Games of Thrones

Acclaimed author Hilary Mantel won the 2009 Man Booker Prize for her historical novel Wolf Hall, the first in a trilogy written from the point of view of the cunning Thomas Cromwell, a lowborn lawyer and advisor to King Henry VIII of England. I recently read this book that traces his rise to power from humble origins as a drunk blacksmith’s son to a well-traveled man of the world with access to the levers of power, advisor first to Cardinal Wolsey of York and then advisor to the king himself from 1532 to 1540. Having also recently perused Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth, another extraordinarily popular and now classic work of British historical fiction, and George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series, set in an imagined medieval British world, I was inspired to compare them.

Wolf Hall is quite obviously a work of literary fiction, as opposed to a standard bestseller. It takes the Machiavellian, often-maligned figure of Thomas Cromwell and recounts his life through a fictive lens. Mantel fills out his loosely drawn historical caricature by showing him with a steady head and a sharp eye for his own interests, but also a steady loyalty to his first important master, Cardinal Wolsey, whom he refused to abandon despite the cardinal’s decreasing popularity at court.

She also imagines Cromwell as a man who not only loves his wife and children but also takes a warm interest in his wards and members of his household. This personal warmth does not prevent him from acting as a ruthless pragmatist who cares nothing for religious cant but operates in the midst of a world ordered by religious rules. Cromwell can and will react to changing circumstances by undermining former enemies, such as Sir Thomas More and Queen Anne Boleyn. He befriends them as necessary after the cardinal dies, so that he can climb the rungs of power and become a trusted, valued advisor to King Henry VIII and an orchestrator of the English Reformation, which split the Church of England from Catholicism.

I wondered how true to life this portrayal is, and how many liberties Mantel took in portraying Cromwell after researching him. At times I even wondered if she was being too respectful to history. That being said, she obviously knows her time period and subject thoroughly, and her writing is beautiful and detailed. It aptly evokes the world of early sixteenth-century London court life and England’s diplomacy with France and others through these details.

I just wish I had enjoyed Wolf Hall more. I found its pace numbingly slow at times, and was disappointed at my distance from her characters because the subject matter was so potentially interesting. Perhaps Mantel was so interested in creating and exploring the subtle shades of Cromwell’s character and household that she sketched other figures more loosely. Still, I never felt that I really got to know or understand Cromwell particularly well.

Also, my view of the other main personae in the story remained somewhat superficial. Their motivations might have been clear, but I did not feel sympathy for or much interest in any of them. Her depiction of Henry VIII makes the most sense, for the reader is meant to see him through Cromwell’s eyes. Perhaps the reader is not supposed to pierce the veil of this flawed but masterful king so easily. Mantel’s next book in the series, Bring Up the Bodies, may flesh out some of these initial portrayals, but I also may not read it. Six hundred pages so far is enough to either capture or lose my interest. Someone already well-versed in these chapters of English history may find Mantel’s works fascinating, however.

In contrast, Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth is a very different kind of book. Follett wrote it as a way of exploring and solidifying his own deep-seated interest in medieval cathedral building. He created a huge cast of characters, including stonemasons, monks, kings, earls, bishops, cardinals, and villagers who move the story along and get one particular fictional cathedral in England built over many years. The Pillars of the Earth was a blockbuster, the unusual airplane novel for those interested in learning detailed information about architecture and the cultures present in medieval Europe.

Considering its length, this book is a fun, quick read. Follett’s enthusiasm for his subject matter is evident, and his frequently thin characters generally act for one of two reasons: either they love cathedrals or they serve to extend the plot. To his credit, the book also exposes the reader to the deep-seated beliefs, practical concerns, and religious hypocrisies that allowed or blocked cathedral construction in medieval Europe as ordinary folk, religious leaders, and kings attempted to build these gorgeous, soaring monuments to faith.

When George R.R. Martin started writing his fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire with its first huge bestseller A Game of Thrones, he noted that he was influenced by medieval jockeying for power in European courts and various series of battles such as the Wars of the Roses, fought to win the throne of England. Even though his world moves beyond the fictional continent of Westeros to encompass other fantasy-enhanced cultures, he remains deeply rooted in a Western medieval milieu when creating many cultural or historical details. For example, the third book in the series, A Storm of Swords, features an outrageous event, known cryptically to fans as “TRW” to avoid spoiling it for those who have not yet read the books. It is based jointly on a gathering that took place in Scotland in 1440 and another that happened in 1691. So it is easy to see his books as historical fantasy fiction.

Martin certainly has a great advantage over historical fiction writers in that he can change plot points to suit himself and write with every freedom when writing his point-of-view characters, who give different perspectives on the bloodthirsty events and dramatic scenarios that take place in A Song of Ice and Fire. There will be no one to argue that he is wrong, that “it did not actually happen that way.” Yet I would argue that he has a unique ability to bring human history to life regardless.

These three authors all write about a huge cast of characters, but Martin brings depth and complexity to his main characters with great ease for the average reader. At the beginning they might seem one-note, but over time, some take on multiple aspects and become fascinating. He writes about hundreds of individuals, and explores the opinions of a specifically selected few through writing about events through their eyes. His chapters are succinct, muscular, and dotted with pithy, resonant insights about the nature of power, government, warfare, storytelling, dreams, revenge, and love. Therefore, he is never boring and often informative. For those who have not read the books or watched the HBO series, please read the books first. They are more detailed and much better, even though the series has adapted them wonderfully.

Written by: Miriam R. Kramer

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