Monthly Spotlight: Ellis Peters’ Cadfael

23 Jan

A belated Happy New Year to you all. This month we’re taking a look at a historical murder mystery series; possibly one of the first, begun in 1977.

There are twenty Cadfael novels, set in Shrewsbury, England, during the 12th century. I’m not generally a big fan of crime novels and mysteries, but I find the historical ones interesting because of the ways characters have to find to solve things without the benefits of modern technology, and this series also benefits from great characters and an enjoyable writing style.

Cadfael is a Benedictine monk and most of the stories take place in and around the Abbey and its grounds. He’s the herbalist and medicine-maker for the monastery and ends up drawn into the various crimes because unlike his fellow monks he came to the life late and has real-world experience to draw on; he was a soldier in one of the many Crusades and thus has some expertise in wounds and much more advanced medical techniques.

He’s a nice cheerful protagonist, with a good balance of cynicism and optimism; he’s curious about the world around him and a very good judge of human nature, and his fellow monks aren’t just bland stereotypes but distinct personalities and they feel like a very real group of people, with all the problems that entails. The various heroes and villains of the books are all well developed (including the women; the whole series is surprisingly progressive and equal considering the setting) and mostly sympathetic, and again all feel very real. There’s a bit of humour running through everything and some clever twists here and there, and according to people far more knowledgeable than I am the whole series is very historically accurate and touches on a lot of real events of the period. Some of the happy endings are a little trite, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The first in the series is A Morbid Taste for Bones; the individual plots all stand alone so it’s not absolutely necessary to read them in order, but there are recurring characters and minor plot threads so it’s probably a good idea.

There is a TV adaptation comprising thirteen episodes, though I haven’t managed to see all of them yet. Very sensibly they stuck to adapting the books and made no attempt to write original stories. A lot of the monks are superbly cast, I all but applauded Oswin (the actor plays a very similar character in the British soap Emmerdale) and Jerome and Robert are perfectly irritating and wonderfully punchable, particularly Jerome. Season One’s Hugh Beringar is also good, which makes it hard to like his successors.

Derek Jacobi is a great actor but in my opinion wrong for Cadfael, he’s not humourous enough or peasant enough (and certainly not Welsh enough, Cadfael being Welsh is a minor plot point in several books rather than merely authorial whim), though he did grow on me over time. A lot of the side role actors are really, really bad, though there are some gems who hopefully advanced their careers. (I think a lot of them did, I spent some time thinking ‘Aaargh who is that’ in almost every episode.) Acting aside, the adaptation is fairly good and fairly faithful to the source material, though as ever the books are better and occasionally there are some bizarre leaps away from the original. I’m not sure how easy some of the plots would be to follow without knowledge of the books, though; it’s easy to lose track of who’s who.

There are also a scattering of radio episodes that I haven’t managed to find, and all the books are available on audio.


Posted by on January 23, 2019 in loten


Tags: , , , , ,

5 responses to “Monthly Spotlight: Ellis Peters’ Cadfael

  1. maryj59

    January 25, 2019 at 5:55 pm

    So nice to see you taking on the Cadfael series! I think they are due for a revival, and I agree with everything you say about the TV shows. They really, really messed up “Pilgrim of Hate” but did a decent job with most of the others. Derek Jacobi is not warm or humorous enough for Cadfael, though he did grow on me; I loved Oswin, and I LOVED Mr. Pertwee as Hugh Beringar. The later actor(s?) just didn’t capture the character at all, as well as looking all wrong for the part.

    It’s also true that the books are better!

    • Loten

      January 27, 2019 at 8:20 am

      Always nice to find other people who share my opinion. Pilgrim of Hate is one of the ones I haven’t managed to see yet, I’ve found all of Season One and a scattering from Two and Three, but I did see online that that particular episode was mostly invented by the show for some strange reason.

  2. Sam

    February 18, 2019 at 6:57 pm

    Question for the commentariat: I’ve been meaning to start Discworld for a while, but I’m not sure which book to read first. Usually I prefer publication order, except I was told many years ago not to start with The Colour of Magic, only I can’t remember what the substitute was supposed to be. Wikipedia says there are seven major subseries, but I don’t know which is which. I know I want to read the books with that Vimes guy in them.

    So, where do I start?

    • Loten

      February 20, 2019 at 7:38 am

      I have you covered, I did a Discworld spotlight post a while back if you want (spoiler-free!) details on how the series divides up:

      Short version, Guards! Guards! is the start of the Vimes arc. Other good ones to start with are Mort or Wyrd Sisters.

    • Shilpa J

      April 17, 2019 at 1:48 am

      I hope you’ve started the Discworld series already. The lovely thing about these novels is that each book is standalone. Seriously, you can just pick a book and start reading. You won’t be lost. At worst, you’ll miss some inside jokes or cameos by other characters but not much else. But since almost everyone I know ends up reading each book several times over the years (and keep finding stuff they missed!), you’re good.

      BUT that being said, I generally recommend publication order unless the first 2 books (which are the only ones you HAVE to read together, coz the first one literally ends with a cliffhanger) really, really bore you. If you’ve ever read 60s/70s fantasy, you’ll love the references and parodies that STP works in there. This way you get to see how the Disc and Terry’s writing evolved through the decades.

      I’ve never gone by series order simply because diving in and out keeps everything fresh. I don’t get bored of following the same characters, esp when other things are also happening on the Disc. That’s one my fav things about STP’s writing – the characters feel alive, they don’t stop living their lives when you turn the page.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: