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Please begin with an informative title:

I first became acquainted with Ellis Peters' medieval detective Brother Cadfael through the good offices of the PBS Mystery series, where Cadfael was played by the wonderful Derek Jacobi, who was also responsible for the indelible portrait of the emperor Claudius in the earlier PBS presentation of the BBC series "I, Claudius" (can you believe that was in 1976? I can't!).

After that if my local used book store didn't have any new SF, I would wander over to the mystery section and look for Dexter Colin's "Inspector Morse" books (also discovered thru PBS--anyone see a pattern here?), or Dick Francis, or Tony Hillerman, or Ellis Peters. It is always nice to have a fair number of things to look for, it increases one's chance of a successful hunt. I can't stand the idea of leaving a book store empty handed. So I collected a number of the Cadfael mysteries over the years.

book cover
The First Cadfael Mystery
One day two or three years ago, when I was looking for something pleasant to read I picked up one of the Cadfael mysteries I had on hand, but hadn't read in awhile, and curled up contentedly to immerse myself in Ellis Peters' world. At some point I realized I was wallowing in pure enjoyment: of the words, the world, the characters, the scenery, the story. I realized I needed more, indeed, I needed ALL the Cadfael books! There are 20 Chronicles of Brother Cadfael, plus the ancillary "A Rare Benedictine" all written between 1977 and 1994. Since the books were popular, as the TV series attests, I thought it would be rather easy to acquire them all. I went to my favorite used book store and discovered there was an empty space on the shelf where the books should be--someone had beaten me by a day or two. I went to every bookstore new and used in my area and discovered the same thing was true. Oh dear! Last year, when I got my iPad, I found out they aren't available as ebooks either. Hummphff! I've been checking them out of my three local libraries, although that isn't quite as satisfying. And surprisingly often the one I'm looking for is already checked out, so I have to wait. But I suppose I'm glad folks are still loving Cadfael, just as I do, and I hope that this little essay will bring even more converts to the cause.

The trauma of discovering the bookstores in my area had been cleaned out shortly before I got there, combined with my realization of just how much I enjoyed the books, caused me to start wondering exactly what it was about Cadfael, his world, and Ellis Peters' writing that gave me such enjoyment. This diary is the result of my pondering the question.

Intro

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First a little about the setting and characters in the books. The time is evidently from 1135 or so, to 1145, with a few tidbits here and there that are earlier, as Cadfael reminisces about his past life. If one also reads "A Rare Benedictine"--which recounts how Cadfael came to be a monk--there is still more earlier material. To put you into that time frame, it is one long life-time after the Norman Conquest of England, in 1066, and a generation before the events involving Henry II and Thomas Beckett, and two generations before Robin Hood. Cadfael's lifetime covered the beginning of the High Middle Ages, after the worst of the barbarian invasions that characterized the dismal post-Roman world (formerly known as the Dark Ages) were over, and before that major shift of human thought brought about by the Renaissance. As epochs in human history go, the High Middle Ages weren't bad. The climate had entered what is generally called "The Medieval Warm Period" which resulted in more land being brought into cultivation and is partially responsible for a significant growth in European population. The end of the worst of the invasions and the development of new, stable social and political institutions to replace the vanished Roman Empire also helped.

What was happening in England during the period covered by the books was a bit rougher than the next period: the Normans had consolidated their power over the English, who might be viewed as an oppressed class. Wales and Scotland were not part of the conquered area, and raiders came over the border to pillage now and again, here and there. Also the succession to the throne of England after the death of Henry I in 1135 was disputed and led to a civil war between his daughter Matilda, called the Empress Maud, and her cousin, King Stephen, a grandson of William the Conquerer. While this led to some bloodshed, it was't quite as much as might be feared, and the disruption in the civil order was somewhat spotty, serious is some areas, not bad in others. The civil war drug on for nearly 20 years, with first one then the other contender having the upper hand. It didn't really end until King Stephen died in 1154 and was succeeded by Matilda's son, Henry II.

Returning to Cadfael, we learn that he had come to the religious life rather late, as an experienced, even worldly, middle-aged man. The monastery where he came to rest was located in Shrewsbury, very near the border with Wales. Cadfael himself was Welsh, and spoke both Welsh and English, plus a bit of French and, as a monk, knew some Latin. He was an expert herbalist, and the de facto apothecary for the monastery, in charge of the herb garden and the compounding of medicine for the monks and for the patients of the hospital supported by the monastery. Because of his wide experience of humanity he had become exceptionally perceptive about the nature of people he meets, and approaches everything with a rather easy going tolerance.

reliquary
Reliquary of Saint Amandus
His best friend is Hugh Beringer, appointed as the Sheriff of Shrewsbury, and thus the law of the land. Think of the Sheriff of Nottingham, only as a good guy, rather than Sheriffs as we know them today. There are a number of notable characters who are Cadfael's fellow monks, including two Abbots, plus an aristocratic Prior and his rather smarmy assistant--who together make the continuing "bad guys"--additional transient villians appear in each case. But perhaps the most unusual character isn't really there at all: Saint Winifred of Wales, dead nearly 500 years. She was introduced in the first book as a major "character" (or perhaps MacGuffin, following Hitchcock's usage), and is present, one way or another, in all the succeeding books. She is there in the form of her reliquary and in the minds of everyone, including Brother Cadfael. In later books he often "talks" to her, and has not the slightest doubt of her reality and kindness.

The plots are not especially tricky or convoluted: a murder is discovered and Cadfael, one way or another, gets involved. Together with his friend Sheriff Beringer the murder is solved and the case brought to a satisfactory, although not always strictly legal, conclusion. Along the way there is generally at least one love story which also needs to be successfully settled, and usually the two plots, murder and love, are intimately intertwined, with the solution of either depending on the solution of both. I find the plots perfectly adequate, they keep my interest and generally surprise me at some point. But it isn't the plots that I love: it is a combination of the characters, the language, the nature of the world Cadfael inhabits, and imagery that is often beautiful, combined with emotional relationships that I find moving and believable.

My formal training was in history, not literature, and whatever artistic talent I have is in the visual arts rather than language arts. So while my tastes in writing may not be as sophisticated as those of many of you, I can and do enjoy language. Here's a sample of a few sentences by Ellis Peters that I particularly enjoyed. They are all from the penultimate book in the series, The Holy Thief, in which Saint Winifred again plays a major role. The page numbers are from the paperback edition:

Crossing the half of Europe overland, long ago, Cadfael had seen gentians in the grass of the mountain meadows, bluer than blue, of the same profound beyond-blue of her eyes.--p 20

But she was not so simple. Women never are, and she was a woman who had experienced more of life than her years would contain.--p 140

Where there's nothing at stake there's no barrier, either. Nothing to join, so nothing to divide them.--p 150

The faint gleam of Tutilo's lamp through the grill high out of her reach fell from above over her face as no more than a glowworm's eerie spark, conjuring out of deep darkness a spectral mask of a face, oval, elusive, with austere carven features, but the remaining light from the west window of the church, hardly less dim, found the large, smoldering luster of her eyes, and a few jeweled points of brightness that were embroidered silver threads along the side hems of her bliaut.--p 198

In thinking about Brother Cadfael's world, as imagined by Ellis Peters, I realized that it reminds me of the world of Pern, as imagined by Anne McCaffrey. In pondering why this was so, and why I enjoy spending time in both worlds, I reached a couple of conclusions that I found interesting.

Aside from both recounting worlds that don't exist, one because it is set in a fictional future of human colonization of other planets, and the other drawing a rather rosy portrait of a world that vanished nearly 900 years ago, it seems to me both have other things in common, besides being "comfort books" for me. Both draw portraits of a world that is in a more human, a more humane scale than our world. People know their neighbors, may have all grown up together, and have many close and diverse relationships with each other. In both worlds a lack of technology means people are much more closely connected to the material world. You can see where your food is coming from: the field down the road is growing the grain that will make the bread you eat, and you may have to get the grain made into flour at the mill on the other side of town, and even make and bake it into bread yourself, or least have helped with such things as a child, and one knows personally those who do such basic work.

Even the characters from whose point of view the stories are told, and with whom we identify, have this in common: they are outsiders, one way or another, and yet manage to become members of a community, while not having to give up their individuality. Thus Cadfael the Welshman, while he doesn't get to go home, nonetheless is accepted in a religious community on the border of Wales, where he is a valuable member of the community and able, sometimes, to visit his homeland. He also frequently deals with fellow countrymen, and even has the "company" of the Welsh saint at all times. So he is an outsider, but in a way has still managed to find his way to a loving home where he is accepted for what he is, and cherished just as he is, and where his unique talents find scope to contribute to the general good.

It is not just the good that is in a human and understandable scale, but the bad as well. In both the Pern and Cadfael series there is evil, but the evil that men do is comprehensible and is stopped, and punished, by good people who are part of the ruling institutions of their society. Perhaps that is the most comforting thing of all about these books.

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Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Mon Nov 19, 2012 at 05:00 PM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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