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Boyd Tonkin: Rescuing the Tudor court from cliché and melodrama

So often in recent years a playground for the maverick judge, the runaway panel, the perverse decision, yesterday the Man Booker Prize rewarded a genuinely outstanding novel.

Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall deserves its long-foretold triumph even though – my only proviso – it ends mid-stream in summer 1535. The final acts of Thomas Cromwell's tale, as the arriviste fixer who opened every door for his master Henry VIII, remain untold. But this is a novel from an author who credits readers with the nous to foresee the end of a story – or of history's sick joke – from its beautifully rendered beginnings.

Remember that Pat Barker, who should have won the Booker with the first volume of her First World War trilogy, Regeneration, had to wait until the slight anticlimax of The Ghost Road. So why not strike while the iron is hot? Some of our idioms – and Mantel deploys a salty, flinty language superbly well without ever sliding into Ye Olde Tudor costume-drama pastiche – would have sounded very familiar to Cromwell, the Putney blacksmith's clever son.

And so would much else about today's princes and courtiers to the ringmaster of a spectacular, and blood-stained, political circus. In the 1530s, as now, the savage quest to grasp and keep high office enlists grand ideas – the reformed religion and Renaissance humanism, in the case of Cromwell and his adversary Thomas More – with a mixture of shameless opportunism and genuine idealism.

When Mantel's Cromwell stands up for Protestant liberty of conscience, she shows him as a pragmatic adopter of high-status new ideas but also as a spokesman for values that should persist. In her work, shining ideals and their tarnished promoters can never be separated for long.

Mantel has always written brilliantly about the operation of power. Above all, she focuses on those turning points of breakthrough and breakdown where personal and public motivations intersect. If Wolf Hall achieves the near-impossible task of rescuing the Tudor court saga from cliché and melodrama, it also slots neatly into a body of work that looks shrewdly behind the robes and the words of the mighty.

Wolf Hall begins with a thrashed child; it ends with Cromwell imagining the execution of his nemesis, with More's "lips moving in his final prayer".