Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
I am shamefully, shamefully, ignorant when it comes to British history. I always preferred the American stuff, probably because there’s less of it. I therefore approached Wolf Hall as an opportunity to educate myself. Although obviously not fantasy, if you’re a fan of political and backstabby books like Game of Thrones, I think you’ll find a lot to enjoy in Wolf Hall.
Wolf Hall tells the relatively unfamiliar tale of Thomas Cromwell, eventual great-great grand uncle to Oliver, but we won’t hold that against him. Cromwell was a man rather maligned at the time, a commoner who schemed his way to the top to gain the ear of King Henry VIII. He was viewed as a ruthless and callous man to be feared, but Mantel presents a much more sympathetic figure in Wolf Hall. The novel begins with Cromwell as an aide to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who emerges from Wolsey’s downfall to become one of the most powerful men in England. With Henry seeking divorce from Queen Katherine to marry the seductive and manipulative Anne Boleyn, Wolf Hall follows the early days of the Reformation and the founding of the Church of England.
Through my ignorance, I was perhaps able to enjoy Wolf Hall in a different way to many. I might as well have been reading fiction to be honest; I may be aware of who Thomas More was, I even read Utopia at university for crying out loud, but I had no idea of his eventual fate. I enjoyed Wolf Hall the same way I enjoy fantasy, as an escape into a world utterly unlike my own. It took me a while, but Wolf Hall eventually got its hooks into me.
One of the barriers to entry is the sometimes frustrating difficulty in telling who is talking; when I realised that ‘he’ almost always referred to Cromwell with everyone else called by their names it became a bit easier, but it’s still a bit odd. Either the writing got better as it went on or I grew to appreciate it more, but it doesn’t really matter. By the end Mantel had me eating out of her hand, with sharp and sometimes funny writing contrasting with tragedy without feeling mawkish. Some of Cromwell’s ruminations, which could have been dull and self-indulgent, are genuinely captivating to read. Mantel’s style is slightly odd and I couldn’t really tell you why; I’ll only say to persevere and hopefully it’ll click for you as it did for me.
Cromwell is the best kind of protagonist; funny, arch and sympathetic whilst remaining mysterious. Not much is known about the past of the real Thomas Cromwell, only really that he was a commoner born to a blacksmith in Putney. His time as a mercenary and soldier in Europe is less known and Mantel appropriately preserves that mystery rather than trying to create a fictional account of Cromwell’s exploits. He’s a character I could follow around for a long time and thankfully will in the sequels! The supporting cast are interesting as well, from the torturing and hypocritical Thomas More to the dedicated but self-obsessed Cardinal Wolsey through to the seductive and brittle Anne Boleyn. Henry VIII emerges as an interesting figure, with a genuine interest in doing the right thing clouded by layers of self-delusion. I was always shocked when I remembered that these were real people, I grew so interested in her well drawn characters.
Wolf Hall is a book with huge cross genre appeal and I recommend it to other fantasy fans. I’m really looking forward to reading the sequel Bringing Up the Bodies and then watching the BBC adaption of both!