Updated: Feb 2
I know what you’re thinking. What else could possibly be said about Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (and Bring up the Bodies) that hasn’t already been said?
It’s the winner of numerous book awards, has been turned into an excellent TV series and has been performed as a critically acclaimed stage play.
No doubt about it, The Wolf Hall Trilogy (let’s not forget The Mirror & The Light, the third book) are, despite criticism from certain quarters, regarded as excellent books. And each of the three is a really good read in its own right.
And there, I think, is part of the problem for some prospective readers – they seem just too much.
Too much hype, too much Tudor... much too long!
So I’m here urging you to give the Woolf Hall Trilogy, or at least the first book, Wolf Hall, another try, and here’s why.
Hilary Mantel chose to explore the life of Thomas Cromwell. Not Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn or another figure which would be well-known to us non-historians.
She chose Thomas Cromwell and wrote a brilliant (fictional) account of his rise from humble beginnings to becoming one of the most powerful men in Henry VIII’s court.
The beauty of Wolf Hall is that we see the Tudor Court, and the characters within it, through the prism of Cromwell’s life. He’s devious and ruthless when steering through the vagaries of the Court, trying to predict his monarch’s mercurial wishes. No one is spared from Cromwell's damning judgment.
But we see much more than that.
We experience the intricacies of his life and relationships. We glimpse his thoughts and relive his memories. We encounter moments of tenderness and love rather than simply cruelty and ambition.
There are also elements of great humour in the books which contrast and are deftly interspersed with the brutality of Tudor life.
Despite his success, Thomas Cromwell lives a precarious life. Despite his gradual and sustained accumulation of wealth and status, he’s vulnerable to the life-threatening whims of his monarch and the envy of his peers. And it’s this element of the ever-present danger that adds a delicious tension to Cromwell's story.
Despite his wealth and privilege, he’s an outsider and always will be. No matter how clever or accomplished he becomes, Cromwell’s never able to leave his origins behind. He'll always be the blacksmith's son made good.
The Wolf Hall Trilogy is a superb imagining of one man’s life and the Tudor times in which he lived.
I hope I’ve given you something to ponder over and that you'll try Wolf Hall. I know it's long and elaborate, but stick with it; it’s truly worth it.
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