I just finished reading this sumptuous novel by Hilary Mantel which I discovered by way of a post at the blog of my friend Mary Sharratt (author of Daughters of the Witching Hill, a wonderful novel in its own right which I highly recommend). The Mantel book centers on Thomas Cromwell, usually not one of my favorite characters from the Tudor era (due to his role in the downfall of Anne Boleyn, whom I count among my personal Mighty Dead), but Mantel, to her credit, weaves him into such an engaging, witty, driven and compelling character that the novel held me spellbound. One of its most intriguing features–besides this revisioning of Cromwell himself–is the way Mantel deftly handles the supernatural world, which was an ever-present and accepted fact of life for royalty and peasants alike in Tudor England, known to coexist right alongside the mundane physical world, yet its importance is often excluded or underplayed by historical novelists. Wolf Hall is by no means a fantasy novel, yet this rock-solid sense of knowing that the unseen world is intertwined with the political maneuverings of daily life is all-pervasive, haunting the characters and influencing events.
In one passage that I just had to share, Cromwell muses on the oath of succession (affirming the status of Anne and Henry’s newborn daughter, the future Elizabeth I) that every Englishman is now required to swear to, on pain of treason. This passage conjures up a vivid sense of how the dead and inhuman denizens of England were regarded in Cromwell’s day, when the majority of people still believed in unseen spirits, the fairy folk, and the enduring influence of the dead over the living. It neatly summarizes much of what I adore about English legend and folklore (the feeling of it, if not all the particulars).
“And beneath Cornwall, beyond and beneath this whole realm of England, beneath the sodden marshes of Wales and the rough territory of the Scots border, there is another landscape, there is a buried empire, where he fears his commissioners cannot reach. Who will swear the hobs and bogarts who live in the hedges and in hollow trees, and the wild men who hide in the woods? Who will swear the saints in their niches, and the spirits that cluster at holy wells rustling like fallen leaves, and the miscarried infants dug into unconsecrated ground: all those unseen dead who hover in winter around forges and village hearths, trying to warm their bare bones? For they too are his countrymen: the generations of the uncounted dead, breathing through the living, stealing their light from them, the bloodless ghosts of lord and knave, nun and whore, the ghosts of priest and friar who feed on living England, and suck the substance from the future.”