Wolf Hall

Reviewed by: Wafiur Rahman
Thursday, October 27th, 2016

By Hilary Mantel, 653 pages.

Approximately BDT 350


When you flip to the opening page, the first thing you notice is the fast-paced and action-packed nature of Mantel’s Wolf Hall.  This feature in itself is what sets Mantel’s work apart from other histographic meta-fiction writers: her work is devoid of archaic high-brow lexis from the British Tudor era, is also delightfully free from all kinds of symbolic, historic, intellectual and biblical allusions which would have otherwise really piqued the irritation of post-modern readers like us.


In other words, the book is such an exuberant read that you actually look forward to reading till the very end. Needless to say, the exciting pace excuses the length of the book. It is, however, advisable to read it consecutively without too many breaks in between. Watch out: if you read a chapter and don’t flip through that book for a couple of days, you are likely to forget the minutest yet most vital details.


Now let’s examine this literary work from scratch. The title is a very interesting one – and deceitfully, not straightforward. Even though Wolf Hall is named after Wulfhall, (the ancestral home of the célèbre Seymour family where Henry VIII first set his eyes on Jane Seymour) it will be a shock to many that the book does not focus on events that had occurred in Wulfhall. It also does not put the actions of the notoriously infamous Tudor King, Henry VIII, in the spotlight.  Instead, the title indirectly refers to the famous Latin proverb that states ‘Man is wolf to man’ (The modern coinage being ‘it’s a dog eat dog world!’). In case of our story, the wolfish man is none other than Thomas Cromwell – the protagonist of the novel – who, by using Cardinal Wolsey as bate, conveniently climbs from rags to riches. His heights reach such a point that he replaces Wolsey as a minister of the king.


I hate to be a bubble-burster for those of you who expected Henry VIII to be the central character – but believe me, seeing things from Cromwell’s perspectives actually makes the deal a lot more interesting.


The first half of the book describes how Thomas Cromwell transformed from a helpless runaway Blacksmith’s son – into a cold, calculative, cunning and fox-like character who is celebrated by the monarchs, favoured by the king.


In the introductory chapters, Mantel narrates how the personal plight and miseries of Cromwell made him run away from his abusive, mad hooligan of a father whose favourite pass-time was to bludgeon Thomas with whatever he could get his hands on. Then being only seventeen, our young, chivalrous and adventurous Thomas struggled hard to survive in the cruel world and under very harsh circumstances. Mantel has excellently captured these moments via her use of objective, cold and casual descriptions to depict deeply disturbing and distressing situations in Cromwell’s early life – making the reader’s blood curdle. In the introductory sections, as well as throughout the rest of the book – she adopts a highly satirical tone – using dark humour wherever necessary.


For instance, in the opening page, we find young Cromwell being badly beaten up by his father for the very last time. While he is being abused, he decides that if he can wriggle out of this abusive session, he will run for his life.


After almost blinding his left eye and kicking him on the head with his leather boots, his father – Walter Cromwell – pauses for a while to scream at him.


‘Look now, look now!’ Walter bellows. He hops on one foot as if he’s dancing. ‘Look what I’ve done – burst my boot, kicking your head.’


After running away, he goes to France and joins the military – soon abandoning even this lifestyle. He finds a way to make money via selling merchandise (cloth and wool) and becomes a crude accountant. After even abandoning that, he resolves to return from Europe, become a lawyer and join the British Parliament. By using his unusual charm and sharp wit, he greatly impresses Cardinal Wolsey – so much so that Wolsey makes him his legal secretary. He becomes Wolsey’s most efficient right-hand man by managing to suppress the small monasteries. Soon, however – a big problem surfaces: Wolsey is pressurized by the religious and social rigidity of Pope and the Roman Catholic church on one side – and the ludicrous demands of Henry VIII to annul his marriage to his first wife, Katherine, on the other. Henry wants to get rid of Katherine because he desperately needs a male heir and all she has been able to deliver is a bunch of unwanted princesses and stillborn sons. On this note, Mantel’s highly amusing coinage of words is commendable – the following is a conversation taking place between Wolsey and Cromwell in the first half of the book:


[(Wolsey says) ‘Now I have a son, your boatman on the river has a son, your beggar on the street has a son, your would-be murderers in Yorkshire no doubt have sons who will swoon to pursue you in the next generation and you yourself, as we have agreed, spawned a whole tribe of riverine brawlers – but the king, alone, has no son. Whose fault is that?’



‘Nearer than God?’

‘The queen?’]


As the plot unfurls, Wolsey soon falls from grace due to political complications with his archrivals and the Roman Catholic Church and Cromwell is hence stifled and betrayed by the men who chucked Wolsey out of the scene. But this does not stop him – he is so selfish and opportunistic that he avoids sinking with his previous mentor Wolsey. Managing to avoid being disgraced in 1529, he is noticed by the king and is made a member of the Privy Council. He discovers that in order to climb the steep ladders of success and power, he would have to please the king. He becomes a tyrant and a heartless, cold and even shrewder man in the process: in merely three years, he becomes Henry’s chief minister – replacing his old pal Wolsey. He helps the king shape the parliament and society according to his convenience – advising the king to become Supreme Head in the Church of England, hence aiding the Protestant Reformation – enabling Henry to annul his first marriage to Katherine and marry Anne Boleyn.


When we have just reached the second half of the book, Cromwell’s transformation from the poor, daunted and vulnerable runaway seventeen-year-old – to the heartless sinister blackguard, devoid of a conscience, is complete. In the final parts of the first half, we saw him indifferently man-handling the smaller monasteries – capturing their wealth and land in a very humiliating way.


However, in the initial part of the second half, we notice the story building towards a climax. The plot has an open denouement because it halts when the climax is complete. Anne and Henry majorly create tension at the onset of the climax, by badgering and trying to execute whoever rejects and disrespects the annulment. The ultimate climactic tension is the execution of protestors Fish and Thomas More – which are, of course, totally planned and made possible by the notorious devil’s advocate, Cromwell. Even though there are two executions – the eerie limelight here is on More because it is the first time that the court is about to sentence a totally innocent and virtuous man. Needless to say – Cromwell has to work really hard to fabricate evidence against chaste and innocent More.


Both before and during the court trial and execution of More, Mantel uses very powerful language to evoke a tragic, gruesome and dark atmosphere for readers. Let us look at an important excerpt from the second last chapter:


[(Cromwell says) ’You want to be a martyr.’


‘No, what I want is to go home. I am weak, Thomas. I am weak as we all are. I want the king to take me as his servants, his loving subject, as I have never ceased to be.’


‘I have never understood where the line is drawn between sacrifice and self-slaughter.’


‘Christ drew it.’


‘You don’t see anything wrong with the comparison?’


Silence. The loud, contentious, quality of More’s silence. It’s bouncing off the walls. More says he loves England, and he fears all England will be damned. He is offering some kind of bargain to his God, his God who loves slaughter: ‘It is expedient that one man shall die for the people.’]


Many readers do not like the fact that the book ends at the completion of the climax – where Cromwell is at the peak of his political career. But all in all, this book is a brilliant piece of literary work – attaining the Man Booker title in 2009.

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