by David Edgerley Gates
I was a big fan of the first two books in Hilary Mantel's trilogy, WOLF HALL and BRING UP THE BODIES, but I'm an easy mark for that kind of stuff. Historicals have always been high on my list - Mary Renault, Robert Graves, Bernard Cornwell, Patrick O'Brian, Norah Lofts - in part because you get to inhabit a foreign world, the past, and in part because they so often turn on the hinge of Fate, or a transforming moment: think Alexander the Great, the fall of the Mongol Empire, the Black Death.
The television adaption of WOLF HALL began its run on PBS this past weekend, and I'm queer for it already. Not that it's easy, mind. (Neither were the novels.) A broad canvas, a raft of competing characters, a complex political dynamic.
To cut to the chase, the Prime Mover of the narrative is Henry VIII's pursuit of a male heir, and everything follows from that. The rise and fall of favorites, Wolsey, Sir Thomas More, Cromwell, depend on the king's goodwill, and how effectively they manipulate the machinery of power, to get what he wants. When they don't, or can't, they're cast aside, left naked to their enemies, in Wolsey's phrase.
The interesting thing to me about the Tudors - not Henry VII so much, but Henry VIII and Elizabeth I - is that they're about to step over the threshold of the modern age. Richard III, the last Plantagenet, was the last British king to die on the battlefield, and in a war of succession. This goes some way toward explaining Henry VIII's fierce obsession with generating a son. His pursuit of a divorce leads directly to his break with Rome, and the English Reformation. (Henry's place in folklore comes from sending two of his wives to the block.) The fracturing of the Church, and the authority of the Pope, erodes secular authority, as well. There is no Divine Right, and in two generations, Charles Stuart will meet the headsman. The religious issue becomes worldly. Henry creates this, He's a touchstone for the fall of kings.
Another point WOLF HALL underlines is the rise of a commoner - Cromwell a blacksmith's son - to the office of Lord Chancellor. This is an enormous shift. promotion on merit, not the accident of birth. Ambition the spur, and Cromwell does make love to this employment, but he's neither a prince of the Church or a noble. He's nobody in the food chain, and beneath notice. A private secretary, Wolsey his patron. How he survives, and thrives, is in itself the story, that a man of mean antecedents can win the
king's confidence, not because he was born to it, but by his wits. Not that he's entirely a ruthless bastard, either. He simply knows which side his bread is buttered on, and the currency he trades on is his service to the king, in all things. It gains him preferment, it lines his pockets, and it becomes his only purpose. He lives alone for it. This hasn't much changed, today. The difference is that Cromwell can even be chosen, in an earlier age.
WOLF HALL, the adaption, isn't for the faint of heart, any more than the books were. It helps if you know the basic storyline, and what's at stake. The politics, religion and its discontents, the maneuvering for advantage. You could get lost, and Cromwell himself is an unreliable narrator, a shape-shifter. You don't really know whether to trust him or not, and neither does anybody else. He seems all things to all men, but once you understand that what lies beneath is the fury of the king, and whether onstage or off, that it's Henry who whips the horses, then if they die in the traces, he's been well-served, at whatever cost. We hang on princes' favors, Wolsey says. (I'm quoting Shakespeare, here.)
" ... I have ventured,
Like little wanton boys that swim on bladders,
This many summers in a sea of glory,
But far beyond my depth."
Is it a cautionary tale? Not exactly. It's about dangerous men in dangerous times, and treading water in the deep end of the pool.