Cordially Yours, Brother Cadfael, edited by Anne K. Kaler
This book is an obscure one I picked up in my local library system, and it made pleasant reading for my plane trip to Salt Lake City this morning. As a short book, only about 140 pages or so, and being about an immensely enjoyable subject, namely my favorite former crusader turned monk-detective, this is a book that is easy to enjoy. This is a good tip for authors, and editors, to follow when it comes to making a book easy to enjoy even if it is not aimed at being a bestseller, writing about subjects that are both worthy of deep reflection and also pleasant to think about. The fact that this book managed to be of such interest when it comes from a publisher that appears to specialize in feminist interpretations of literature is itself a remarkable surprise, and that one cannot judge a book by the books that are advertised on its back cover.
In terms of its contents, this book contains ten short essays divided evenly into two sections (The Mysteries of Brother Cadfael and The Ministries Of Brother Cadfael) that appear to mirror the Greatest and Second Greatest Commandment and the Ten Commandments as a whole. These essays deal with such topics as: the role of religion in the Cadfael series, Benedictine monasticism, the situational ethics of Brother Cadfael, fathers in the Cadfael series, saints, lepers, beggars, and pilgrims in the series, the complicated philosophical worldview of Cadfael, the preference for the reader and Cadfael for King Stephen over Queen Maud from the series and from history, the importance of the borderlands to Cadfael, the soundness of the herbology of the Cadfael series, and the theme of vision in “A Rare Benedictine.” These essays tackle a variety of issues, many of them of surprising relevance, and taking advantage of interviews with the authoress of the series before her death.
That is not to say that this is a perfect series of essays. Reading this series of essays reminded me of a truth that I have long recognized as an essayist and a critic, that what we have to say about a given text says more about ourselves than it does about the text itself. What we read out of or into a text, what inferences we draw, what interpretations we make of its language and meaning is mediated through our own perspectives, our biases, our experiences, and our worldviews. This does not mean that there is no truth to be found in texts, but rather that we are ill-equipped to tease out all of the layers out of texts, since even authors may write accidental and unintentional meaning and significance to a work, and since the confidence of critics in seeking one level of truth and meaning that is supreme is not at all warranted from the dismal record of critics in understanding the works they profess to critique as experts. This book gives us a variety of perspectives of an excellent series, and they do so with a great deal of spirit and some striking originality. They are certainly not the last word, the only word, or even necessarily the best word on their subject, but they are like listening to the lecturing of a knowledgeable but hardly all-knowing person who has a particular perspective that is often eccentric and certainly colored by bias. As someone who is such a lecturer often enough, though, I do not mind spending a bit of time in like-minded company, even where we must part ways in some conclusions and some matters.