I have stated before on The Book Zone that I love history, although thanks to a poor teacher at school it was a subject that I neither loved nor excelled at as a teenager. I have also said that my favourite periods of English History are, in this order: The Tudor period; the period of the English Civil War and the subsequent Restoration; and the Victorian era. It was with huge excitement then that I read some time ago about a book called VIII by Harriet Castor that was scheduled for a 1st October release. If I could meet any one person from the history of Britain in would be Henry VII, and whilst he has been written about many times in adult fiction, and I have a number of brilliant non-fiction titles about his life on my shelves as well, to my knowledge there has yet to be a YA fiction title that focuses on his life. I was even more chuffed when the good people at Templar asked me if I would be interested in taking part in Harriet's blog tour, and I feel honoured to be launching that tour for Harriet here on The Book Zone with her post about the enduring appeal of Henry.
What is it with Henry?
by H.M. Castor
When you hear the name Henry VIII, what image springs to mind? A big-bellied guy with a beard, standing with his legs apart, eyeballing you from a 16th-century painting? Or one of the Horrible Histories actors singing ‘Divorced, Beheaded and Died’, complete with the actions? Or perhaps Jonathan Rhys Meyers, as he appeared in the recent US TV series The Tudors, pouting moodily from a poster, draped in velvet and a wife or two?
Henry always seems to be with us in some form. Every historic house with a Henrician connection trumpets it to the rafters. Tony Robinson digs up his palaces on Time Team, David Starkey stalks through his chapels and libraries (when he’s not making incendiary appearances on Newsnight), and exhibitions of Henry’s armour /paintings /favourite ship are perennially popular. Why? Revolutionary things happened in Henry’s reign – that’s true. But some pretty nation-shaking events occurred in the time of Charles I and Oliver Cromwell, for example, and we don’t seem to find those men – as personalities – so enduringly fascinating.
The wife-killing aspect shouldn’t be underestimated, of course. Henry’s been called ‘the English Bluebeard’ and there’s a grisly fascination embedded in that ‘Divorced, Beheaded, Died’ rhyme. But I think Henry’s status as a national icon rests on something else as well. Something of which we’re not, perhaps, consciously aware. Something that an in-depth knowledge of the Star Wars films might help illuminate. Let me explain.
Henry was a brilliant youth – unusually virtuous, we’re told, and built most definitely in the heroic mould: over six foot tall, muscular, good-looking and (annoyingly for his friends, no doubt) ridiculously talented at sports. His particular passion was for what today would be called an ‘extreme sport’: jousting. A sport so dangerous, men regularly made their wills before playing.
He had all this… and yet he turned, to use a well-known phrase, to the dark side.
This is an archetypal story, a fallen angel story – it’s like a myth, or a fairytale; one of those story patterns that have fascinated people of all ages for centuries. I suspect that if we don’t know this consciously, we sense it by instinct.
George Lucas has talked freely about how much use he made of myths and archetypes in the Star Wars screenplays. And one of the most crucial moments in the writing of my book VIII was the moment I realised just how similar Henry’s story is to Anakin Skywalker’s. Anakin: the young hero who becomes Darth Vader. He’s a golden, heroic youth who turns to the dark side – like Henry. He’s addicted to risk, to dangerous sports – like Henry. He’s very close to his mother – like Henry. And he loses her when he’s young – also like Henry.
In watching Anakin on-screen, we identify with his grief, his struggles with the temptations of the dark side… Why, I began to wonder, had no one ever shown me this aspect of Henry? Yes, there are plenty of books about him, and you can find detailed, fascinating accounts of what he did as well as speculation as to why – he needed a son, he was tired of his wife – but I’ve never read anything that made me identify with him… that drew me right into his mind, and made me understand why he acted in the extraordinary way he did.
The key to that question – why? – lies, I believe, in Henry’s childhood and teenage years: dramatic, traumatic years that usually we simply don’t hear about. And, despite the gap of half a millennium, there is so much here that modern readers can relate to: losing a parent; sibling rivalry; being the ‘other one’, not the favourite; desperate feelings of inadequacy. To top all that, just imagine: you are handed absolute power at 17 years of age. At your coronation you are anointed with holy oil – you and everyone around you believes this makes your very flesh divine. What does that do to your head?
In writing VIII I’ve set out to answer that question. I’ve taken the reader right inside Henry’s mind, not just to find the answer, but to experience it too.
My huge thanks to Harriet for taking the time to write this post. I have read VIII and will post my review fairly soon - not only is it a brilliant historical read, but it is also a pretty scary thriller and I have a feeling it will become a popular book with both teens and adults.