Indeed, there is not one invented language, but two. This is an occupied country, remember. The peasants’ voices make use of good old Anglo-Saxon English; the gentry and the educated, who come from the ranks of their conquerors, speak in an English derived from Norman French and Latinate words, and the two groups sometimes have a lot of trouble understanding each other.
Here is a bold move at a time when historical fiction tends to use modern language, avoiding the obvious anachronisms. In an interview with The Guardian, Meek said that if he’d tried to reproduce Middle English, he’d have had to resort to words and constructions so overused during the medieval craze in the 19th century that it would sound like pastiche. So he went for summoning its linguistic atmosphere instead.
This sounds like heavy going, doesn’t it? Not a bit of it. Once I’m into the flow, it’s very easy to follow, and for a word nerd like me, the language is a delightful bonus. I’m carried along by a tale in the spirit of Chaucer and Boccaccio, about a handsome ploughman who joins a band of archers going to fight for king and country at Crecy in France. Meanwhile, a skittish young noblewoman is trying to escape an arranged marriage to elope with her supposed true love, a nervous priest hovers in the wings, and a swineherd releases his inner woman.
There’s a lot of humour and bawdiness – our ploughman is commanded to act the stallion with the Queen Mother – but also an increasingly dark and violent side to the story. On the other side of the channel, the Black Death is sweeping across Europe. It’ll never get to England, folk tell each other. It’s just a tale dreamed up by the clergy so they can get us into church and sell us their useless nostrums and pardons.
This is not anything so simple as a parable for modern times, but at this point it’s impossible not to think of the world of climate change and fake news. We may be dealing with a different age, when your greatest priority was to save your soul before you died, but not much else has changed: human beings are still all too clever at deluding themselves and each other.
Jane Sullivan’s latest book, Storytime, is published by Ventura Press at $26.99.