Is Wolf Hall a Misleading Title? – with reference to Hilary Mantel, Ford Madox Ford, Terry Pratchett and Rudyard Kipling
I wrote a piece for the Guardian last week about misleading book titles – I was more than happy that they illustrated it with a fine picture of Mark Rylance playing Thomas Cromwell in the BBC production of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, one of the books mentioned in the article.
That title is a tricksy one, but its face value is explained fully in the book, and it’s not a spoiler to say that Wolf Hall is the childhood home of Jane Seymour. She will be Henry VIII’s next wife after Boleyn, and the phrase is first introduced just over a third of the way through – ‘I'm John Seymour's daughter. From Wolf Hall.’ The book ends with Cromwell deciding that - as things are going badly with Queen Anne – the King should visit Wolf Hall.
But is there more to it than that, I asked myself?
There is a saying that Cromwell remembers: ‘homo homini lupus, man is wolf to man.’ And indeed this phrase crops up throughout the ages.
And there are comments in the book – Anne Boleyn, talking of the Italian author of the notedly rude and risqué Decameron, says
‘They could tell Boccaccio a tale, those sinners at Wolf Hall,’ and later she says ‘They don't know what continence means, down at Wolf Hall.’It doesn’t take a giant leap to think that Mantel is making a comment on the Court of Henry, which also seems to be a Wolf Hall. (I have read that Mantel has directly said this, though haven’t been able to pin down the reference.)
Then I recently read Ford Madox Ford’s Fifth Queen Trilogy (set in Henry VIII’s court at the time of Katharine Howard) and the wolves appeared again. When things are going wrong for Howard, Mary Tudor notes that the Queen has no support from her family.
‘Why, what wolves Howards be,’ the Lady Mary said, ‘for it is only wolves, of all beasts, that will prey upon the sick of their kind.’- homo homini lupus again. (Ford also, surprisingly, mentions werewolves twice, in relation to a wicked character.)
Mantel and Ford both refer frequently to wolves, and never in a positive way:
From Hilary Mantel:
The wolf comes down on the sheepfold, but not on the nights when the men with dogs are waiting for him.
‘I think the wolves all died when the great forests were cut down. That howling you hear is only the Londoners.’
Inveterate scrappers. Wolves snapping over a carcase. Lions fighting over Christians.
‘The Duke of Norfolk would fall on us like a pack of wolves,’ Rafe says. ‘He would come round and set fire to our house.’
‘It is only King Francis who is keeping the Pope from our throats.’ Farnese as wolf. Snarling and dripping bloody drool.
Is that a grin? It is a wolfish one.
From Ford Madox Ford:
‘I will be no Grace in this court of wolves and hogs.’
They fled like scared wolves, noiselessly, gazing behind them in trepidation.
‘Without his dog, as Lucretius hath it, the shepherd watches in vain. Wolves— videlicet, errors— shall creep into your marshalled words.’
And now it is time to turn to a third great writer – the sadly deceased Terry Pratchett.
His book The Fifth Elephant has large numbers of both wolves and werewolves in it, and the series character Angua (a werewolf herself) has this to say:
‘Our family motto is Homo Homini Lupus “A man is a wolf to other men”! How stupid. Do you think they mean that men are shy and retiring and loyal and kill only to eat? Of course not! They mean that men act like men towards other men, and the worse they are the more they think they’d really like being wolves! Humans hate werewolves because they see the wolf in us, but wolves hate us because they see the human inside – and I don’t blame them!’
Elsewhere, we read that 'there are so many legends about wolves, although mostly they are legends about he way men think about wolves.'
And essentially, the Pratchett/Angua version seems to be the correct one, from a scientific point of view.
So there you have it: we are generally unfair on wolves. But probably the usefulness of wolf metaphors and similes is going to ensure that we keep libelling and maligning them…
More of the best bits from Wolf Hall are in this list entry here.
The top picture is an illustration from Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book where again wolves are portrayed more positively: it is the wolves who raise Mowgli, and who keep life going in a fair-minded way. Akela is the leader of the pack, a wolf of great strength and cunning.
The wolf-as-bishop is from a 13th century Book of Hours, image from the Walters Art Museum.