Book Review: The Cadfael Chronicles

I have been depressed (like many), then busy, and then found out my desktop version of WordPress is no longer working, so this post comes to you on the app after much delay.

I’m not typically one for historical novels. I like a bit of the fantastic in my reading, or just go for pure nonfiction. However, I grew up occasionally seeing the Cadfael series starring Derek Jacobi, which I enjoy, and have known for awhile that they are also books. This past December I embarked upon this nineteen book journey and it has been an absolute delight.

The Cadfael Chronicles by Ellis Peters are mysteries set in England, specifically the area around Shrewsbury, between 1135 and 1145, during one of the many English civil wars. The titular Brother Cadfael is a Benedictine monk who took vows after many years in the East, on crusade. He currently works as the herbalist at St. Peter and St. Paul abbey and solves mysteries as they are arise. And get captured by Irish Danes, but that was just the once.

The Cadfael books are similar to my old favorites with Marcus Corvinus, in number and historicity and fun, though Cadfael is medieval England and Wales rather than Rome. The tone is far more poetic than Corvinus’ hard-boiled talk, too, but I could see these two men getting along quite well.

These are pretty accurate books by all accounts. Figures out of history stride through on the regular. I appreciate how human these figures out of medieval life are. It makes the horrible bias against medieval history that you find out there even more painful, all the more so because there’s a fundamental (if wry) kindness to Peters’ writing.

The writing is just lovely. I’m jealous. I can’t pull this off on a good writing day, let alone over the course of 20 books. I get why these were made into a television series, even if it’s sometimes staggeringly inaccurate to the books, sometimes cruelly so. These books need more press! Just read this brief sentence about Cadfael stopping to pray:

He had time, now, to kneel and wait, having busied himself thus far in anxious efforts like a man struggling up a mountain, when he knew there was a force that could make the mountain bow.

Saint Peter’s Fair, Ellis Peters

The mysteries are a mixed bag. It’s not hard to guess at what’s going on, at least for me and not just because of the show, but because they’re not typically very complex. One in particular I found lacking in consequences for the culprit and felt justice was not served. The pleasure of these books is found in the writing and the characters and the exploration of days gone by, days as full of humans very much like us.

Cadfael himself is an amazing character. He’s weathered but with grace- not grace by luck, either, but by choice. Cadfael is the man he made himself into, through folly and wisdom, which he knows. That makes him insightful. In my mind, somehow, Cadfael wanders into a story from the mists of time and distance to speak to other characters from other tales. Characters don’t just easily come across that way to me. It’s a rare thing.

The parade of secondary characters can’t be missed either. Alice of Thornberry, Sister Magdalene, is a treasure when she shows. Hugh Beringar is of Cadfael’s timber, but he’s manhood personified in a different season than Cadfael’s.

I read these books while playing Cyberpunk 2077. My thoughts on that deserve their own essay if I can pull them coherently together, but they center on the way the people of Cyberpunk- who are our contemporaries, they’re written to be the people of 2021- are shadows when compared to the likes of Magadalene, Hugh, and Cadfael. It’s not because of bad writing in Cyberpunk, it’s on purpose (maybe by the muse, more than the writers). They, we are shadows, bloodless, lonely. We doused our own hearthfires- or they were doused in generations past, perhaps, and we can’t figure out how or can’t be bothered to rekindle them. But they burned, once, and some valuable, intangible thing about people was better for it.

Reading about the Anarchy happening in Cadfael’s time as our own tumultuous winter rolled along highlighted this. The Anarchy was one of the many, many, many succession crises of the British crown. It seems so petty, and Cadfael himself clearly feels that way. It’s a very poorly executed war on both sides, which drags it out, but one meets partisans of both sides and you get why they fight for their side. Maud and Stephen are both leaders men can follow, though they have obvious feet of clay. You see the war mostly through the agonies it inflicts upon ordinary people. Cities burn, bandits pillage the countryside, rogue lords make their play for independent power, men called away to battle die. This is on top of the normal pains of winter and hunger and day-to-day human brokenness.

By contrast, the American strife of the winter is a farce. I know people died. But the whole thing, causes and opposed personalities and all of it, is farcically stupid and the agony of the larger scale consequences so many bemoan so loudly is a bitter joke. Perhaps I am just tired. Perhaps my perspective is too close to the present moment to evaluate it properly.

My philosophical musings aside, I highly recommend the Cadfael Chronicles. You can find them all on Amazon. Enjoy them for the beautiful works they are.

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