This article is a preview from the Winter 2017 edition of New Humanist.

Stories of England are elusive. We can rummage through the literary treasure trove, pulling out Woolf and Waugh, Rushdie and Rowling as we go. Yet the slippage between English, British and (post-) imperial is accepted, even ­celebrated, within the discipline of English literature. This happy befuddlement reflects reality. Lacking a parliament, embedded in the heart of a once colossal Empire, England is an imagined community par excellence.

The Brexit vote has upset this balance, while confronting us with new national myths. Despite the reality that Wales voted for Brexit, along with 38 per cent of Scottish voters, the Leave vote has been hailed as an English revolt. There is new demand for stories of England, yet this search appears at once desperate and confused. The Guardian recently praised Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword as a “new national story” for “Brexit Britain”. Can’t we do better than a box-office flop?

Paul Kingsnorth is one author who has been tentatively called the “Bard of the Brexiteers”. He found fame in 2014 with the crowd-funded surprise hit The Wake. Written in a “shadow tongue”, a mash-up of Old English and new, it tells the story of Edward Buckmaster, a freeman whose life is devastated during the Norman Invasion of 1066. “All is broc” (broke), says Buckmaster, who calls upon the “eald” (old) gods of the land to rid them of the invading forces. The Wake is based on the history of the Green Men: bands of rebels who retreated to the deep forest to carry out their guerilla insurgency.

Kingsnorth co-founded the Dark Mountain Project in 2009, a loose collection of environmentalist writers, artists and thinkers who publish various texts and organise festivals and conferences. In their own words: “We see that the world is entering an age of ecological collapse, material contraction and social and political unravelling, and we want our cultural responses to reflect this reality rather than denying it.” Unsurprisingly, Kingsnorth voted Leave. In a blog after the vote, he excoriated his fellow greens for “crying into their muesli” over Brexit when they should be seizing the opportunity to reject our damaging “culture of progress”. He sees the European project as deeply complicit. Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy, he argues, has done more damage in 50 years to rural England than “any other single instrument in the previous 500”.

There is a brutal sense of loss in Kingsnorth’s work. In Beast, the modern-day sequel to The Wake, Edward Buckmaster (the name is carried forward) is a ­discontented family man, who has fled to set up shelter in isolated moorland. Now the enemy is not the invading Norman forces but ourselves, corrupted by the Information Age: “the screen-dumb people pacing out the slow suicide of the West around the pedestrianised precincts”. Yet there is no nostalgia for a pastoral idyll. The land is a powerfully ambivalent force, as we see when Buckmaster spirals into insanity, stalked by the vision of a gigantic black cat.

In The Return of England in English Literature, published in 2012, the academic Michael Gardiner set out his theory of English literature as a block to the experience of England. Not only does the discipline confuse, it discourages the production of a “literature of England”, which is in many ways its opposite. While English literature shapes itself around British state values, “reproducing ideally universal images displaced from England itself”, the literature of England is “writing arising from a real place, in this case a stateless and open-ended nation representing a far greater diversity of people”. Kingsnorth seems to lean towards Gardiner’s definition of the “literature of England”. But is he concerned with representing a diversity of people, or with the land itself as the main character? It sometimes seems that he cares very little for humans.

Not so with comic-book shaman Alan Moore, whose latest book Jerusalem seems to fit perfectly as “literature of England”. Here the land is also the chief protagonist, yet its boundaries are all too human: that of Moore’s own neighbourhood in the Boroughs, Northampton. Jerusalem ­dedicates more words than the Bible to the area and its history. Yet “history” doesn’t apply to this sprawling epic in which time keeps on returning. Homeless ghosts, metaphysical pool halls and Thomas Beckett shift and collide.

As in Kingsnorth’s work, England is under threat. But now the “culture of progress” is not threatening the wilds but the residents of the Boroughs and their way of life, replacing the dives and junk shops with Waterstones and flats for “professionals”. One character, a failed poet, tells us he once deplored “all the grimy factory yards, the way he thought John Clare would have done,” only to realise “that the narrow lanes were the endangered habit he should have been commemorating. Bottle-caps, not bluebells”.

All seven districts in Northamptonshire backed Brexit. In an interview last summer, Moore called the Leave vote “a wildly misguided protest”, but was quick to note that democracy is broken, and that people had sound reasons for voting as they did. He also criticised literature for neglecting the issue of class. “Why shouldn’t people from the lower classes be entitled to a mythology of their own?” This is just what Jerusalem seems to be attempting. Moore lands his Jesus squarely on the ground, as a construction-worker. Through his anarchist lens, Protestantism meets Paganism, folklore and local rumour – the content matters little, as long as the stories belong to the people.

Yet there may be violence in the very act of forging ­national stories. Purity and isolation are seductive in Kingsnorth’s work, and the fight against the Norman forces in The Wake is also a fight for undefiled blood. Moore’s is a multi-ethnic, many-voiced England, but it is a deliberately local one that invites yet resists the framework of the ­nation. Do we need a richer literature of England to help fill the space that has opened up with Brexit, otherwise loud with racist voices? Or does the very notion encourage a regressive, nationalistic trend?

Kazuo Ishiguro, the new Nobel laureate, has dealt consistently with themes of Englishness and memory, while warning us of the quagmire beneath national and cultural myths. His latest book, The Buried Giant, resonates strangely post-Brexit. It is set in a kind of proto-England, in which ogres and dragons stalk the hills and valleys. A literal mist of forgetfulness has mysteriously descended, and we follow a devoted elderly couple on a quest to learn why, and to lift the fog. They wish to recall their many days together. Yet we discover that the mist is the work of Merlin, at King Arthur’s bidding, to bring peace to the land. It caused Saxon and Briton to forget their past battles.

The book ends with clear air, and preparations for war. The twist seems to carry a message: sometimes injustice is the price of unity. Of course, such a reading is too simple. The book provides a founding myth for what is yet to come: the birth of Anglo-Saxon England. Yet it’s hard to read The Buried Giant and not think of Ishiguro’s post-Brexit intervention. He made an impassioned plea for a second referendum, warning of “a fight for the very soul of Britain”. Admitting anger, he called on us all to unite “this leaderless nation around its essentially decent heart”.

Yet might the “decent heart” itself be a myth, and one Ishiguro himself has explored in earlier work? The Buried Giant points to a truth: we can’t cast off old myths without building them anew. The area of land we call England is in a time of upheaval, along with its relationship to Europe and the UK’s Union. Narrative already holds greater sway, knocking psephologists off their posts. Stories will be woven, and they will fill the vacuum. It’s crucial now that we create, and rediscover, stories that speak to the English experience in all its diversity, untangling these from ­underneath the inherited umbrella of English literature.