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The Importance of History

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Last Thursday, Charles Krauthammer wrote of the historical fiction of “Wolf Hall.”  For the uninitiated, Krauthammer describes it this way:

“Wolf Hall,” the Man Booker Prize-winning historical novel about the court of Henry VIII — and most dramatically, the conflict between Thomas Cromwell and Sir Thomas More — is now a TV series (presented on PBS). It is maddeningly good.

I came to know the book several years ago when my wife and I were sharing a meal with friends.  The wife of the other couple said that her book group had given up on the book because it presumed too much knowledge of what happened in the court of Henry VIII.  (This is a very correct assessment of both the book and miniseries.)  Ungracious geek that I be, I immediately launched into the basic outlines of the time.  The net result was that my friend, far more gracious than I, gifted me with her copy on some appropriate occasion a few months later.   After reading the book, and watching the PBS series to date, I agree with this statement by Krauthammer, “Maddening because its history is tendentiously distorted, yet the drama is so brilliantly conceived and executed that you almost don’t care. Faced with an imaginative creation of such brooding, gripping, mordant intensity, you find yourself ready to pay for it in historical inaccuracy.”

Krauthammer then uses this conclusion to discuss the question of how much license historical fiction is “allowed” to take.  It is a fascinating question.  Krauthammer concludes that it comes down to “temporal proximity.”  He says,

If the event is in the recent past, you’d better be accurate. Oliver Stone’s paranoid and libelous “JFK” will be harmless in 50 years, but it will take that long for the stench to dissipate. On the other hand, does anyone care that Shakespeare diverges from the record (such as it is) in his Caesar or Macbeth or his Henrys?

It is scary to disagree with Charles Krauthammer, but I have to.  He is correct in asserting that temporal proximity matters a great deal, but so do the events depicted.  Shakespeare largely writes on smaller more personal events in the lives of big political figures.  “Lawrence of Arabia,” another comparison Krauthammer calls on, is a huge aggrandizement of an otherwise smaller player in the Middle East.  These are interesting historically, but one can hold to their fictitious accounts of history and not reshape the world.

The battle between Cromwell and More is something different.  It is a seminal church/state battle – and though the battle happened long, long ago, the church/state battle remains one of the most important questions of our day.  Krauthammer is correct in asserting that “Wolf Hall” is very much written to contravene “A Man For All Seasons.”  The latter paints More a hero of Christianity, persecuted for his faith by Cromwell.  The former paints More a somewhat sympathetic monster and Cromwell a hero of reasonable people everywhere.  In other words, “A Man for All Seasons,” is a direct reflection of the view of religion in society at the time it was written (1954) and “Wolf Hall” directly reflects the modern view of religion in society.  “Seasons” sees religion as a valuable contributor to social order and justice, while “Hall” sees religion as the great impediment to modernity.

The debate about the role of the religion in our society is a vitally important one and history must be correctly understood to contribute to that debate.  The truth, of course, lies somewhere between the poles of the two depictions.  And Krauthammer’s final paragraph:

So with the different versions of More and Cromwell. Let them live side by side. “Wolf Hall” is utterly compelling, but I nonetheless refuse to renounce “A Man For All Seasons.” I’ll live with both Mores, both Cromwells. After all, for centuries we’ve accepted that light is both wave and particle. If physics can live with maddening truths, why can’t literature and history?

might be a reasonable conclusion if we could rely on people to read and view both.  But recall how I came to read the book.  That group did not even know the basic players and outline of the reign of Henry VIII, one of the most consequential regimes in British history.  Most people are not geeks like myself, or presumably Krauthammer.  In a world where the fake newscasts of  SNL and Jon Stewart are considered newsworthy, historical fiction does not contribute to historical understanding, it defines it.

I do not think we can afford to have our general historical understanding “tendentiously distorted,” outstanding dramatic material though it may be.  The writer of historical fiction must bear in mind the unique and important role in which they have cast themselves.  They may like to think of themselves as mere storytellers, but they are de facto teachers of history.   In matters as consequential as church/state relations the history must outweigh the story.


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