05 January 2011
Book Review: The Summer of the Danes, by Ellis Peters
I wonder if the book was ever meant to be much of a mystery, though. Part of me suspects that Peters wanted to write about this particular event in the summer of 1143 -- the dispute between Owain Gwynedd and his brother Cadwaladr and Cadwaladr's subsequent decision to invite the Danes of Dublin to take their spoils of Gwynedd land in North Wales. But how to get Cadfael there, and how to create some kind of mystery that would provide Cadfael with something to do?
Peters decides to re-introduce the character of Brother Mark, who has left Shrewsbury to join Bishop Roger de Clinton's employ as a deacon on his journey to becoming a priest. The bishop sends Brother Mark to Wales with a welcome and a gift for the new bishop there. Along the way, Brother Mark (with full approval, of course) stops at Shrewsbury to request the abbot's blessing and Cadfael's company. After all, Cadfael still speaks Welsh, and Brother Mark can expect to make little headway in Wales without a linguist.
So, Cadfael returns to Wales, and he and Mark find the new bishop in Prince Owain's camp. The task of delivering welcome and gift are easy enough; the real interest is in watching the dynamics of the Welsh prince's household. Owain's brother Cadwaladr has been implicated in the murder of Prince Anarawd of Deheubarth in the west of Wales. As the prince was the intended bridegroom of Owain's daughter, Owain responds angrily and sends his son Hywel to remove Cadwaladr's lands from him. In Wales, this is like taking Cadwaladr's life: without his lands, he has no ownership in Wales and no clear identity. As Peters indicates again and again, the Welsh identity is closely connected to the land, so Cadwaladr is more than a little upset. But Owain stands his ground, as Cadwaladr has created serious political problems for him.
Cadwaladr still has friends, and one of them (Bledri ap Rhys) arrives at Owain's camp to request that the prince return his brother's lands. Owain declines to rule on the issue right away but still welcomes Bledri as a guest. Bledri makes himself at home, and Cadfael watches from a distance to see if he can understand the man a little better. He notices that Bledri flirts innocently with Heledd, the daughter of Canon Meurig. Heledd is herself engaged to be married, having chosen an arranged marriage over life in a convent -- since her father, who was married according to the traditions of the Celtic church, has decided to rid himself of so obvious a symbol of his past so he can rise in the ranks of the Roman traditions that are held firmly outside of Wales.
(If, by this point, you can't make any sense of the Welsh names, just take a deep breath and do the best you can. For a quick overview, "Cadwaladr" is pronounces pretty much the way it's written: "Cad-WALL-a-DER." "Owain" is something like "O-wine." "Bledri ap Rhys" can be pronounced "BLED-ree ap REES." And "Heledd" is "HEL-eth." Vocate the "th" at the end of her name -- "then" instead of "thin." Trill all r's.)
The next morning, Bledri ap Rhys is discovered murdered, and Heledd is discovered missing. Perhaps more shocking, Owain receives news that his brother Cadwaladr has returned from Ireland with a fleet of Danes who have promised to help him get his lands back and who expect to do a little pillaging along the way. A dispute between brothers is one thing, but to allow foreigners to invade Welsh land? Unthinkable. Owain swings into action to protect his people and their homes while avoiding as much bloodshed as possible.
Heledd's disappearance has caused a concern beyond any possible connection to Bledri's death (a connection that quickly proves to be unfounded). She is apparently alone in a land that might soon be teeming with Danish invaders. Cadfael and Brother Mark set off to find her, and along the way Cadfael manages to get himself captured -- along with Heledd -- by the Danes. The momentary surprise of being a captive quickly wears off, as it becomes clear the Danes have no interest in hurting anyone; besides, they recognize the value of captives that fall under Owain's direct protection. So, Cadfael settles into his typical role of observing these Dubliners and studying human nature.
The story kind of plods along from here, with Peters describing the back-and-forth discussions between Owain and the Danes and Owain and Cadwaladr. Things wrap up with very little bloodshed, and even Bledri ap Rhys's murder is solved (although it's more of an afterthought than a real purpose for the story). The real interest of the story is in watching these historical characters make their moves. I love it when Peters develops real-life figures, because she brings such a humanity to them on the pages of her books. Her characterization of Owain Gwynedd might be one of my favorites, and while this isn't the first time he's popped into a Cadfael story this is certainly one of the most rounded descriptions of him. I walked away from this book sorry that I couldn't go back in time to meet him. How difficult it is to see any connection between 21st century America and a region of Wales in the 12th century, and yet how well Peters creates that bridge.
I certainly wouldn't recommend this as a starter book for the Cadfael series, and I should point out that I appreciate the book more now that I'm almost in my 30s than I did when I was half this age. There's a maturity to the writing that didn't really appeal to me years ago, but I appreciate its significance and admire it's complexity now.
Year of publication: 1991
Number of pages: 280