Book Review: Brother Cadfael’s Penance

Brother Cadfael’s Penance, by Ellis Peters

“It is enough,” said Abbot Radulfus. “Get up now, and come with your brothers into the choir.” So ends the last novel of the Brother Cadfael series [1], a novel written while its author had a year or less of life left to her in the mid 1990’s. It is a fitting and proper end to an excellent series of mysteries, even though this novel is certainly among the most unusual of those mysteries, and among the most moving and dark, which is saying a lot. In this novel, Brother Cadfael leaves the safety of the Benedictine Rule in order to seek out and deliver his son from unknown captivity. He is given a narrow amount of time to accomplish his task with the blessing of his abbot, knowing full well that he risks becoming a renegade monk if he exceeds his time, which he does knowingly, considering himself a father before a Brother, even if he was unaware he was a father until late in life. So he goes as an odd guest with his friend the sheriff, who knows the identity of Cadfael’s son and receives news that he is held prisoner in an unknown location.

Cadfael’s journey to this doomed peace conference, where none of the principals involved will sacrifice anything of importance to peace, leads him to meet his son’s honest and somewhat rash brother-in-law, who openly challenges the man whose treachery led Olivier to be imprisoned. When he, by ill luck, stumbles shortly after on that same man’s dead body, it is thought that he was the murderer, and he is then separated from the Empress’ party and taken captive by the turncoat Philip Fitzcount, nephew of the Countess of Anjou. By sleuthing out one of the curious artifacts of the murdered man, Cadfael finds his way to a foreboding castle, where by chance he finds Philip Fitzcount, and where both the rash young knight and Olivier are held prisoner. Quickly, the rash young knight is freed, being seen to be plainly incompetent at stealth. Meanwhile, Cadfael follows the Benedictine offices loyally even as a guest in the castle, even as a besieging army comes to bring with it the Countess’ furious revenge.

At its core, this is a novel about parents and children, and especially fathers and sons. Most obviously, there is Cadfael’s willingness to sacrifice himself for a son who doesn’t even know his father. There is Philip and the father he believes betrayed him, and so he betrays in turn, only to realize belatedly that his father has not abandoned him to a cruel death at the hands of his vengeful aunt. There is the matter of a mother who stealthily avenges the death of her unknown illegitimate son by a kind and amorous count, because the count is no longer alive and could not avenge him, and whose niece is flirting ineffectually with the intense and blunt young knight who is brother-in-law to Olivier, Cadfael’s illegitimate son from his time in the Crusades. Of course, there is Abbot Rudolfuls as the father of the abbey, and even of Cadfael, just but kind. In a novel full of imprisonment, full of the poignant loyalty of parent and child, full of dark secrets and the tension between loyalty and betrayal, this novel gives a fitting ending to the Cadfael series as a whole, as Cadfael returns home to seek mercy, having freed his son from imprisonment, and helped save the life of his son’s captor as well, while awaiting news of the birth of his grandson. Yet despite the happy ending, England is still in anarchy, Cadfael is an old man without many years left to him, and his son is still in danger as a knight for the cause of the House of Anjou. Yet it is enough to see matters put to right, at least in fiction, where the drama of fathers and sons is often happier than in our unpleasant lives, and where it is easier to write happy endings for complicated people driven by their own compulsions, even at grave risk to their life and health.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, Christianity, History, Love & Marriage, Military History and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Book Review: Brother Cadfael’s Penance

  1. Pingback: Audiobook Review: The Murder Of King Tut | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Book Review: Emotionally Healthy Spirituality | Edge Induced Cohesion

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