When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
lions hunker down
in tall grasses,
and even elephants
lumber after safety.
When great trees fall
small things recoil into silence,
eroded beyond fear….
from Maya Angelou’s “When Great Trees Fall”
Every once in a while, we come across “great trees” as artists, as readers. Hilary Mantel was this for me. A “great tree” in the writing world is an artist who can so master world-building AND prose style so well that one can scarcely be removed from the other without the annihilation of the whole, a construction so profound and intricate, we scarcely can conceive how it was constructed at all. For me that was Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy.
I, like most others, discovered her from the BBC series on Masterpiece Theater of the same name. It too was marvelous, and when I see such things, I wonder if such great writing came from a novel. Of course, it did. And then I read Wolf Hall. Great history novels, like great sci-fi/fantasy novels work when the writer can reconstruct a world so believable that we can easily suspend our disbelief and believe what we know to be just a story… to be… well… real. Whether we are in Middle Earth or Perelandra or a hidden School for Witches, on a foreign planet… or in this case 16th Century England in the great court of Henry VIII – the world we entered lives, the characters act and move and have their being, and it is all real and marvelous and filled with weight and cost.
This is very hard to do, and even harder when you can pull it off two more times (Bring up the Bodies, and The Mirror and the Light). Hillary Mantel won a Booker Prize for the series. She died two years after the final novel came out. She was 70 years old. Her books now become a silent witness to the world, to generations, forever. Her novels are a master class on world-building and prose control – like the greats before her.
And this writer is grateful to have read her works.
…When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
gnaws on kind words
From Maya Angelou’s “When Great Trees Fall”