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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Monday, March 15, 2010

Killing heretics and cutting deals: Is Wolf Hall contemporary or medieval?

"Wolf Hall" ends with the interrogation and finally execution of Thomas More. Does this seem strange? This lengthy novel never effectively set up an opposition between More and the main character, Cromwell, so the conclusion seems wrong, the conclusion to another book - or maybe to a play. Isn't this the subject of Man for All Seasons? Doesn't it seem like about a thousand high-brow East End dramas, in which the man of principle (More) refuses to various sign an oath or give testimony that he does not hold to be true. He faces the executioner instead. Yes, okay, high drama, I get it. What I don't get, finally, after many nights of reading, is what exactly is the moral stance of this novel? At times I thought that what's really going on is that we see the strangeness, the craziness of this world - so much time, capital, careers, lives, spent and lost in pursuit of religious fanatics, and to what end? Superficially, so Henry VIII can remarry and have male heir. More profoundly, to seize the wealth of the church and build the wealth of the nation (or of the Tudor family, not the same thing necessarily). Is it a medieval mentality? Do these people really care about heretics? Or is it a very modern mentality, contemporary, in which aides and politicians cynically cut deals and watch out for their self-interest? I guess the strength (or weakness) of this book is that it's both (or neither) - the author, Hilary Mantel, is after all a very "cool" author, in that she doesn't show her hand or take a stance. She tells her story through a thousand snapshots in time, and we're left to make of it what we will.

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