The Tudors & Wolf Hall – or who’s afraid of Hilary Mantel’s wolf?
Below a Rood Screen – in Brittany – these were also typical of northern European church interiors before the Reformation – before the art, the stained glass with its elaborate story-telling, the illuminated books and manuscripts and much more were utterly destroyed in the name of reform.
This all seems a long time ago now and centuries on the ruins left to us seem almost romantic – Tintern Abbey- but we lost a millenium of our culture in that holocaust. As we reflect upon the upheavals in Islam we might ponder the fact that we still struggle with the complex truths of those events of the first half of the sixteenth century and their immediate consequences for the century that followed – from say 1546 to 1648 which ended in the terrors of the Thirty Years War. The horrors on both sides of that series of interlocking wars permanently divided Europe.Those divisions echo on down into our daily lives and into how we think. Those horrors in the aftermath of the equally appalling horrors World War I inspired that bleakest of dramatic takes on human amorality – Mother Courage and her Children.
I write as one who enjoyed the American series The Tudors. It caught a lot of the atmospherics and motivations of court life in the times of Henry VIII even if it was a bit cavalier with facts and many of the male leads looked more like gym bunnies than horsemen. The Tudors was a frolic with a lot to recommend the romp.
Ms Mantel’s take as we saw last night takes itself altogether more seriously. It is almost grandly portentous. Despite it’s obvious drama even Shakespeare found it hard convincingly to stage the reign of Henry VIII – it is one of thee weakest of the history plays. Generally, dramatists since have narrowed focus and looked at matters from the viewpoint of particular characters – A Man for All Seasons – seeing it from More’s highly principled moral stand – Anne of a Thousand Days from Boleyn’s viewpoint – the Six Wives of Henry VIII – from the wives side generally. Mantel follows that line but sensationally inverts the relative moral virtues of two principle protagonists of the period – Cromwell and More. The result is – A Man for All Seasons with Thomas Cromwell as hero and Thomas More as vilain – Cromwell – enlightened – broadminded – More – a burning bigot.
Whatever Cromwell virtues and vices and Ms Mantel’s talent to amuse – this is arrant unhistorical nonsense. It belongs to that genre that gave us the more recent movies – Elizabeth and Elizabeth – the Golden Age. That said, I’ve got no problem with historical fiction and just love the Three Musketeers but this stuff is being passed off in the Media as insightful History.
Worse historians have been suckered into joining the Media caravan which only flatters to deceive. In public Hilary Mantel has taken upon her slight shoulders the weight of scholarship. She argues – like a clairvoyant – that she sees more truths as they really happened in her informed imaginings than poor historians dare to imagine on the basis of dull research.
Thus I am forced to observe: Hilary Mantel may have read some printed sources but she has hardly grasped any of the main issues. I liked the costumes and the setting. I liked the acting – characters drawn true to the author’s penmanship. I just refuse to take the rest of this seriously. I do not mind employing over-simplifications to engage a wider audience to a subject – I do mind them being passed off as the truth of the subject.
At the end of the day I cringed at some of the stuff. The secret meeting of Cromwell and a bunch of ‘Reformers’ pedalled all the old old propaganda of that confessional war. We no longer need to take confessional sides to see the complex truth of matters and dispassionately weigh the gains and the losses. But reinforcing unchallenged the stereotypes of that propaganda presents us with a caricature.
The danger is when we cannot face the complex truth about our own past will we never be grown up enough to accept the complex and challenging realities of our present when dealing with the complexities of religious and political fundamentalism.
So who’s afraid of Hilary’s Wolf – me for one – I’m always afraid of fiction masquerading as truth and opinion masquerading as scholarship.