which only applied to Eastern counties which had been under the Danelaw: “free men we was in the fenns free on our land free men we is still naht will mof us not the frenc.” He says he fights for England, but the reader wonders: is he simply fighting for his England?
Other things undercut Buccmaster’s vision of Englishness. As a boy, his grandfather recounts to him how their ancestors arrived in the land: “anglsic folc cum here across the sea many years ago. wilde was this land wilde with ingengas [foreigners] with wealsc [Welsh] folc with aelfs and the wulf. cum we did in our scips our great carfan scips with the wyrms heafod [dragon’s head] and we macd good this land what had been weac and unkempt and was thus ours by right.” The reader can easily draw the comparisons between the Anglo-Saxon settlement and the Norman invasion. Buccmaster’s grandfather also regails him with tales of the great English kings Æthelred, Alfred, and Athelstan — all Christians. Buccmaster’s disdain for the supposedly corrosive, homogenising force of a foreign religion apparently becomes selective when it produces great rulers.
What, then, makes Buccmaster into a radical ‘grene man?’ It is partly a right and pious anger for what has been taken. The Norman Conquest was a truly devastating event. A generation of nobility were annihilated, the maps were redrawn, the church was conformed to Rome, the wooden glory of Anglo-Saxon culture was left to rot beneath Norman stone. Love of nation has been out of favour in the West in recent decades, and there are few things more reviled within the British isles than a love of England. Yet events such as the invasion of Ukraine have made the West think twice about its reflexive anti-nationalism. We have seen again that it can be a sweet and fitting thing to die for one’s country.
There are, however, darker motives which make Buccmaster well-kindled for radicalisation. He does not love his country as it actually is, but rather as he imagines it once was, and this is why his rage turns on his fellow Englishmen. How can they fight together for their country if they all imagine it differently? Kingsnorth has acknowledged that all nations need myths and stories, but that these must be stories that “a people chooses to tell about itself.” Buccmaster, sadly, was only ever interested in telling his own story.
I saw it all finally crushed all the people flattened the glory of the end of it all. Skyscrapers falling oceans overcoming the defences the silence descending
The difference between Buccmaster of Holland and Edward Buckmaster is that no-one ends Edward’s world for him: he does it himself. We only get fitful glimpses of Edward’s backstory in Beast. We can gather he has walked out on a life in present-day England, with a hint at one point that this involved possible violence. Edward, however, becomes as unreliable a narrator as Buccmaster, so we cannot be sure. Like Buccmaster, Edward sees himself as one colonised — not by an invading army, but by the bland concrete-pour of modernity: paving stones, office cubicles, drink cans, corner shops, supermarket lines, bus stops. Although he can’t bring the whole edifice crashing down, he can do it to his small part of it. And so he leaves. This chimes with what, over the years, Kingsnorth has called “The Crisis of Bigness.” In the face of unassailable Goliaths like modernity, consumerism, disenchantment et al, the temptation for those opposed is to craft correspondingly “big picture” responses. Kingsnorth rejects this. Humanity’s spiritual malaise is too deep-rooted, and our big-picture solutions all simply manifest the same impulses which caused the mess in the first place. All that remains, then, is to take control of whatever small corner of the world in which we find ourselves. Kingsnorth has asked “What if our challenge now is to build a series of smaller visions, focused less on the future and more on the present; less on the sky and more on the ground?” It’s a vision he himself has put into action by moving his family from England to a smallholding in rural Ireland.
Perhaps Buccmaster’s downfall was his own crisis of bigness, attempting to reverse the impossible. Edward’s war is more human; and, rather than the warrior, Edward is the hermit, the desert ascetic, the holy fool — a breed long extinct in modernity. “The hermits and the saints would arm themselves for battle and they would head out into the wild to meet the foe, and anything of themselves that they need to strip away, they would do it to ensure victory. No one believes that stuff any more.” Kingsnorth writes and speaks often of ascetics such as the desert fathers, likening them to the martyrs. Whilst they seem extremely isolated figures, their isolation is in fact how they serve the community. Though not seen often, when the town glimpses the desert hermit in his rags, it can’t help but question itself.
So what exactly is this hermit seeking? Something like this:
From the east I came, to this high place, to be broken, to be torn apart, beaten, cut into pieces. I came here to measure myself against the great emptiness… To be open, to be in fear, to be aching with nothingness, to be lonely as the cold subsoil in winter, lonely as the last whale in the ocean, singing in bewilderment and no other to answer for all of time. This darkness. This is the only life.
Edward looks for whatever man is beneath the facile crust of modernity. His search is catalysed when he encounters a small country church and a huge, mysterious beast seen out of the corner of his eye. The juxtaposition of beast and church suggest that whatever Edward seeks, the dangerous mystery at the heart of things, unites the natural and the divine. But, like Buccmaster, Edward unravels. After a blow to the head, and a long time searching the moors, he turns feral. Kingsnorth again plays with language, as punctuation progressively drops out of Edward’s narration and his language regresses into something reminiscent of The Wake’s shadow-tongue.
The conclusion of Beast is a mysterious one. After a final, fevered showdown with the beast, Edward’s language suddenly reverts to normal again. An air of peace descends, and he lays his hand gently on the creature’s head. What is Kingsnorth getting at?
Beast perhaps suggests that although the cracks in modernity’s foundations are clear, we cannot simply try to kick it down. The temptation to do so, to make a radical break and damn the consequences, entices modernity’s critics on all sides. Yet Edward is constantly dogged by the cost of his extreme retreat, apparently having deserted a wife and daughter. “Every holy man, every prophet, they all walked away. That’s the bit they don’t tell you. They never tell you about what was left behind, about who was left behind, about what had to be broken.” Whilst Edward consoles himself that in doing so he liberated them too, this has the ring of Buccmaster’s aggrandising self-justifications. Unlike Buccmaster however, we do not leave Edward fleeing deluded into the forest. Nebuchadnezzar-like, he seems restored — though of course changed. Perhaps we are meant to draw a contrast between a recalcitrant Buccmaster and a reconciled Edward. Yet could Edward have ever reached his apparent balance without first going to an extreme? The reader has to ponder.
Furthermore, although Edward is a hermit, the fact is that many hermits come back, and he knows it. At one point, he considers a painting of St. Cuthbert, elected Bishop of Lindisfarne whilst living alone on an island, turning away from the king in refusal. “But he didn’t refuse, in the end, He didn’t refuse the call. He went back.” Perhaps Edward, too, goes back. Having been to the wild, having touched the beast, having taken ownership over his small corner, he can perhaps return to tell others what he has seen. To be of use, the voice crying in the wilderness must be within earshot of the city.
“no mind without body
no body without Earth”
If The Wake is about raging against the world’s end, and Beast is about trying to bring it on prematurely, Alexandria is about the attempt to escape it altogether. Set a thousand years into our future, after global warming has caused widespread flooding, climate change, and population collapse, the novel differs from its predecessors in many ways. Rather than following one protagonist, the book moves mostly between the perspectives of the seven remaining members of the Nitrian Order, a matriarchal religious cult in the English fens — sfia, lorenso, mother, father, nzil, el, and yrvidian. They are devoted to defying Wayland, an (apparently) artificial-intelligence, stitched somehow into the fabric of the Earth just prior to the collapse of human civilization which enabled humanity to supposedly escape catastrophe by uploading their consciousnesses to the cloud. With most of humanity uploaded, Wayland continues the process on those resistant, having deduced that human existence will always cause destruction. He does this via his retainers — metahumans with transparent skin, stripped of all defining features, and modified to carry out his bidding. One of these retainers, known to the reader as K, is the book’s eighth narrator. The Nitrian Order holds out hope that humanity can return to balance with nature if they renounce technology. Viewing birds as vessel of the divine, they wait on the fulfilment of a long held prophecy: “when Swans return Alexandria will fall.”
Both the Nitrian Order and K, in their own ways, seek an escape from apocalypse, but K is perhaps the most relevant for us. Whereas the Order seeks deliverance from dystopia through a mystical hope, K seeks it (and gives it to others) through technological escape. K’s purpose is to persuade humans to permit him to upload them to Alexandria. He explains its appeal: “As Alexandria became more accessible, everyone wanted in. If your life on Earth is going to be a hardscrabble in dying soil, or a struggle to survive in a lawless megacity slum, why continue it any longer than necessary?”
Although the novel is set a millenia into the future, K’s voice is, unnervingly, one from our own age. Kingsnorth uses language to great effect once again — the order members narrate with degraded speech, devoid of most grammar and punctuation. When K enters the novel, speaking perfect English, the reader is jarred by the familiarity. And the same goes for the content of K’s speech. His evangelism for Alexandria rings of the rhetoric of digital technology developers and misanthropic environmentalists — the common factor between the two being their contempt for the frustrating physical existence of humanity. K’s description of Alexandria is reminiscent of how Mark Zuckerberg describes the Metaverse: “It will let you share immersive experiences with other people even when you can’t be together — and do things together you couldn’t do in the physical world.” His open disdain for the place of humanity in the natural order calls to mind the open, eco-conscious antinatalism laughed off by the Duke of Sussex in his 2019 Vogue interview with Jane Goodall. One chilling line from K crystalises the logic underlying both strands of thought: “We realise that the human body is a crime against the human mind, and a crime also against other forms of life.”
K embodies what Kingsnorth, for many years, has referred to simply as “the Machine” — a term he acknowledges he has inherited from, among others, writers such as R.S. Thomas, Dylan Thomas, E.M. Forster, and Lewis Mumford. What is the Machine? Kingsnorth describes it:
This, then, is the Machine. It is not simply the sum total of various individual technologies we have cleverly managed to rustle up — cars, laptops, robot mowers and the rest. In fact, such ‘technics’, as Mumford calls them, are the product of the Machine, not its essence. The Machine is, rather, a tendency within us, made concrete by power and circumstance, which coalesces in a huge agglomeration of power, control and ambition. And it is not a new development. Indeed, it can be traced back much further than we might imagine, to the dawn of civilization itself.
The Machine, then, in Kingsnorth’s telling, lies behind the likes of the Metaverse and the antinatalists. And by putting their ideas into the mouth of a sinister metahuman such as K, Kingsnorth highlights how these sentiments are far more radical than their respectable veneer suggests. And yet the Machine, and Alexandria, are not simply things reserved for or pushed by the elites. K makes it very clear that Alexandria was made accessible to everyone. Given the choice, almost every human alive rejected the travails of the earth and their flesh, grasping for technological control to escape their limits. The suggestion of Alexandria, then, is that, within the deluding cogs of the Machine, in an age when everyone is online, we’re all radicals now.
And yet Alexandria falls. The Machine stops. Wayland breaks — well, in a way. It’s eventually revealed that Wayland is a pre-existent intelligence, some kind of pantheistic god, who takes on the earth as his body through a manmade technological matrix. An earthquake part way through the novel severs K’s mental link to Wayland’s physical hub, and we are left to assume that it, along with the billions of human minds uploaded to Alexandria, has been destroyed. Alexandria is revealed as an attempt by the divine Wayland, Gaia-like, to remove humanity from the earth for its own good. He confesses, in a final exchange with the father of the Order, to being mistaken:
by locking human minds away
i denied the great thought its fuel
i broke the cycle
the flow blocked, the balance skewed
Alexandria was a dam
blocking the great river”
The Machine, then, could not sustain the charge that human bodies are a crime. Throughout the book, K is resentful of the lingering weaknesses of his human flesh. Yet as it draws to a close, and Alexandria falls, he embraces tiredness, weakness, and grief: “We have both been abandoned, El and I. We have both been left. I feel it now. I can feel what she lacks.” As the novel concludes, K joins the remaining members of the order as they find a new group of humans who have found balance with the earth. For the first time, smiling, he relinquishes the Machine and embraces his own humanity.
This embrace of humanity, of limits, perhaps ties together Kingsnorth’s vision throughout his trilogy of how we live at the end of the world. When we find ourselves there we will still be, inescapably, human, and the Buckmaster trilogy illustrates that the human instinct is to respond with a dangerous radicalism to that fact. Buccmaster, immortal longings in him, tries to rage his way into becoming a god; Edward, in his search for what kind of man he is, loses sight of what a properly human response to modernity is; K is almost lost to the Machine’s illusory promise that he can escape his flesh forever. In each one, we find both warnings and inspiration for living with the inevitable.
- Paul Kingsnorth, Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist (London: Faber & Faber, 2017), 1. ↑
- Paul Kingsnorth, The Wake (London: Unbound, 2014), 87. ↑
- A socman was a “free tenant farmer. Sokemen were found on in the eastern counties of the Danelaw. They owed allegiance to the king rather than the thegn, owned their land, and seem to have been a high class of independent landed farmer.” Kingsnorth, The Wake, 349-350. ↑
- Kingsnorth, The Wake, 257. ↑
- As many readers will know, the “long defeat” is a phrase famously coined by J.R.R Tolkien: “Actually I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’ – though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.” “195 From A Letter to Amy Ronald 15 December 1956,” The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, A Selection Edited by Humphrey Carpenter, ed. Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien (London: George Allen & Unwin), accessed April 26 2022, https://time.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/the_letters_of_j.rrtolkien.pdf. ↑
- Kingsnorth, The Wake, 339. ↑
- Kingsnorth, The Wake, 11. ↑
- Kingsnorth, The Wake, 35. ↑
- Kingsnorth, The Wake, 16. ↑
- Paul Kingsnorth, “Rescuing the English” in Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist, 203. ↑
- Paul Kingsnorth, Beast (London: Faber & Faber, 2016), 56. ↑
- Kingsnorth, Beast, 12. ↑
- Paul Kingsnorth, “This economic collapse is a ‘crisis of bigness’”, The Guardian, September 25 2011, accessed April 26 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/sep/25/crisis-bigness-leopold-kohr?view=mobile. This essay also appears as the first piece in Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist. ↑
- Paul Kingsnorth, “A Storm Blown From Paradise”, Emergence Magazine, February 6 2018, accessed April 26 2022, https://emergencemagazine.org/essay/a-wind-blown-from-paradise/. ↑
- Kingsnorth, Beast, 13. ↑
- For example: “To early Christians, martyrdom was the ultimate sacrifice, but since the Emperor Constantine had Christianised the Roman Empire in the fourth century, the chances of being executed for the faith – known as the Red Martyrdom – were minimal. This was one reason that people like St Anthony took to the deserts of Egypt: now that death was not available as a sacrifice, a new form of askesis was needed. This was known as the White Martyrdom: giving up everything worldly in pursuit of theosis: union with God.” “Intermission: The Green Martyrdom”, The Abbey of Misrule, July 14 2021, accessed April 27 2022, https://paulkingsnorth.substack.com/p/intermission-the-green-martyrdom?s=r. ↑
- Kingsnorth, Beast, 2-3. ↑
- Kingsnorth, Beast, 10-11. ↑
- Kingsnorth, Beast, 17. ↑
- Paul Kingsnorth, Alexandria (London: Faber & Faber, 2020), 387. ↑
- Kingsnorth, Alexandria, 83. ↑
- Kingsnorth, Alexandria, 202. ↑
- https://about.fb.com/news/2021/10/facebook-company-is-now-meta/ ↑
- “When The Duke of Sussex Interview Dr Jane Goodall About The Future ↑
- Kingsnorth, Alexandria, 214. ↑
- See “The Poet and the Machine” in Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist for Kingsnorth’s study of “the three Thomases” — Edward, R.S., and Dylan. ↑
- Paul Kingsnorth, “Intermission: The Machine Stops”, The Abbey of Misrule, October 28 2021, accessed May 4 2022, https://paulkingsnorth.substack.com/p/intermission-the-machine-stops?s=r. ↑
- Paul Kingsnorth, “Blanched Sun, Blinded Man: Divining the Machine Part One”, May 26 2021, accessed May 4 2022, https://paulkingsnorth.substack.com/p/blanched-sun-blinded-man?s=r. ↑
- Kingsnorth, “Blanched Sun, Blinded Man.” ↑
- Kingsnorth, Alexandria, 386. ↑
- Kingsnorth, Alexandria, 376. ↑
[…] Open the full article on the mereorthodoxy.com site […]
[…] “The Ends of Worlds: Living With the Inevitable in Paul Kingsnorth’s Buckmaster Trilogy.” Rhys Laverty explores Kingsnorth’s fiction at length, and he brilliantly probes the tensions that these novels dramatize: “If we were to cast Kingsnorth’s apocalyptic obsession in the form of a question, it may be this: what happens to people when they feel their world is ending? This question is a helpful rubric for Kingsnorth’s spiritual Buckmaster trilogy.” […]