Brother Cadfael’s Penance

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by Ellis Peters

Published 1994

It took Peters almost 20 years to publish the 20 Cadfael books.  The final installment, Brother Cadfael’s Penance, was published in 1994; Peters (whose actual name was Edith Pargeter) died in 1995 at the age of 82.  I am EXTREMELY glad that she was able to finish this book first.  For me, one of the most beautiful parts of the Cadfael books is the way that they all tie together.  Throughout the series, you not only come to know Cadfael himself, but many of the other brothers and townspeople.  Peters tells the story of a man who has followed his faith throughout his life, first during the Crusades and then as a monk, and who, despite these widely different lifestyles, is at peace with the choices he has made.

I think that it is the very humanness of her characters that makes these books so readable.  She certainly has her share of flat, shallow characters, but the ones who reappear in multiple books definitely take on depth and portray the many facets of human choices and life.  In this final book, Cadfael has to make some of the most difficult choices of his life, decisions that impact not only himself, but the fates of many others, and Peters writes about the agony of those decisions with beauty and poignancy.  Sometimes life does not present us with clear black and white choices, and life never presents us with people who are wholly evil or wholly good.  Dealing with those decisions and individuals is no easy task.

Every time I have reviewed one of these books, I have recommended the series.  This review is no different – these are excellent stories, beautifully written – stories that are not only decent mysteries, but wonderful reflections of humankind.

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The Potter’s Field, Summer of the Danes, and The Holy Thief

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by Ellis Peters

Published 1989, 1991, 1992

Sorry for the long posting delay…  we are in the  midst of moving house (again) so things are more than a bit chaotic around here!  But reading is always a constant, and I have TONS of books to post!!!

All the way back on vacation, I finally finished the Brother Cadfael series.  I’ll talk about the final book later, but first, books 17-19…

As always, excellent stories.  The Potter’s Field is an interesting one to me because it brings up an interesting question–a man left his wife to become a monk.  And I’m not sure that I agree that God would ever have someone take sacred vows (marriage) and then call that man to walk away from those vows.  Still, the cast of characters involved in this story are interesting.

The Summer of the Danes reintroduces one of my very favorite characters from the series, Brother Mark.  He and Cadfael are sent on an errand into Wales, and, while there, are caught up in a local civil war.  This book is a bit unusual for the series, in that Cadfael is not the center of the story.  He’s there, and we see much of it through his eyes, but it’s almost like she had this other story that she wanted to tell and just stuck Cadfael in it so she could include it in the series.  That doesn’t make the story any less worthwhile, because some of the other characters are very well drawn.

In The Holy Thief, we actually meet several characters who were first introduced in The Potter’s Field.  Saint Winifred again plays a large role in the story as well.  Somehow, this series gives you a great love and respect for that saint.

I truly love these books, as I say every time I review any of them, and highly recommend this well-written, historically accurate series.

The Heretic’s Apprentice

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by Ellis Peters

Published 1990

This is actually one of my favorites of the Cadfael series (and, fear not, I finished these on vacation, so you are almost done reading about Cadfael! :-D).

In this story, a young man returns to Shrewsbury, bearing the body of his employer, whom he had accompanied on a pilgrimage that had lasted the last several years.  Although the older man had died on his trip, he had desired to be buried at his home church, and had charged (before his death, obviously) Elave (the young man) to bring his body home.  However, when Elave arrives at the abbey, another guest has arrived first–an Augustinian canon, Gerbert.  Gerbert’s horse has been lamed, and so he has had to unexpectedly stay at Shrewsbury for several days.  A strict (some may even say narrow-minded) man, Canon Gerbert is swift to pounce when he finds out that the reason that Elave’s employer went on a pilgrimage to begin with was because he had been accused to heresy.

While the mystery is good, per usual, my favorite part of the story is the non-mystery part–the part where Peters really studies human character.  She does a beautiful job working with the concept of heresy, managing to show several perspectives as reasonable, reminding all of us of the importance of humbleness (especially when it pertains to spiritual matters).  There is even a point where Brother Cadfael experiences a sudden understanding of Canon Gerbert’s viewpoint–

As for Gerbert himself, Cadfael had a sudden startling insight into a mind utterly alien to his own.  For the man really had, somewhere in Europe, glimpsed yawning chaos and been afraid, seen the subtleties of the devil working through the mouths of men, and the fragmentation of Christendom in the eruption of loud-voiced prophets bursting out of limbo like bubbles in the scum of a boiling pot, and the dispersion into the wilderness in the malignant excesses of their deluded followers.  There was nothing false in the horror with which Gerbert looked upon the threat of heresy…

The entire topic of heresy at this point in history is a fascinating one anyway.  Sometimes we forget that, at this time, the Catholic Church was the law and THE religion.  You were either Catholic, or you were a heretic, an outcast.  But Peters handles this beautifully.  Per usual, this book made me fall in love with Father Abbot quite a bit more.  He is my favorite character by far.

Since I haven’t posted in a while, I haven’t mentioned it in a while–you MUST read these books!

The Rose Rent, The Hermit of Eyton Forest, & The Confession of Brother Haluin

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by Ellis Peters

Published 1986, 1988, 1988

Truth be told, while I love every single page of these books, I feel like a broken record reviewing them, especially since I don’t like to tell too much about the plot–they are mysteries, after all!  So I thought that I would combine these three into a single post.

One of the things that I greatly enjoy about Peters’s writing is her ability to teach a lesson quietly and unobtrusively.  Through the mouths of Brother Cadfael and the Father Abbot especially, gentle truths are put forth, truths worth wrestling with and examining.  In these books, we learn the beauty of generosity, that there is indeed a time to mourn, and that all is not always as it appears.

Perhaps one of my favorite lessons is found in The Confessino of Brother Haluin, which begins when a young monk falls from a roof (in dire need of repair due to a heavy snowfall) and nearly dies. So nearly, in fact, that he calls the Father Abbot so that he can make his final confession. However, the brother does not die, and, though very crippled, receives leave to make a pilgrimage as penance for a long-past but very serious sin. Brother Cadfael, the only other man alive to know this story, is chosen as the brother’s companion.

But what I loved about this book was the acknowledgement that life does not always go the way we wish. Love is not always fulfilled in the way we want it to be, but sometimes the life that we would have thought of originally as second-best, turns out to be the first-best after all. It is one of those lessons that we never seem to teach (or learn), but great contentment can be found when one realizes the import of this teaching.

These books are by no means perfect, and the mysteries are not always as mysterious as one might desire, but the overall writing quality, historical research, and simple beauty of these stories make them well worth the read.

The Raven in the Foregate

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by Ellis Peters

Published 1986

In this Cadfael mystery, the author explores, as usual, not only a mystery, but human nature as well.  When the priest of the Foregate passes away, a newcomer must take his place.  But the new priest lacks the kindness and understanding of his predecessor.  And when he is found murdered, the question is not so much of “Who had motive?” as “Who didn’t?”  As always, Cadfael’s mystery is seamlessly woven with the background of England’s civil war.  These books are brilliantly written–wonderful mysteries and beautifully thought-provoking.  5/5.

An Excellent Mystery

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by Ellis Peters

Published 1985

This is actually one of my favorite Cadfael books, and I’m not sure that I can exactly describe why.  I won’t try to describe the entire story, but towards the beginning of the book, a monk, Brother Humilis, comes to stay at the Abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul.  While not an old man, he fought in the Crusades and was terribly injured there.  And though he was somewhat recovered, he is still dying, slowly.  Traveling with him is another brother, Brother Fidelis.  Though mute, Fidelis shows his devotion to Humilis through his constant, tender service.

There is just something so very beautiful about this friendship, about the care that Fidelis gives, and the gracious and humble way in which Humilis receives it.  This man who was once a great and famous soldier, now reduced to a shadow of his former self, who laid aside even his name (for Humilis was not his name in the world) and accepted the burdens he was given–this man is a profound example of one who is willing to receive, even with thankfulness and praise, God’s will.  And Fidelis–simple, quiet, constant service, the every-day laying aside of himself to give to one he loves.

The other stories that are woven throughout this book are thoughtful as well, exploring love and loss and lust and courage and sacrifice and forgiveness.  I have a bit more to say about this, but cannot do so without spoilers, so the rest will be below the line.  :-)

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Pilgrim of Hate

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by Ellis Peters

Published 1985

Just a few notes on this book in particular–as the tenth book in the series, it marks the middle ground.  And, interestingly, while Peters has always built on her previous books, weaving a world in which people are introduced and reintroduced and grown and change, in this particular book, many earlier plot lines reappear–most importantly, Saint Winifred and her place in the Shrewsbury abbey.

I am not Catholic (although I am a Christian) and I do not believe that the saints have the power, after their deaths, to aid us in our daily lives.  But Cadfael’s belief and reverence for his patron saint is beautiful.