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.
Truly fascinating, Moira. I may have read about wolves in the odd novel, perhaps in a western or an Alistair MacLean, definitely a fairy tale or two, but nothing concrete really.ReplyDelete
I was intrigued by their reputation being different from the reality - and once I started looking there are a lot of books about or featuring wolves. White Fang by Jack London was a favourite.Delete
Moira, thanks for reminding me of "White Fang." I have not read the novel but I'm familiar with most of Jack London's books.Delete
He was a great writer, and had a fascinating life....Delete
It is so interesting, Moira, that that metaphor should come up as often as it does. And of course, the wolf is woven into our language in a lot of ways (e.g. The Wolf of Wall Street, a 'wolf in sheep's clothes,' a 'lone wolf,' etc.). We are endlessly fascinated with wolf lore...ReplyDelete
You are so right, Margot. I wonder why we are so fascinated by them. Once you start thinking, more references keep cropping up...Delete
At least 'The Wolves of Willoughby Chase' is about real wolves (at least on the superficial level; now I am worried...).ReplyDelete
I hoped someone would mention that - it's one of those children's books that I didn't quite take to, so I had to wait for someone else!Delete
I enjoyed London's Call of the Wild a year or two ago - I'm pretty sure Buck encountered his wild cousins in this one. I also have a Cruz Smith/Renko book - WOLVES EAT DOGS - unread of course, but I think the title might be allegorical, as opposed to literal. One of these years I'll read it and get back to you!ReplyDelete
But then the Renko books are set in Russia aren't they, and Russia is the traditional home of wolves, so you never know...Delete
Wolves feature quite a lot in Saki.ReplyDelete
Yes indeed, good point. Clovis has some stories....? Now I'm going to have to get the book down, and hours will be lost....Delete
There's a marvellous story by Angela Carter which was made into a film, 'The Company of Wolves' which is a terrific take on the werewolf legend.ReplyDelete
Oh yes indeed, great addition to the list.Delete
Wolves are part of folk memory, aren't they? Once there really was something to fear from them. There is the childhood game, 'What's the Time, Mr Wolf?' (which BTW I recently used as the title for a short story).Delete
And, who's afraid of the big bad wolf? And the wolf in the Three Little Pigs. Once you start thinking about it, it is quite odd they were so much the villains and predators.Delete
Stef Penney seems to think more kindly of wolves than many writers given the title of her debut novel - THE TENDERNESS OF WOLVES. But I'm struggling to remember if there were wolves in it, let alone whether they behaved tenderly or not.ReplyDelete
Oh yes - I never read that one, though it was very popular at one time. I know there was some discussion of the title... but have no idea if actual wolves were involved.Delete
Moira: A she-wolf is a heroine of ancient Rome for having suckled Romulus and Remus.ReplyDelete
It is an indication of the power of wolves in the human psyche that they were featured in the time of Henry VIII when there was not a wolf alive south of Scotland.
I read Wolves Eat Dogs almost a decade ago. It is actually set in the vicinity of Chernobyl after the terrible nuclear meltdown.
Wolves live to the north of me, starting about 100 km away. I would say they have reached the status of being respected rather than disparaged.
They have some kind of metaphorical reality for humans, that's for sure. Are the wolves in Canada perceived as dangerous?Delete
My son was fascinated by wolves when he was young, we read White Fang together, and he read various other books featuring them. At that time there was a lot of discussion about the rights and wrongs of re-introducing wolves into parts of America, including Yellowstone I think. I must look up what happened next.
Wolves can be dangerous as a pack. In my hierarchy of danger in the forests the greatest danger is from bears followed by cougars and then wolves.Delete
Ah yes bears. Now they are really scarey, in a way wolves are not....Delete
I have never had a poor opinion of wolves. I have a children's book called Wolf Christmas by Daniel Pinkwater which I described as "sweet story about a family of wolves who venture close to a small town at Christmas." But it is true. Men are often described as wolfish in a very derogatory way, especially when acting lasciviously.ReplyDelete
That sounds lovely! I think my children read some Daniel Pinkwater books when they were young. I love the way everyone is coming up with defences of wolves, and nice books about them....Delete
There is a very good children's book by Catherine Storr, Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf, in which of course Polly continually turns the tables on the wolf and escapes being eaten.ReplyDelete
Oh yes, I remember that from a good many years ago! It IS interesting just how big a feature wolves are in our fiction, given that they have not lived in England for hundreds of years....Delete