For the past almost five years, I’ve been making my way through Ellis Peters’s Chronicles of Brother Cadfael. A month or so ago, I read the last full novel in the series, Brother Cadfael’s Penance; and a couple weeks ago, I completed a collection of three stories: A Rare Benedictine: The Advent of Brother Cadfael. I won’t lie: I cried a little when I realized there was no more of my adored Cadfael left to look forward to.
If you’re unfamiliar with this series, it’s about a Benedictine brother in a monastery near the English-Welsh border. The period is the early to mid-12th century; England is being rocked by civil war because Empress Maud and King Stephen can neither defeat one another nor consider retreat. Called to the cloister after living a full life mostly overseas as a crusader, Cadfael spends his days happily tending his garden, mixing up medicines for the abbey hospital, and solving a murder every 1-6 months. Dead people fall into Cadfael’s somewhat nosy lap with disconcerting frequency.
I don’t know, from an aesthetic point of view, how “good” these novels are. Pretty good, I think, overall; sometimes even damned good. Literature? “Literature?” I don’t know. I do know that Peters had me at Cadfael’s first “What have we here?” in A Morbid Taste for Bones.
I also know that Peters was incredibly well-educated, and that she had a god-sized vocabulary, even though there were three words she clearly loved above all others: “snug,” “tolerantly,” and “comfortably.” She was a good, consistent, robust writer, if sometimes tending towards the workman-like—and at other times, although much less frequently, tending towards the purple.
Peters could tell a compelling and convincing tale, and for a non-mystery aficionado like me, she provided exactly the right amount of detail about the detective work. (I love Dorothy L. Sayers, but I’m reminded, as I slowly make my way through Five Red Herrings, that because I’m not a proper true mystery fan, I do sometimes find myself tiring of such details.) Ellis Peters wrote books for the mystery novel layperson.
I think Peters was also the writer responsible for the mad proliferation of whodunnits set in the Middle Ages; go into any secondhand bookshop worth its salt and you’ll find piles of mysteries with covers that look strikingly similar to those gracing the Cadfael chronicles. That’s a pretty good indication of widespread popularity; but I already guessed at their popularity based on how difficult it was to find these books.
I had a running start at them, having owned a bookshop—I liberated most of those in our inventory to my own use once I realized I would undoubtedly be reading all of them. But the books in the upper reaches, especially those after book 11 or so, were very hard to find and I carried around a little printed list and a pen until I managed to find all of them. Booksellers all over this fair province would stare at me in a quiet mixture of surprise and delight when I asked if they had any Cadfaels.
Snug, Comfortable, Tolerant
Reading the tales of Cadfael’s sleuthing was the bookish equivalent of wrapping myself in a cozy blanket and burrowing somewhere warm, with a mug of hot tea and some peanut butter toast to hand. They were, in spite of all the killing, the essence of comfort reading. When I was tired, sad, too busy, frustrated—anything but content and alert and pawing at the ground—these books got me through and over whatever was going on.
And there’s been a lot to get beyond the past several years, such as the closing of a bookstore (a lifelong dream) and moving more times than I can think about without feeling sick. I feel a little lost knowing there isn’t another waiting for me when I need it…but I’m hoping some of her other books (the Brothers of Gwynedd quartet up next) will provide something similar. They aren’t mysteries, but Peters’s passion for Welsh history, only hinted it in the Cadfael books, is given free rein and that’s comforting in itself somehow.
Brother Cadfael is content to move on, and so therefore must I be. But I will miss him in a way I wouldn’t have thought possible with a fictional character (although my feelings upon finishing The Chronicles of Barset were similar in kind, if not in degree). This is how Ellis Peters bid him farewell:
He had never before been quite so acutely aware of the particular quality and function of November, its ripeness and its hushed sadness. The year proceeds not in a straight line through the seasons, but in a circle that brings the world and man back to the dimness and mystery in which both began, and out of which a new seed-time and a new generation are about to begin. Old men, thought, Cadfael, believe in that new beginning, but experience only the ending. It may be that God is reminding me that I am approaching my November. Well, why regret it? November has beauty, has seen the harvest into the barns, even laid by next year’s seed. No need to fret about not being allowed to stay and sow it, someone else will do that. So go contentedly into the earth with the moist, gentle, skeletal leaves, worn to cobweb fragility, like the skins of very old men, that bruise and stain at the mere brushing of the breeze, and flower into brown blotches as the leaves into rotting gold. The colours of the late autumn are the colours of the sunset: the farewell of the year and the farewell of the day. And of the life of man? Well, it it ends in a flourish of gold, that is no bad ending.
No bad ending, indeed.
10 Comments Add yours
I loved the early novels in the series but found that by the end they were becoming a little formulaic. An apparently supernumerary character would be introduced around page 50 whom you might not meet again for another two hundred pages, but you knew they did it – even if it hadn’t been done yet. Nevertheless, that didn’t stop me loving Cadfael to bits.
I once had the pleasure of meeting Ellis Peters, not long before she died. We had given her an honorary degree and she came to the graduation convocation, even though by then she was in a wheelchair. She was a very gracious lady.
I found them to be formulaic too, but not in terms of the murder mystery (likely because I know so little about the genre); I found them formulaic insofar as every novel seemed to feature a young couple meeting and getting together, whether or not doing so was really important to the mystery and its detection.
Wow, you met her! Reason 5,766,821 why it’s better to live in England than anywhere else in the world.
Does anyone know if she intended the books to go forward after #20? I have wondered how she would handle the relationship between Cadfael and Prior Robert Pennant after he became the Abbot in 1148.
I have read all the books on Cadfael and have the complete box set of D.V.D’s. I have watched each episode many times and always wish she had kept it going. I always wonder how it would have ended, perhaps Cadfael becoming Prior, would have loved to see that.
From what I understand, the series ended as Ellis Peters’ life was ending. I loved the series and to those who found them formulaic, I would say that you were reading them for the murder mystery and not for the story. The murders were only the clothes in which Ellis Peters dressed these novels. They are really about Cadfael and his journey.
I loved Cadfael and many of the continuing characters, but I have to admit that I, too, found the books formulaic after awhile — you knew, for instance, if there was a perky young girl and a young man who got accused of a crime, Cadfael would play Cupid for them, one way or the other, before the end of the book.
On the other hand, the wonderfully accurate details of the Middle Ages were very interesting. It’s nice to learn whilst reading, so painless. 🙂
I read them all long ago, and since I joined Scribd, I have started them again. I will say I’m enjoying them more this time than I did then.
This is probably the most read post on this blog, which is both funny and encouraging. I think the internet is maybe the only way the Cadfael-loving diaspora would ever even know we *are* a diaspora rather than isolated readers with odd and dusty tastes shared by no one else… 🙂
I love Cadfael–I own all the novels and read them in sequence, and watched the DVDs. I have the soundtrack CD of the TV series, and also have purchased all the accompanying books I could find–Cadfael’s Book of Days, Cadfael’s Country, etc. I love the stories because of Cadfael himself, but also for the comforting, timeless quality of the books. I don’t really care if the mysteries are formulaic–they are just part of the enjoyment. I’ve gone from reading about Cadfael to praying the Liturgy of the Hours myself–love chanting Lauds and Vespers, and try to do Compline if I’m not too exhausted. ( I use Christian Prayer, the Mundelein Psalter, and refer to online breviaries.) And the quote up above about the life of man and November is one of my favorite all-time quotes from anywhere. What a conclusion to a remarkable series. (Actually it was in the beginning pages of the last and best book–Brother Cadfael’s Penance.) I’ve read quite a few of Ellis Peters’s other books–both historicals and some of her other mysteries, but the Brother Cadfael series is her best work. She herself called the Heaven Tree trilogy her best work, but I disagree. God bless Cadfael–probably my favorite character in all of fiction.
Elizabeth, welcome! I loved your note. I’m looking forward to someday rereading all the Cadfael books…in the meantime, I’m making my way through all EP’s other books (and there are quite a few!). I recently read The Heaven Tree trilogy and loved it; I don’t know if I think they’re better or not as good as Cadfael–while they have the same comforting narrative voice and familiar characterization, the subject matter is different enough to me that I don’t know how to compare them. I hear there are tours of Shrewsbury based on the Cadfael books–have you been?