A Gray Wrinkled Vastness.

I’ve finally started Wolf Hall, as various readers have been urging me to do for some years now, and I’m as gripped by it as I expected to be. I’ve come down with a bad cold, so I won’t try to say anything clever about it, I’ll just quote the last paragraph of the first chapter (“Across the Narrow Sea, 1500”). Thomas Cromwell, not yet fifteen, is fleeing his native Putney to escape his terrifyingly brutal father, crossing from Dover to Calais; Kat is his (older, married) sister:

The weather is cold but the sea is flat. Kat has given him a holy medal to wear. He has slung it around his neck with a cord. It makes a chill against the skin of his throat. He unloops it. He touches it with his lips, for luck. He drops it; it whispers into the water. He will remember his first sight of the open sea: a gray wrinkled vastness, like the residue of a dream.

A passage like that is all it takes to make me happy to follow wherever its author wants to take me.

Incidentally, if anyone’s wondering what I’m reading to my wife these days (I realized on the first page that Wolf Hall was not suitable bedtime reading), it’s Barchester Towers. We’re both enjoying it greatly, so we’ll probably be occupied with Trollope for quite some time to come.


  1. The “wrinkled” imagery immediately reminded me of Tennyson:

    The Eagle

    He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
    Close to the sun in lonely lands,
    Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.

    The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
    He watches from his mountain walls,
    And like a thunderbolt he falls.

  2. Yup, I imagine she had that in mind. (And what an unforgettable poem that is — I read it sometime in elementary school, and it’s been engraved in my memory ever since.)

  3. Ah, Trollope can keep you going for years! As good as Dickens or Patrick O’Brian. Throw in a Wilkie Collins every now and then as a chaser, and by the time you’re ready to cycle back to Austen you’ll have forgotten how Persuasion turns out and you can just start over.

  4. marie-lucie says

    I did not know The Eagle, easy to memorize I think, with all these kr ‘s …

  5. The sea cannot be wrinkled too much, because it is flat. But it is a beautiful paragraph nonetheless.

  6. Michael E. says

    The wrinkles in the sea are waves.

  7. Sure it can, if there are no swells, the wind-ripples show up all the more.

  8. Yeah, “flat” in “the sea is flat” doesn’t mean completely smooth, it means flat compared to how you expect the Channel to be.

  9. La Horde Listener says

    “Umka” – cartoon whith (their typo) English subtitles Watch online, on YouTube, posted by Russian Animation. Around 8:45 in, the English translation reads “We swim on an ice-floe like on a ship / through grey-haired rough seas.” That has to be the prettiest lullaby ever…

  10. Sir JCass says

    Perhaps appropriately, the image of the “wrinkled sea” goes back to Tudor times. From Philip Sidney’s Arcadia:

    And amidst the precious things were a number of dead bodies, which likewise did not only testify both elements’ violence, but that the chief violence was grown of human inhumanity : for their bodies were full of grisly wounds, and their blood had (as it were) filled the wrinkles of the sea’s visage ; which it seemed the sea would not wash away, that it might witness that it is not always its fault when we do condemn its cruelty

  11. AJP Crown says

    Why isn’t it suitable bedtime reading, Language? I bought my mother the audio books’ version, as well as the books themselves, and the little I heard sounded perfect reading-aloud material.

  12. It starts with a graphic description of a brutal, bloody beating. My wife doesn’t like that sort of thing at any time, much less just before she’s going to try to get to sleep.

  13. marie-lucie says

    I wouldn’t like it at bedtime either.

  14. “Grey-haired seas” is wonderful. Why didn’t Homer think of that one?

  15. marie-lucie says

    The sea is grey under the grey skies of the North, but dark blue under the intense blue of the Mediterranean sky.

  16. Well, Homer does actually talk about “the gray sea” — even, at least once, in the same line that he also uses the more famous “wine-dark sea”. I bet he would have used “gray-haired sea” if he’d thought of it, since he seems to have liked hairy epithets (long-haired Achaeans and so on).

  17. David Marjanović says

    Color words in Ancient Greek in general and Homer in particular seem to be very confusing from a Standard Average European point of view; I know that a lot has been written about them. What word did he use in “the gray sea”, and was it even applicable to hair?

  18. FWIW, Russian word for gray-haired, седой /sedoj/ is different from gray as color, серый /serɨj/. The two words might very well be etymologically related, but it does not seem to be known how. Потому что было это в седой старине (because it was in the gray-haired days of yore).

  19. What word did he use in “the gray sea”, and was it even applicable to hair?

    πολιός, and yes, it’s the normal word for “gray” as a descriptor of hair (in fact that is its most common usage according to the dictionaries). Iron and wolves are also described as πολιός.

  20. David Marjanović says

    Interesting that πολιός doesn’t seem to ever occur in scientific names…

  21. Except for polio, you mean…

  22. David Marjanović says

    Oh, it’s about the gray matter! I was wondering. 🙂

  23. D.O.’s comment is striking because “flat” is probably the very, very last English adjective any native English speaker would ever, under any circumstances, use to describe the sea. At least, any who have ever spent even two minutes at sea.

  24. marie-lucie says

    Homer’s sea colours

    Even in the Mediterranean, the sky is not always blue, so the sea then appears closer to grey. Perhaps the adjective connotes bad weather.

    As for wine-dark, it probably refers to the intensity of the colour, not the actual hue.

  25. gwenllian says

    Apparently the word sinje used here in the common expression sinje more means gray, too. More precisely, it means the color of ash. Amazing how I’ve never much wondered what it means. If someone had told me it was a color, I’d have assumed it to be some nuance of blue.

  26. As is Russian синий. The etymology has nothing to do with ash (not that you were implying it did).

  27. gwenllian says

    Yes, for etymology our notoriously unreliable online dictionary just says: prasl. *sinjь (rus. sínij, polj. siy) ≃ lit. šyvas: bijel. So, the Lithuan cognate means white? What was the PIE word?

    Unlike in Russian, the word is completely obsolete here outside of this expression, and (according to the online dictionary) the expression sinja kukavica (kukavica – coward), which I’ve never heard before. The only words still used for nuances of blue are plavo and modro. I have to say I find sinje more a bit more interesting now that I associate it with gray.

  28. Derksen (s.v. *sìvъ “grey”, he doesn’t reference siniy) reconstructs a PIE *k’iH1-wó- for the family of *sìvъ and Lith. šyvas. He only adduces Sanscrit śyāvá- ‘dark brown, dark’ (<*kieh1-wó-).
    In general, if you look at IE colour terms, my Impression is that PIE only had "white / bright", "black / dark", and "red", and everything else was up for grabs and could be assigned any value in the daughter languages.

  29. Estonian etymological dictionary:
    sinine : sinise : sinist ‘rukkilille, linaõie, pilvitu taeva värvi’ (the color of the cornflower, flax flower, cloudless sky)
    ? ← algindoiraani (Old Indo-Iranian)
    puštu šīn ‘sinine; roheline’ (blue, green)
    pärsia χašīn ‘sinakas, sinetav’ (bluish)
    ● liivi si’ņņi ‘sinine’
    vadja sinin ‘sinine’
    soome sininen ‘sinine’
    isuri sinniin ‘sinine’
    Aunuse karjala sinine ‘sinine’
    lüüdi šińińe ‘sinine’
    vepsa sińińe ‘sinine’
    ersa seń ‘sinine’
    mokša śeńəm ‘sinine’


  30. Oh, this is great news! I just finally started Bringing Up The Bodies, which starts off perhaps even more promisingly!

  31. She gets better and better! Waiting impatiently for the third novel…

  32. Incidentally, if anyone’s wondering what I’m reading to my wife these days (I realized on the first page that Wolf Hall was not suitable bedtime reading), it’s Barchester Towers. We’re both enjoying it greatly, so we’ll probably be occupied with Trollope for quite some time to come.

    Update: Having finished all the Barchester novels but the first, The Warden, and all the parliamentary (“Palliser”) novels, we decided to finally read The Warden, which was not very good — he was still learning how to write novels, I guess — and since it’s been three and a half years and we’ve forgotten most of the plot of Barchester Towers, we’ve just started a reread.

    Also, still waiting impatiently for Mantel’s third novel…

  33. Alas, Mantel has left us this week.

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