Wolf Hall, the BBC series, is currently airing on PBS in the United States. I have already read its namesake novel and the latter’s sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, and the TV series is reinforcing two strong reactions that the books provoked in me.
One is the use of language. Perhaps because it is heard and not merely read, the utter modernity of the characters’ English speech is even more striking on TV. I find it somewhat alienating, because it is so at odds with the costumes and setting and habits. It’s almost as if I expect Thomas Cromwell to pull out a mobile phone in order to check in with Henry VIII. What also struck me in the books, though it hasn’t done so yet on TV, is that when a character quotes the Bible he does so in the language of the King James Version, or perhaps that of Tyndale (the main basis of the KJV). In historical reality this is precisely the language in which they would have been conversing, while they would be quoting the Bible in Latin. Tyndale’s translation — written in the common language of his day — was just then being published, and owning it was forbidden. Those familiar with the Bible would know it only in Latin. And while Wolf Hall does not shrink from Latin speech by the characters, such speech does not include biblical quotations.
The King James Version is, in fact, not written in the English of King James (the First of England and Sixth of Scotland) but in that of James’s great-granduncle, Henry VIII. But once the Reformation took hold, the Tyndale translations became the basis of all the later English Bibles, and English and Scottish Protestants accepted its language — which is also that of the Book of Common Prayer — to be appropriately Biblical, including features that were pretty much obsolete in English by the early 17th century; for example, the use of “yes” or “no” only in response to questions in the negative, while questions in the affirmative were to be answered “yea” or “nay”; for another example, the use of “thou” as the singular second-person subject pronoun used between people of equal rank (except on the lowest rungs of the social scale, as still used — in the form tha — in rural Yorkshire). (“You” occurs once, in the Book of Ruth, and it was probably a slip that wasn’t caught.) I have a lot more to say about the linguistic infelicities of the KJV, and I will do so at some length in a later post.
My other reaction is to the portrayal of Thomas More as a highly unsympathetic character. I have no problem with such a characterization per se, nor with his being made a saint by the Catholic Church. The Church’s criteria for sainthood are its own, and concern mainly the person’s significance to its agenda. John of Capistrano, as I have written here, was one of history’s great Jew-haters. No, what bothers me is the fact that in British crosswords of the cryptic variety, of which I have recently become an addict,the clue “good man” is often used to refer to the letters ST. This is not the only such clue; since “St.” can also be the abbreviation of “street”, possible clues are also “street”, “way” or “road”. And we often say “he is a saint” as a way of saying that he is a very good man, but in that case we don’t (except jokingly) abbreviate “saint” as “St.” My point is that ST does not by itself denote a good man (or woman). Some saints have been good, some have been evil, and some in between, while what has historically been the most prominent qualification for sainthood, martyrdom, is neither good nor evil by itself. In fact, a simple acceptance of the fact that both good and evil are inherent in human nature — and on a continuum, not in a dualistic way, sometimes in the same person — obviates many a needless philosophical dilemma. When pro-religion advocates point to the many good things that people have done motivated by their faith, one need only respond by pointing to the many evil things done with the same motivation as well as to the good things done out of innate altruism.
And so, when I write the letters S and T in their appropriate squares referenced by a clue that contains “good man”, I hope that the gnashing of my teeth reaches the setter’s ears.