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Wolf Hall

“Wolf Hall,” winner of this year’s Booker Prize, offers a sympathetic portrayal of Thomas Cromwell, the power behind Henry VIII's throne.

By / October 17, 2009



Call it the rise of the antihero. Last year, the prestigious Booker Prize for best contemporary British fiction went to “White Tiger,” the story of a brutal, scrappy survivor from India’s under class. This year, the Booker goes to Wolf Hall, the portrait of a scheming brawler who pulled himself from the lower rungs of Tudor England all the way up to its chief palaces, a man described as “rather like one of those square-shaped fighting dogs that low men tow about on ropes.”

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That would be Thomas Cromwell, chief minister to Henry VIII. Just call him the pit bull in jerkin and hose.

But Hilary Mantel, historian, novelist, and author of “Wolf Hall” is more nuanced than that. She wades into the dark currents of 16th-century English politics to sculpt a drama and a protagonist with a surprisingly contemporary feel.

“Wolf Hall” begins with Cromwell as a lad, lying half dead on the cobblestones, as the result of a savage beating from his father. The boy runs for his life.

The next time we meet him, he is fix-it man and chief adviser to England’s powerful Cardinal Wolsey. As the story proceeds, we are made to understand that in the interval the boy has become a force to be reckoned with. He has sojourned widely on the Continent, learned to speak a half dozen languages, and made his fortune in textiles and trade.

Along the way, he has also honed an eclectic but extremely useful set of skills. He can recite the New Testament and any number of secular poems by heart. He can argue theology with priests. And he can make kings laugh. As Mantel sums up the public opinion of Cromwell: “With animals, women and timid litigants, his manner is gentle and easy; but he makes your creditors weep. He can converse with you about the Caesars or get you Venetian glassware at a very reasonable rate. Nobody can outtalk him, if he wants to talk.”

An ability to talk to women proves quite useful to Cromwell when the tides turn in English politics and the woman whom Henry VIII longs to wed – Anne Boleyn – becomes a power broker. Wolsey, who picks his sides badly and fails to take Boleyn seriously, goes down, but Cromwell, his former right-hand man, only rises higher.

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