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.