My name is Doug Wykstra, and this is some of the stuff I've read and watched.
There are two levels on which you can enjoy Wolf Hall. If your favorite part of the Game of Thrones books is the part where Tyrion is running King’s Landing in in A Clash of Kings, this is the book for you, all the more so because it’s rooted in the real history that George R.R. Martin’s books use as a starting point. And read at this level, as a novelistic re-telling of the plots and strategies that Thomas Cromwell used to rise from being a blacksmith’s son to being the architect of Henry VIII’s kingdom, it’s a wildly fun inside view of the Tudor court. People familiar with the history will enjoy all the little references Mantel includes, while people unfamiliar with it will enjoy the political battles at its center, and probably will be surprised at the stories that came out of 16th-century England, a country that was far more multicultural and heterogenous than many people realize.
Read the novel a little more deeply, however, and the parallels between Thomas Cromwell and his rival at court, Sir Thomas More, become more obviously unsettling. The book casts Cromwell’s rise and More’s fall as synecdoche for the English Renaissance, as the declining influence of the Church in England coincides with the country’s rise as a merchant empire, and Mantel made me want to cheer for the worldly, pragmatic Cromwell over the ascetic, fanatical More. But the contradictions in Cromwell’s actions become more pronounced as he becomes more prominent in Henry’s court: Approving Henry’s divorce on the legal grounds that marrying Katherine of Aragon, his late brother’s wife, constitutes incest, he also looks the other way when Henry is carrying on an affair with Mary Boelyn, his second wife’s sister. A defender of the memory of Cardinal Wosley, his former patron, Cromwell nevertheless presides over the schism of the English church from the church that Wosley spent his life serving. After being horrified by More’s torture and murder of Protestant heretics, Cromwell is obliged to adopt similar tactics to make examples of recalcitrant Catholics after Henry splits the church.
There are fundamental differences between More and Cromwell that Mantel emphasizes with a light touch, and it’s easy to read the book as an account of the moment when feudal loyalty and religious superstition in Europe began to give way to self-determination and rationalism, or, alternatively, as the moment when the law is overthrown by legality, when the people at Henry’s court who believed they ought to tell him what he should do were overthrown by the people who believed they ought to tell him how he could do what he wanted. But there’s as much stasis as transition here—the only change is that different people are getting murdered, and the king is getting richer and more powerful. During More’s long stay in the Tower of London near the end of his life, Cromwell asks More whether he shuts himself off from the world because he despairs of improving it. More’s response is silence. Every man in Cromwell’s position has thought himself capable of improving the world, and they almost all end up in More’s position. Councillors come and go, but in a monarchy the king will always eat.
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