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The Mirror & the Light

Review

The Mirror & the Light

Some may wonder why there is any need to read more about the infamous Henry Tudor, also known as King Henry VIII. We have seen countless melodramas about him, most recently the terrific Showtime series "The Tudors." But for those who want to fully immerse themselves in the minds, moods and words of Henry Tudor and his right-hand man, Thomas Cromwell, you need look no further than Hilary Mantel’s award-winning works.

THE MIRROR & THE LIGHT completes Mantel's Wolf Hall trilogy; the first two installments, WOLF HALL and BRING UP THE BODIES, each were awarded the esteemed Man Booker Prize. There is no need to post spoiler alert warnings as most who venture into this series fully understand how things turn out. King Henry VIII dies at age 55 from a number of different ailments, magnified by his great obesity. Regretfully, Thomas Cromwell departs the earth seven years earlier than Henry, but not of natural causes. Alas, Cromwell finds his life ended in much the same way as Anne Boleyn, whose marriage to Henry and subsequent execution are played out in BRING UP THE BODIES. We take this literary ride with Cromwell right up to his own execution on the final pages of THE MIRROR & THE LIGHT.

"THE MIRROR & THE LIGHT is not the sort of novel you consume; more accurately, it consumes you. The language is, at times, almost melodic, and the music it makes comes from a master writer at the top of her craft fusing the words together so they reach beyond history and directly into your psyche."

What makes this hefty novel, coming in at just north of 700 pages, so compelling is the writing that breathes life into the complex relationship between Henry and Cromwell. Much of this trilogy is told from Cromwell's point of view, which gives readers a front-row seat to the madness that appears to be addling Henry’s brain. Not many are upset over Anne’s execution as she was not popular, even during her brief time on the throne. When Henry and his people paint a picture of her perversity, which may have included a long-term incestuous relationship with her own brother, there is nary a single soul who feels sorry for Anne and the Boleyns.

The problem is that Henry needs to be married as he is still a young, seemingly virile man. He also must ensure that a male heir who is worthy to succeed him is birthed. He has two very strong-willed daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, but their rise to power is meant for other historical novels. The years 1536-40 are deeply covered here, and these are trying times for the Tudor reign. To begin with, Henry is suffering greatly from a series of ailments that find his public appearances less and less frequent to the point where some of his people claim he has died. There was later a rumor that he was suffering from syphilis, but actually he had never fully recovered from a severe jousting injury that impacted both his head and one of his legs.

Cromwell is more and more involved in moving the monarchy forward, and many whisper that he could be setting himself up to be Henry's successor. He cannot give in to such gossip as he has much larger issues to handle. There are a number of factions under Henry's rule that are threatening to rebel. A fracture still exists between Henry and the papacy in Rome that do not recognize Henry's divorces or subsequent new marriages. Additionally, Henry demands that Cromwell find a way to stop Reginald Pole, a writer who is single-handedly crusading against Henry in his desire to bring England under papal control.

Not having a strong family to back him, or even his own private army, flouts everything Cromwell does at seemingly every turn. He is now fully embroiled within a cast of characters, none of whom he can fully trust, which in turn never allows him the pleasure of job satisfaction. He is warned by a Spanish ambassador about Henry's penchant for tiring of those closest to him and disposing of them in rapid fashion. It is here where Mantel carves out the symbolism for the Mirror and the Light, each representing Henry and Cromwell.

It is ironic to think of King Henry VIII as a “mirror,” as he is a large personality who is nearly incapable of self-reflection and merely acts out purely by unreliable reflex. We see him move from Anne Boleyn to Jane Seymour, who dies within a year of marriage, and lastly to Anne of Cleves. There is one passage where Mantel makes reference to a contemplative Henry who sees all of his dead Queens looking back at him from behind their broken mirrors. That leaves the “light” for Thomas Cromwell. Mantel imagines a better situation for Cromwell's skills, a society ruled by philosophers who, even with a metropolis of light, still contain middens and manure heaps. What I found most impressive about this symbolism was that, during the last moments of Cromwell's life, he notices how the light is early and tender, and the sky an eggshell blue. This is all happening as he is being led to the public scaffold where his life and light will be snuffed out. There, at his place of execution, he fantasizes about being somewhere else, somewhere far away, as he tracks the last beam of light prior to his own end.

THE MIRROR & THE LIGHT is not the sort of novel you consume; more accurately, it consumes you. The language is, at times, almost melodic, and the music it makes comes from a master writer at the top of her craft fusing the words together so they reach beyond history and directly into your psyche. It will make you want to conduct more research into the lives of these very real people who inhabit the several pages of the “Cast of Characters” that precede the story. Mantel takes what sounds antiseptic in a high school European history textbook and breathes life into it. She allows you to spend quality time in the 1500s, privileged to be led through this point in history by the complex Thomas Cromwell and the King who he precariously serves.

Reviewed by Ray Palen on March 13, 2020

The Mirror & the Light
by Hilary Mantel

  • Publication Date: March 10, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Hardcover: 784 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
  • ISBN-10: 0805096604
  • ISBN-13: 9780805096606