Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Game of Thrones Withdrawal: Part the Fourth

ISBN-10: 0312429983 ISBN-13: 9780312429980 Published: Picador, 08/31/2010 Pages: 640 Language: English 
In case you haven't already noticed, dear reader, this rather loosely defined "series" of blog posts is really just an excuse for me to recommend books that I quite like, so here goes another one: Wolf Hall. Now, Hilary Mantel's masterful historical work does share some  characteristics of A Game of Thrones-ian novel: byzantine plotting, courtly intrigue and-- sometimes literal-- backstabbings, strong female characters, etc. However, Wolf Hall sets itself apart in the way it so convincingly inhabits the mind and body of Thomas Cromwell, a low-born courtier who earned eternal notoriety by using Henry VIII's marital problems as a springboard into the upper stratosphere of 16th Century politics. Mantel radically reinvents the oft-reviled character as compassionate, worldly, and endlessly practical. 

Historians can argue over the validity of such an assessment-- it would seem like a severe case of nit-picking, given the obviously immense amount of research put into the book-- but Mantel's characterizations of Cromwell and his chief rival, Thomas More, sets up a philosophical conflict that is at the heart of the novel. Although Thomas More is usually depicted as a hero (A Man For All Seasons comes to mind) for refusing to sanction the king's divorce, in Wolf Hall he is shown to be a fanatic with a rigid sense of morality and justice. Spoiler alert: More was eventually executed and given a sainthood for his trouble, while English majors continue to study his--admittedly classic-- Utopia and do their best not to think about his ruthless persecution of "heretics."

Mantel forcefully makes the case that one should try to live in the world as it is, not as it should be-- a simple but resoundingly powerful philosophy that informs the entirety of the work. Wolf Hall is no mere writing exercise, but is instead imbued with a strong sense of purpose that is rare in our irony-soaked age. I'm afraid that I barely scratched the surface of this book-- not to mention its sequel, now out in paperback-- nor have I even touched on the subject of Mantel's highlighter-worthy prose, but blog posts have limitations. Mantel, fortunately, has few.


  1. Great comments, Hank. I can also say the audiobook of Wolf Hall is very, very well done although it's a bit of a shame to miss reading the prose.

  2. Thanks, I'm sure the audiobook is great, but I had to re-read so many of the passages I don't think I could properly take the book in that way.