06 August 2011

Re-watching Raven in the Foregate through Anglo-Catholic eyes

Brother Cadfael (Derek Jacobi) with Hugh Beringar (Eoin McCarthy)

I truly and deeply enjoy the murder mysteries of Edith Pargeter (aka Ellis Peters), which are not only thrilling mysteries but masterworks of historical fiction in their own right – not only did they have a profound impact on my writing style and subsequent literary tastes, but also upon my theology. One gets the impression (through the views of her sleuth and the moral centre of the stories, the Crusader-turned-Benedictine Brother Cadfael) that Edith Pargeter’s own theo-politics are very Broad Church, but nonetheless a profound respect for both the monastic Teutonic Catholicism of the Normans and Saxons and (slightly more) for the hermit-revering Celtic Catholicism of the Welsh who inhabit her world, seeps through. Many of her books, Raven in the Foregate being one and the Heretic’s Apprentice being another, have deep theological implications (though at the same time, all of the views she plays around with are spoken through masterfully-portrayed characters, each with believable flesh-and-blood faults and failings), which struck me all the more on this re-watching of the screen adaptation of Raven in the Foregate.

The screen version makes a few simplifications and takes several liberties, notably with the character of Deputy Sheriff of Salop Hugh Beringar (though some glimmers of the old Hugh surface: when Cadfael asks him cagily if, should he by chance have spoken with a noted rebel and fugitive from the King’s justice the night before [which he had], Hugh would want to know about it – Hugh dryly replies ‘no’), but it follows fairly closely Pargeter’s intense portrayal of the period’s history. The Church, though in principle seated above temporal politics, nevertheless gets involved massively in the anarchic fray between King Stephen and Empress Maud. Abbot Radulfus is commanded by Henry of Winchester to replace the late priest of the Foregate of Shrewsbury with a political partizan loyal to King Stephen – Father Ailnoth. In the movie as in the book, Ailnoth is nearly the embodiment of the creeping legalism that was strangling an ever-more bureaucratised Church. Where the previous parish priest of the Foregate, Father Adam, was forgiving, compassionate, sensitive to local customs and concerns, Father Ailnoth – though well-read and intelligent – insisted on a peculiarly functional reading of the letter of the law.

In the movie, we get to see several examples of this. He leaps to the defence of a sadistic, murderous knight who shares his political allegiance (even while the knight has a defenceless, wounded prisoner shot dead rather than taken to trial). The poor Saxon farmers working on Church land under Father Adam’s supervision are immediately evicted by the Norman Ailnoth. When they plead for their traditional rights and spoken agreement with Father Adam to be respected, Ailnoth gives them a cold ‘not-my-problem’ and notes that he is only under obligation only to written law; when they appeal to his conscience on behalf of their families, Ailnoth lambastes them for having children while poor. He refuses to hear the confession of a young, unmarried pregnant girl in distress, which is suspected to drive her to her death under mysterious circumstances. He is portrayed as an austere ascetic who sees the mass of humanity as beneath him and worthy of contempt – in a peculiarly Puritanical moment, he orders all of the flowers to be taken out of his chapel and destroyed.

On the other side, we have the pious, if struggling and all-too-human, residents of the Foregate taking their concerns before Abbot Radulfus, who is torn between his need to keep King Stephen and the Church hierarchy sweet, and his desire to see the Foregate restored to the harmony it had under Father Adam. Ailnoth is ultimately found drowned in the Severn, caught up by a mill-wheel with a gash on his throat and a large bruise from a blow to the head; and pretty much the entire Foregate is held under suspicion on account of their grievances against Ailnoth.

I won’t get into spoilers; suffice it to say that the movie does a fairly good job of sticking to the book, except that two of the characters are changed to have a second romance subplot which wasn’t there in the original. It was particularly interesting to me in that Ms Pargeter seems to be making a passionate plea for greater charity and generosity of spirit in the Church; a plea which is echoed even more intensely in the movie. If the Heretic’s Apprentice was her most ‘Protestant’ novel (and even then that’s arguable, as her supposedly ‘orthodox’ heretic-sniffing antagonist himself holds some downright Calvinistic beliefs about Hell and predestination), this is certainly her most ‘Catholic’ one. For Ms Pargeter, knowing Scripture is good, intelligence is good, and even rigorous morals are good (particularly the near-Klingon sense of personal honour and fair play she lends her heroes, whether monastic like Cadfael or secular like Hugh Beringar) – but unless it is all directed toward a greater end and expressed in charity, compassion and justice, it is all in vain.

I very much enjoy the way Ms Pargeter carefully weaves together a rich universe of a slightly-fictionalised 12th-century England, which is romantic and religious without being revisionist or saccharine. And I highly recommend this movie (but read the book first!). Both are sure to please history and theology nerds as well as mystery buffs.

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