I was struck by Hilary Mantel’s powerful use of figurative language in Wolf Hall. Figurative language done well can convey the meaning of pages in a simple sentence. Done poorly, it removes the reader from the story and makes the writer look like an amateur.
Wolf Hall relied heavily on religious figurative language, appropriate because of themes in the book dealing with Protestants and Catholics. In keeping with the themes of the base nature of men or the phrase “homo homini lupus, man is wolf to man,” Mantel also uses much animal figurative language. I’ve listed some of the most striking examples below. I’d love to hear some of your favorite similes or metaphors from the book, or from other books you love.
- “The cardinal, a Bachelor of Arts at fifteen, a Bachelor of Theology by his mid-twenties, is learned in the law but does not like its delays; he cannot quite accept that real property cannot be changed into money with the same speed and ease with which he changes a wafer into the body of Christ.” (17)
- “He had his heart set on Lady Anne. But the cardinal married him to Mary Talbot, and now they’re as miserable as dawn on Ash Wednesday.” (65)
- “‘Are her teeth good?’ Mercy says. ‘For God’s sake, woman; when she sinks them into me, I’ll let you know.'” (171)
- “Jane whispers in her wake; her eyes are the color of water, where her thoughts slip past, like gilded fishes too small for hook or net.” (411)
- “‘I know who she is.’ Hans nods emphatically, lips pressed together, eyes bright and taunting, like a dog who steals a handkerchief so you will chase it.” (492)
The metaphor of the law not matching the speed of transubstantiation for the cardinal belittles him and characterize him as the corrupt man that he is. “Fishes too small for hook or net” is all we need for Mantel’s characterization of Jane Seymour–that phrase colors all else we learn of her. Comparing Hans to a sneaky dog works just as well.
In your writing today, see if you can find an appropriate and effective use of figurative language, but use restraint. It’s better not to have any than to have poor examples.