My sister and I decided this, the other day: reading Wolf Hall is just like watching Game of Thrones. So many names; so many places; a world that’s impossibly evocative, while also being utterly confounding. Granted, I’m not all that smart when it comes to anything Epic. Fair warning, future students o’mine: if you’re writers of sagas, I will scrupulously line edit them, and I will say things like, “I think you should put a section break here, and use italicized present tense for the magic” or “This part is slow”—but I will never say, “I’m wondering why the genesis of the feud between the Houses of Sokartates and Teliae is attributed, on p. 382 of volume I, to the perfidy of the forty-third Viscount while in Ullnaria, whereas Teleonides III says, on p. 740 of volume II, that it all started at the Rock of the Lesser Seer, fully a generation earlier.” Nope. I won’t catch anything like that. I process political intrigue the way I used to figure out algebraic equations—which is to say, not at all.
Anyway. Wolf Hall and Game of Thrones.
The imagery of the latter keeps me vaguely grounded. The desert: ah, it must be Daenerys. A dungeon, and implements of torture: oh, it’s that wan young man who beheaded the old guy in Winterfell (for I recognize Winterfell, always), and I have no idea where this torture chamber is (but then again, neither might the wan young man), and I forget his name, but yeah: he’s that guy. I’m always both treading water and letting myself sink; I surrender to the not-getting-it, even as I rue it. (In fact, this puts me in mind of reading novels in Spanish…but that’s a cuenta for another time.)
Wolf Hall‘s images are all on the page, but they’re just as vivid as the HBO ones. Wolf Hall‘s world is imagined but not made up: it’s 16th century London; it’s Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn and baby Elizabeth: names I know, events I recognize, in a smooth-edged kind of way. Yet I’m still a little lost. People have names and also titles; Thomas Cromwell, the point-of-view character, is almost always simply “he”, surrounded by countless other “he”s. All those archbishops and foreign-yet-related royal types. The Lutheran heretics. The estates and palaces, the Tower and the barges. It’s all a wonderful, dizzy blur.
When I’m treading water, I cling to character and scene. There’s much to cling to, in this book: moments of unbearable poignancy, amongst the intrigue; moments made more poignant because the narrative voice is so poised and cool. It’s a carefully constructed paradox, which, in lesser authorial hands, would irritate me. But Mantel makes it work. I surrender.
Also, I think a lot about pain and waiting.
The story of Henry VIII and his wives is one I internalized so long ago that discovering it again, in Mantel’s hands, is an epiphany: simultaneous dramatic irony and discovery. I was a teenager when first I internalized; now I’m not, and I’ve had two children. Anne Boleyn is pregnant, and everyone knows it’s a boy—there’s no way it couldn’t be, given the blessedness of the union—and nine months go by, and the reader writhes and revels, waiting. I waited, twice. I chose not to avail myself of the ultrasound technology which would have had Anne cast off well before Elizabeth emerged—and when my own daughters emerged, there was only joy. I try to imagine what Anne’s pregnancies must have been like. All the prayers and invocations; the certainty of king, courtiers, priests, and maybe herself, because everything depended on those first few seconds; that first glimpse of the slippery, pinkening baby. (Of course, Elizabeth had the last, ruffle-collared laugh.)
And then there’s the pain. Implicitly, the pain of birth; explicitly, the agony of death. An old woman burned. A young man burned. Thomas Cromwell the quiet, aching observer. And although I’ve read about such deaths countless times before, it was this quiet voice that truly brought them home to me.
I might not understand the nuances. I might flounder in the Epic swells. But when Daenerys’ dragons fly; when the boy Thomas gathers greasy bone from burned-out fire, and the baby Elizabeth squalls at her mother’s feet—I get it. I surrender.