Christopher Hitchens on "Wolf Hall" & the Reformation

Thanks to Aaron Lewis, who saw my praise for Hilary Mantel’s Booker-Prize-winning novels about Thomas Cromwell and sent me a link to a review of her Wolf Hall by the late Christopher Hitchens.  He may have been an atheist, but he was an atheist who supported the Reformation.  An excerpt from the review:

Three portraits by Hans Holbein have for generations dictated the imagery of the epoch. The first shows King Henry VIII in all his swollen arrogance and finery. The second gives us Sir Thomas More, the ascetic scholar who seems willing to lay his life on a matter of principle. The third captures King Henry’s enforcer Sir Thomas Cromwell, a sallow and saturnine fellow calloused by the exercise of worldly power. The genius of Mantel’s prose lies in her reworking of this aesthetic: look again at His Majesty and see if you do not detect something spoiled, effeminate, and insecure. Now scrutinize the face of More and notice the frigid, snobbish fanaticism that holds his dignity in place. As for Cromwell, this may be the visage of a ruthless bureaucrat, but it is the look of a man who has learned the hard way that books must be balanced, accounts settled, and zeal held firmly in check. By the end of the contest, there will be the beginnings of a serious country called England, which can debate temporal and spiritual affairs in its own language and which will vanquish Spain and give birth to Shakespeare and Marlowe and Milton.

When the action of the book opens, though, it is still a marginal nation subservient to Rome, and the penalty for rendering the Scriptures into English, or even reading them in that form, is torture and death. In Cromwell’s mind, as he contemplates his antagonist More, Mantel allows us to discern the germinal idea of what we now call the Protestant ethic:

He never sees More—a star in another firmament, who acknowledges him with a grim nod—without wanting to ask him, what’s wrong with you? Or what’s wrong with me? Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, “Purgatory.” Show me where it says “relics, monks, nuns.” Show me where it says “Pope.”

Thomas More, he reflects, will burn men, while the venal Cardinal Wolsey will burn only books, in “a holocaust of the English language, and so much rag-rich paper consumed, and so much black printer’s ink.” Cromwell has sufficient immunity to keep his own edition of William Tyndale’s forbidden English Bible, published overseas and smuggled back home, with a title page that carries the mocking words PRINTED IN UTOPIA. Thomas More will one day see to it that Tyndale, too, burns alive for that jibe. Curtain-raised here, also, is Cromwell’s eventual readiness to smash the monasteries and confiscate their revenue and property to finance the building of a modern state, so that after Wolsey there will never again be such a worldly and puissant cardinal in the island realm.

These are the heavy matters that underlie the ostensible drama of which schoolchildren know: the king’s ever-more-desperate search for a male heir and for a queen (or, as it turns out, queens) who will act as his broodmare in the business. With breathtaking subtlety—one quite ceases to notice the way in which she takes on the most intimate male habits of thought and speech—Mantel gives us a Henry who is sexually pathetic, and who needs a very down-to-earth counselor. A man like Cromwell, in fact, “at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury.” Cromwell it is who catches the monarch’s eye as it strays toward the girls of the Seymour clan, and promptly invests in a loan to their family, whose country seat is named Wolf Hall. But this is not the only clue to the novel’s title: Cromwell is also acutely aware of the old saying Homo homini lupus. Man is wolf to man.

And so indeed he is, though in Greek-drama style, Mantel keeps most of the actual violence and slaughter offstage. Only at second hand do we hear of the terrifying carnage in the continuing war for the Papal States, and the sanguinary opportunism with which King Henry, hoping to grease the way to his first divorce, proposes to finance a French army to aid the pope. Cromwell is a practical skeptic here too, because he has spent some hard time on the Continent and knows, he says, that “the English will never be forgiven for the talent for destruction they have always displayed when they get off their own island.”

via The Men Who Made England – Christopher Hitchens – The Atlantic.

To be sure, Hitchens sees the Reformation in terms of breaking the shackles of the Roman Catholic Church, neglecting its positive emphasis on the Gospel, the Word of God, and Vocation.  And the Catholic critique of the Reformation is that it would ultimately lead straight to atheism.   But still, Mantel’s books present a sympathetic portrait of the English Reformation, including aspects that have generally been papered over.  (Such as Sir Thomas More–now St. Thomas More–having a rack for torturing Lutherans in his own home!)

Since Reformation Day is coming, we should discuss the notion that Hitchens thinks is a good thing and Catholics think is a bad thing: namely, that the Reformation began the dissolution of the church, leading ultimately to secularism and to Hitchens’ atheism.  What is true and what is false about that charge?

Machiavellian reformer

British author Hilary Mantel won the Booker Prize for her novel Bring Up the Bodies.  This is the second time she won this top award for British fiction.  The first time was for Wolf Hall.  Both novels are about Thomas Cromwell, the consigliere to Henry VIII.   And they are both spellbinding.

Cromwell is typically presented as a Machiavellian villain who made it possible for Henry VIII to marry Anne Boleyn and then cynically framed her and engineered her execution.  Mantel, though, in her thoroughly-researched imagining of those tumultuous times, presents him sympathetically.  Her Cromwell is a man of high ideals who wants a more just society and will do what it takes to make those ideals reality.  Specifically, he is a man of the Reformation, someone with a brilliant intellect who has memorized the Bible, possesses books by Luther that would earn him the death penalty, and who does what he can to rescue Protestants from the torture chambers of Sir Thomas More.  But his effectiveness depends on how well he can work with the volatile, passionate egotist who is the King of England.

Mantel’s books capture the texture and nuances of a complicated time, and her characters are complex, historically-grounded, and utterly believable.  And her handling of the religious issues of 16th century England is especially illuminating.  King Henry breaks from the Pope and makes himself head of the English church because of his marital intrigues, but he retains the medieval Catholic dogmas, inquisitorial spirit, and  hatred of the Lutheran Reformation.  (Did you realize that it wasn’t the Catholics but King Henry after his break with Rome who had Tyndale burned at the stake for translating the Bible into English?)

Anyway, if you like historical fiction written at the very highest, most sophisticated level, and if you enjoy tales of intrigue, you will love Hilary Mantel’s books.  You need to read them in order, so start with Wolf Hall.  Then you will want to read Bring Up the Bodies (which deserves another prize just for its title).  She is reportedly working on another volume to round out the Cromwell trilogy, which may well earn her a third Booker prize.

 


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