|Brother Cadfael creator: Ellis Peters
Brother Cadfael was a monk in the Benedictine abbey of St Peter and St Paul in 12th century Shrewsbury, near the Welsh Border. When we meet him in the first novel, he's a "squat, barrel-chested, bandy-legged veteran of fifty-seven". He'd spent the first two thirds of his working life as a soldier, fighting in the crusades, and as a sea captain about the coasts of the Holy Land, before giving it up for the monastic life. "He saw no contradiction in the delight he had taken in battle and adventure, and the keen pleasure he now found in quietude. Spiced, to be truthful with more than a little mischief when he could get it." And he hadn't always been celibate, but remembered "ladies, in more lands than one, with whom he had enjoyed encounters pleasurable to both parties, and no harm to either". It is because of all this past experience that he is able to act as such an effective bridge between the enclosed monastic world and the bustling world outside.
Now he's happily growing herbs in his retirement: "When you have done everything else, perfecting a conventual herb-garden is a fine and satisfying thing to do." He's able to "medicine not only the brothers, but many who came for help in their troubles .... He had not been bred to this science, he had learned it by experience, by trial and study, accumulating knowledge over the years, until some preferred his ministrations to those of the acknowledged physicians". It almost seems a pity that his work is being constantly interrupted by so mysterious disappearances and unexplained stabbings - but he obviously enjoys the constant challenges.
He was the creation of Ellis Peters, the pseudonym of Edith (Mary) Pargeter (1913-1995). She was born in Horsehay in Shropshire and lived there all her life, except during the Second World War when she served in the Women's Royal Naval Service in Liverpool. She was awarded the British Empire Medal in 1944. She wrote numerous books, but her first Brother Cadfael story (A Morbid Taste for Bones) did not appear until 1977. She explains how Cadfael came into being: "He emerged as the necessary protagonist when I had the idea of deriving a plot for a murder mystery from the true history of Shrewsbury Abbey in the twelfth century, and needed the high mediaeval equivalent of a detective, an observer and agent of justice in the centre of the action. I had no idea then what I was launching on the world, nor to how demanding a mentor I was subjecting myself".
She adopted the name of Ellis Peters for her crime novels, so as not to get them confused with her other work - but, in fact, she found she was to have little time for anything else (in the end, there were 20 Cadfael novels plus a book of short stories). She explained that, for her, a thriller must be a morality story. "If it strays from the side of the angels, provokes total despair ... takes pleasure in evil, that is unforgivable ... It is probably true that I am not very good at villains. The good interests me so much more."
She was also well known for her translations of Czech classics. In addition, she wrote under the names of Peter Benedict, Jolyon Carr and John Redfern.
A Morbid Taste for Bones (1977)
There are amusing decriptions of the monks, including Prior Robert who "was more than six feet tall, attenuated and graceful, silver-grey of hair at fifty, blanched, and beautiful of visage, with long aristocratic features and lofty marble brow. There was no man in the midland shires would look more splendid in a mitre, superhuman in height and authority, and there was no man in England better aware of it, or more determined to prove it at the earliest opportunity. His very motions, sweeping across the chapter-house to his stall, understudied the pontificate".
The interplay beween the monks is well caught too, as when Cadfael's assistant, young Brother John (who shares Cadfael's sense of mischief), is reproved for introducing too much drama and gusto into a refectory reading: "You read for the glory of God and the saints, brother," Columbanus reminded him, with loving reproof and somewhat offensive humility, "not for your own!" (which, the author comments, "showed how little he knew about it, or how false he could be, one or the other".) "The blessed thought is ever in my mind," said Brother John with irrepressible zest, and winked at Cadfael behind his colleague's back."
It is the humour and Cadfael's humanity that bring the book to life. During boring chapter meetings, for example, it was Cadfael's "habit to employ the time to good account by sleeping, which from long usage he could do bolt upright and undetected in his shadowy corner. He had a sixth sense which alerted him at need, and brought him awake instantly and plausibly. He had even been known to answer a question pat, when it was certain he had been asleep when it was put to him". The action sequences may not always be as exciting as they might be, but Cadfael himself is always convincing.
One Corpse Too Many (1979)
Suspects include his illegitimate son, and his widow, Richildis, who turns out to be the girl that Cadfael had been"affianced" to 42 years earlier, before he'd left for the Holy Land: "He'd delayed his coming far too long; and she, for all her pledges to wait for him, had tired at last and succombed to her parents' urgings, and married a more stable character". Gervase Bonel had been her second husband.
But the main suspect, who is vigorously pursued by the aggressive sergeant (temporarily in charge in Beringar's absence) is Edwin, her 14 year old son by her first marriage, a resourceful lad who needs all the help he can get from his near-twin, his sister's son, 14 year old Edwy (yes, it is all rather confusing), and the resourceful Cadfael. It seems a rather prolonged story, told at a leisurely pace, but Cadfael himself is never boring: When the unctuous Brother Jerome reports him for seeing too much of Richildis, he thinks, "God forgive me, if I could wring your scrawny neck now, I would do it and rejoice". Prior Robert found Cadfael "a man who always caused him slight discomfort, as though he found in Cadfael's blunt, practical, tolerant self-sufficiency a hidden vein of satire and amusement".
Saint Peter's Fair (1981)
It's no wonder that rioting breaks out. Then a rich merchant is found murdered, and Cadfael, Beringar and the merchant's niece, Emma, and her admirer soon get further involved. It all gets very complicated, with Emma seeming to conceal a secret that turns out to threaten her life, but Cadfael puzzles out what is going on, and even has (a little) time to wonder if prayer can "have a retrospective effect upon events, as well as influencing the future.... It was a most delicate and complex theological problem, never as far as he knew, raised before". Anyway, it all builds up to a dramatic rescue attempt.
The Leper of St Giles (1981)
You can guess which of the unhappy couple is murdered. The chief suspect, helped by an old leper called Lazarus, disguises himself as a leper and takes refuge at the Saint Giles leper hospice. Cadfael is as shrewd as ever, but Hugh Beringar is away looking after affairs at his manor in the north, so there is not the usual interplay beween them, and the story does seem rather long drawn-out, ending with a final, if improbable, revelation of Lazarus' real identity.
The Virgin in the Ice (1982)
The historical background of war-torn countryside is well handled, but some of the characters are not all that interesting or convincing, as when one of the suspects says, "Dead! Dead? In her youth, in her beauty - trusting me. Dead! Oh, stones of this house, fall and cover me, unhappy! Bury me out of the sight of men". Although dramatic things happen, they are not as exciting and unpredictable as, for example, those in the Sister Fidelma stories.
In the end, Cadfael realises that the young man who rescues the boy and is in love with the girl, must be his own son, whom he has never seen before (his mother had been a young widow in Antioch whom Cadfael had met during the Crusades). Berengar's son too has now been born: "What a bedevilment of all our values," he tells Cadfael, "is this civil war!" "Not at all," said Cadfaerl sturdily. "There never was, for all I could ever learn, a time when living was easy and peaceful. Your boy will grow up into a better ordered world." If only.
The Sanctuary Sparrow (1983)
There are other interesting characters too, including the formidable old lady, Dame Juliana, who had little time for anyone except Brother Cadfael who tends her ailments. She was determined to greet him "with all the presence and assurance of a healthy old lady in full command of her household .... He knew she was in no such matter, and she knew that he knew it. She had a foot in the grave, and sometimes felt it sinking under her and drawing her in. But this was a final game they played together, in respect and admiration if not in love or even liking". Her grand-daughter, Susanna, is another formidable character, and the scene in which her brother's new wife tries to get the keys of the house off her is another of those domestic scenes that Peters handles so well. Then there's a dramatic conclusion in which Liliwin's acrobatic skills are really put to the test. It's all very convincing.
The Devil's Novice (1983)
The other candidate, Meriet Aspley, a young man of 19, is accepted but there is obviously something odd about him. He has such appalling nghtmares that he soon earns the nickname of The Devil's Novice and even assaults the smarmy Brother Jerome. On Cadfael's suggestion, Meriet is sent to help the saintly young Mark with his work among the lepers at Saint Giles. Then Cadfael helps High Beringar (yet again conveniently left in charge because of his superior's absence) to find out what has happened to a missing churchman - and this in turn leads him to discover the real cause of Meriet's distress.
Dead Man's Ransom (1984)
Gilbert Prescote is badly wounded and captured by the Welsh. Eventually, he is exchanged for Elis, a Welsh prisoner - but ends up murdered. Perhaps by now the author had run out of reasons for sending him away from Shewsbury so that Beringar could be left in charge, and saw this as a happy opportunity of getting rid of him entirely. Elis has a foster brother Eliud with whom he's been inseparable since childhood (Ellis Peters always seems attracted by the idea of inseparable young men with similar names), and one eventually gives his life for the other, but their actions, characters and love affairs don't seem all that probable.
Cadfael himself seems encouraged to do whatever he wants by his very compliant abbot, and can even entertain a visiting nun of his acquaintance: "If you have an hour to spare," said Cadfael heartly, "come and share a flask of wine of my own making in the herb-garden". But it's not one of his most interesting cases, partly because Ellis Peters isn't at her best with violent battle scenes.
The Pilgrim of Hate (1984)
But among the pilgrims are some strange customers, including 16 year old Rhun with one leg so "twisted and feebled" that he needs crutches to get along. There are also a pair of the (usual) inseparable young men, Ciaran (walking barefoot with " a great heavy cross on a string round his neck, too, and he rubbed raw with the chafing of it ... He said he was under vow to go unshod to his journey's end") and Matthew, who seems to be looking after him.
Olivier de Bretagne also appears. He is actually Cadfael's son but doesn't know it. His face, Beringar notices, was "worth studying, clean-boned, olive-skinned. fiercely beautiful, even with the golden falcon's eyes thus hooded". Unfortunately he is on the Empress Maud's side and Beringar supports Stephen. But with all these characters and such a background, an interesting lively plot unfolds, and there's even a highly dramatic moment when what seems like a real miracle occurs. Recommended.
An Excellent Mystery (1985)
Two refugees from the Winchester priory seek shelter at the abbey in Shrewsbury, one called Humilis, a monk who had been very badly wounded in the crusades, and his ever faithful companion Fidelis with "clear ivory skin, smooth and youthful", but who is dumb. The lustful monk Urien has his eye on him as well as on the handsome 16 year old, Rhun, whom we met in the previous story. In the choir Urien watches them both: "Their youth and beauty seemed to gather to itself what light there was, so that they shone with a native radiance of their own, like lighted candles .... They had both begun - dreadful sign! - to look to him like the woman (his ex-wife)". Could there be a clue here?
Then young squire Nicholas Harnage sets about trying to track down what happened to a young nun who, he is afraid, may have perished in the fire at the Winchester nunnery. It all gets very complicated and is certainly as mysterious as the title suggests, and builds up to a surprising (if not absolutely convincing) conclusion. Cadfael is less prominently featured than sometimes, which is always a pity, but there's still plenty going on.
The Raven in the Foregate (1986)
A new priest for the neighbouring Church of the Holy Cross arrives. He is Father Ailnoth ("a man with every virtue, except humility and human kindness") so ends up dead in the river. A young so-called servant who came to Shreswbury with Ailnoth, and calls himself Benet, is sent to work with Cadfael. He has "a guileless face, but for the suppressed smoulder of mischief in the wide hazel eyes" which is the author's way of telling us that he is not just a servant. Meanwhile Berengar is searching for one Ninian Bachiler, an envoy sent by Empress Maud who is now trying to flee the country. You can guess what happens: Cadfael tricks Benet into revealing his real identity, and, as usual, all ends happily, and, thanks to more trickery, this time from Beringar, the true cause of Ailnoth's death is revealed. "You are a devious creature," Cadfael told Hugh Beringar. "Like calling to like," replied Hugh.
The Rose Rent (1986)
Amongst Judith's secret admirers is young monk Brother Eluric, who has been brought up in the abbey since he was three years old, so kept away from women all this time. Abbot Radulfus is glad they'll no longer be accepting these young boys: "Sooner or later a woman must cross their path, terrible as an army with banners, and those wretched children without arms or armour to withstand the onslaught! We wrong women, and we wrong these boys, to send them unprepared into maturity, whole men defenceless against the first pricking of the flesh". There's a sort of sweet innocence about the author's handling of all this, and about her choice of words, but she always seems happiest to refer to monks' sexuality (if she has to refer to it at all) in a discreet rather romantic way.
The rose bush is destroyed and "two deaths and a disappearance, all circling round the same lady and her dealings with the abbey, demanded very close attention". Cadfael sets about matching boots to find the culprit. Then there's a sudden happy ending. Not one of the author's most realistic or gripping stories.
The Hermit of Eyton Forest (1987)
The actual story-telling is very well done, and the reader's attention is held throughout, as when we are told that the boy has some important secret information but we have to wait to find out what it is. Recommended.
The Confession of Brother Haluin (1988)
Haluin unexpectedly recovers, although with badly damaged feet, and, as a self-imposed penance for his sin, painfully hobbles off on crutches, accompanied by Cadfael, determined to travel on foot all the way to the scene of his offence so many years before. Amongst those he meets there are a young couple whose union is being prevented because they are believed to be too closely related. He sees this "rounded, fresh-faced girl, no more than seventeen or eighteen, half her oval countenance two great startled eyes and the wide, high forehead above them, white and smooth as pearl. Haluin uttered a strange, soft cry in his throat, between gasp and sigh, clutched at his crutches and heaved himself to his feet, staring at this sudden glowing apparition .... the crutches slid and fell from under him, and he went down on his face in a gradual, crumpled fall, and lay senseless in the rushes of the floor." Guess why! Oh yes, someone gets stabbed too, before it's all sorted out.
The Heretic's Apprentice (1989)
There's a strong story involving Elave's developing love for beautful Fortunata, for whose dowry William had intended that the box and its contents should be used. When one of her household is stabbed in the back, Cadfael and Beringar soon get involved. Cadfael is convinced that Elave cannot be the murderer partly because, if it had been him, the stabbing would have been carried out face to face (an argument we've heard Cadfael used before about characters he likes).
I particularly liked this book because of the very convincing monastic setting with all too credible disagreements between senior clergy (some quite saintly and others, like the visiting Canon Gerbert, distinctly unpleasant) and the theological ideas that are raised, as when Elave is not only suspected of murder but accused of heresy. He is accused because "he does not believe that children who die unbaptised are doomed to reprobation ... he does not believe in original sin ... he holds that a man can, by his own acts, make his own way towards salvation ... and he rejects what Saint Augustine wrote of predestination, that the number of elect is already chosen and cannot be changed, and all others are doomed to reprobation". But, as Elave had discovered from his reading while imprisoned, "This Augustine went through many changes of mind over the years", and Cadfael could not but agree as Augustine was a saint of whom he too "was not as fond as he might have been". Recommended.
The Potter's Field (1989)
Another suspect is Sulien Blount, a young novice monk from sacked Ramsey Abbey, who had once been in love with the missing woman, and whose brother was now lord of a neighbouring manor. Brother Jerome gets suspicious when Ruald and Sulien meet each other and talk at the abbey. "Jerome had watched avidly, and was no wiser. This aggrieved him. He took pride in knowing everything that went on within and around the abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, and his reputation would suffer if he allowed this particular obscurity to go unprobed". So interfere he does.
It's an interesting situation that gets off to a good start, but the solution takes a long time coming, and there are lots of lengthy conversations but hardly any exciting action. Cadfael's "besetting sin of curiosity" had soon got him involved and, as always, he was encouraged to take time off by Abbot Radolfus (but not by Prior Robert who, understandably enough, "considered that Cadfael was far too often allowed a degree of liberty outside the enclave that offended the prior's strict interpretation of the Rule"). But it's all rather ponderous, and the ending, when it comes. is more surprising than convincing.
Summer of the Danes (1991)
The two of them become the prisoners of invading Danes from Dublin who have come to support the treacherous Cadwaladr, who is in revolt against his brother, the prince Owain Gwynmead. Mark manages to become an envoy for the prince, then a hostage. It all gets very Welsh and confusing (this time there are two sets of young men who could be twins), and there'a love story too involving Heledd, a headstrong young woman (whose father had arranged her engagement to a Welshman she had never met) and one of the Danish leaders. But it all ends happily. Somehow you knew it would.
The Holy Thief (1992)
Theft (of St Winifred's coffin, no less) and murder soon occur, and Brother Cadfael is kept as busy as usual. Other memorable characters include the shrewd and powerful Robert Beaumont, Earl of Leicester, and Daalny, the very independently-minded slave girl, who has been made to sing for the wandering musician who had bought her, but falls for Tutilo. It is she who points out that "these monastics, they are what they are born, only with a vengeance. If they come into the world hard and cold, they end up harder and colder, if they come generous and sweet, they grow ever sweeter and more generous".
Amongst the numerous interesting parts is the description of the sortes Biblicae, when a Bible is opened at random to reveal a message from, on this occasion, St Winifred herself, who is being asked to adjudicate where her bones should rest. Miraculously apt responses are found for the three applicants, then the Bible's pages are turned without human help (by the wind? Cadfael thinks not) to reveal the verse: "And the brother shall deliver up the brother to death". But which brother was the murderer and how could he slip away from the monastery at night without being seen? "There are," Cadfael reminded Abbot Rudolfus, " ways in and out for any determined to pass". "The abbot met his eyes without a smile; he was always in command of his countenance. For all that, there was not much in this household that Rudulfus did not know. There had been times when Cadfael had both departed and returned by night, without passing the gatehouse, on urgent matters in which he found justification for absence. " "No doubt you speak out of long experience," said the abbot. It is this interplay beween the monks, and the historical accuracy of it all, together with the humor, that make the story sound so real. And. in the end, even the "lurking" Brother Jerome gets his uppance, and in a most surprising way. Recommended.
Brother Cadfael's Penance (1994)
Cadfael becomes involved in a major siege of the castle in which his son is held, before eventually returning to Shropshire, fearful that his monastery will no longer accept him. "I have sinned," he told himself. 'I have forsaken the house and the Order to which I swore stability. I have gone after my own desires, and no matter if those desires were devoted all to the deliverance of my son, it was sin to prefer them before the duty I had freely and gladly assumed as mine. And it it was all to do again, would I do otherwise than I have done? No, I would do the same. A thousand times over, I would do the same. And it would still be sin .... You do what you must do, and pay for it. "
The story itself is far from simple, as there's a great deal of complicated politics and detailed accounts of warfare in it, and I didnt find Cadfael's developing relationship with his idealised son and his captor entirely convincing. It makes an interesting comparison with the first Cadfael book: the plot is very much stronger, but Cadfael himself is much less quirky and entertaining. But then Ellis Peters was in her eighties when she wrote it.
A Rare Benedictine (1988)
The first of them, A Light on the Road to Woodstock (1985), is the most interesting as it tells the story of how Cadfael became a monk in 1120. But it doesn't really explain very much, for, as Ellis Peters points out in her introduction, he "is not a convert, for this is not a conversion. ... Cadfael had always been an unquestioning believer. What happens to him on the road to Woodstock is simply the acceptance of a revelation from within that the life he has lived to date, active, mobile and often violent, has reached its natural end, and he is confronted by a new need and a different challenge". There is more explanation here than in the story that is all about a dispute at Woodstock about ownership of land beween Prior Heribert of Shrewsbury (who is kidnapped on his way to the trial and freed by Cadfael) and Cadfael's old master, Roger Maduit (whose life is also saved by Cadfael).
Cadfael, whose full name turns out to be Cadfael ap Meilyr ap Dafydd, had spent 17 years at the wars. He is described as "blunt and insubordinate" but "experienced and accomplished in arms, a man of his word, once given, and utterly reliable in whatever situation on land or sea". He is "a broad-set, sturdy. muscular man in his healthy prime, brown-haired and brown-skinned from easrern suns and outdoor living ... A comely enough face, strongly featured, with the bold bones of his race - there had been women, in his time, who had found him handsome". It seems all the stranger that, at the end of the story, he should suddenly turn to Prior Heribert and say: "Father, here am I at the turning of my life, free of one master's service, and finished with arms. Take me with you!"
The Price of Light (1979) sees Cadfael well established in the abbey at Shrewsbury, when Hamo Fitzhammon arrives with a gift of fine silver candlesticks for the altar. "Though a gross feeder, a heavy drinker, a self-indulgent lecher, a harsh landlord and a brutal master, he had reached the age of sixty in the best of health, and it came as a salutary shock to him when he was at last taken with a mild seizure, and for the first time in his life saw the next world yawning before him" - hence the gift. "Abbot Heribert, who after a long life of reated disillusionment still contrived to think the best of everybody, was moved to tears by this penitential generosity". Cadfael "said nothing. and waited to observe and decide for himself. Not that he expected much; he had been in the world fifty-five years, and learned to temper all his expctations, bad or good".
Cadfael is quick to notice the pretty girl who comes with Hamo: "This girl must be a second or third wife, a good deal younger than her stepson, and a beauty at that. Hamo was secure enough and important enough to keep himself supplied wiith wives as he wore them out". There's a toughness about the writing here, and humor and even sacasm as when the author tells us that Abbot Heribert "was no drinker, and could have little in common with Hamo Fitzhamon. Apart, of course, from a deep devotion to the altar of St Mary".
The candlesticks are stolen, and a special draught that Cadfael prepared to help Hamo's wife to get to sleep is given by her to her loutish husband so that she can meet her lover late at night in the wooden hut where Cadfael mixes and stores his medicines. Hearing them whispering together, "Cadfael withdrew very circumspectly from the herb garden", Subsequently he even resorted to a little blackmail to secure her support in preventing Hamo wrongfully calling a runaway maid servant a thief. Cadfael comes across again as a very real character.
Eye Witness is a more conventional story about a chief steward of the abbey, Master William Rede, who is robbed and thrown into the river. Cadfael patiently looks after his injuries: "A knock on the head like that will have addled his wits.We'll need to tell him things before he tells us any". But even when he can talk, he can't say anything that helps to identify his attacker. Then Cadfael remembers an old beggar whose attic overlooked the scene of the crime, and began spreading a rumour that he might have seen what happened. The assailant falls into the trap, tries to attack him, and is caught. But, as usual, Ellis Peters seems happier describing human relationships (including monastic in-fighting) than tackling dramatic set pieces of this sort.
13 of the books were made into TV films (1994-6), impressively shot on location in Hungary, and are available on DVD. Ellis Peters was very unsure about this (for one thing, the film-makers abandoned Welsh accents in case Americans wouldn't understand them), but they were very well-made. Derek Jacobi made an excellent Cadfael, although the producers had at first felt that he was "too posh"and he needed Ellis Peters' support to win them round.
If you watch all the TV episodes, you'll see that Hugh Beringar seems to change his appearance - this is because he was eventually played by three different actors, because of availability problems! Jacobi comments that the episodes looked more convincing as the series developed: the standing sets started to look more weatherworn, and the costumes were made of less colourful materials and looked more like real clothes. But, inevitably, many of Ellis Peters' sub-plots had to be dispensed with, and, Jacobi tells us, she not only eventually accepted this, but even got round to promising, "The next one I write, I'll make sure it will be easier for you all to film". But she never wrote another.
If you're a real enthusiast, you might be interested in Cadfael's Companion, a large encyclopedia listing all the characters and places (real and imaginary) as well as the herbs mentioned in the books, with entries arranged in alphabetical order. Written by Robin Whiteman, it was revised in 1995 so now covers all the books. Used copies are available through Abebooks and Amazon.
|Ellis Peters with Derek Jacobi who played the lead in the successful British TV series.
|The original UK paperback cover was surely the most stylish.
The American paperback cover was less restrained.
A new UK cover was introduced to link up to the TV series. This made commercial sense, but was not so attractive.
The cheapest way to buy the books is to go for the seven paperback omnibus editions.