Friday, August 2, 2013

The Holy Thief

Welcome, friends and fellow bibliophiles, to a break in the action on the "Sinners We Love" series. I plan to do two more feature articles on sinners/villains (last chance to submit suggestions, if you would like one to be featured!) as well as an end cap post wrapping it all up. But today I'm going to take a little break in the action to give myself a refresh, and talk about a small conundrum I came across in one of my recent Brother Cadfael reads.

Today I'm featuring The Holy Thief, Number 19 in the series, for those of you who like to read them in order. :)

The Plot 
September, 1144: Geoffrey de Mandeville dies of an arrow wound, excommunicate for dissolving Ramsey Abbey and working ruin on it's sacred artifacts. Empress Maud, rival claimant with Stephen for the throne of England, gives his younger brother the title. After years of ill-usage, Ramsey Abbey is returned to it's scattered monks, who return only to find a desolate and empty shell of its former grandeur. Desperate for aid, they go out in small groups to beseech alms from other Benedictine monasteries, and by February 1145, two of them knock at the door of the Abbey of St. Peter and St. Paul in Shrewsbury, the home of St. Winnifred's shrine. Little do they know that they are bringing murder and mayhem in their wake.

The two monks who come are sub-prior Herluin, a demanding and self-confident figure, and the novice brother Tutilo, his meek but dedicated shadow. Herluin is pleased to see the wealth of the abbey that comes from devoted pilgrims to St. Winnifred's shrine, and with the permission of the Abbot and Hugh Beringar, appeals to the people for alms to help rebuild the ruined Ramsey Abby. They are generous with their money, and Herluin is pleased with his takings. While he and his novice reside in the guest house, Tutilo ministers to a dying woman with his beautiful voice, and because of this, she also gives him a gift for the ruined monastery: a valuable family heirloom.

The night Herluin and Tutilo leave with their takings, the River Severn overflows its banks and floods the Abbey, forcing the brothers to move St. Winnifred's casket to higher ground. After the flood waters recede, they find to their horror that St. Winnifred's bones have been replaced with a log of wood, giving the thief ample time to make off with them during the confusion of the flood.

Cadfael suspects Tutilo, and when the two brothers return to the monastery with news that all their money for Ramsey Abby has been stolen, he sends for the only witness that could possibly connect the novice with the deed. The night the witness is due to arrive, Tutillo claims the dying woman sent for him to sing to her again, and absents himself from holy services. He comes back very late, blood on his hands, and reports that he found the man who came to testify against him lying dead in the forest.

Tutilo is locked up under double suspicion of murder and theft, and Cadfael is left to prove who did the deed, settle a dispute over a dead woman's bones, and hold back a beautiful gypsy woman from helping the young novice escape justice.

My Thoughts

The Holy Thief contains some language and a very heavy dose of situational ethics.

Before I read this most interesting and rather morally disappointing Brother Cadfael novel, I watched the movie adaptation starring Derek Jacobi, so I didn't know exactly how the two would compare; though I did remember that BBC thought it incumbent upon themselves to choose a different murderer. (They really changed a rather decent lord into an callous libertine.)

When I finished the book, however, I was left rather astonished. For BBC had taken a story and absolutely mangled every intelligent principle of plotting, but managed to pull a good moral resolution out of the mess. And Ellis Peters, while her plotting and characterization was splendid as always--left a very dissappointing and ambiguous moral conclusion.

That left me wondering: what does a bibliophile do when quality and morals collide?

Sacrifice quality, we immediately say. We are commanded to obey the law of God, and that's all that matters. "Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me." (John 14:21)

 The purpose of every Christian piece of art is to draw a picture of truth. Specifically, God's truth. Even more specifically, the truth of Jesus Christ. Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. ~John 14:6 When a book teaches that a young man who *spoiler* never committed murder, but did commit a theft can get away with a lady, an instrument, and a stolen horse. *end of spoiler* then we're doing pretty poorly on the morals side of things, and even more seriously, violating God's truth. We're presenting a picture of falsehood that not even the nicest of romances between a novice and a gypsy woman can charm away. In the end, the murderer was done justice in The Holy Thief--but the thief walked away laden with spoils and fully excused for his crime.

That's certainly not good. Of course we must choose morals.

But that doesn't ring true either. After all, God's truth is never shoddy or poorly presented. It is only human methods that strip away its beauty and quality and power from it. Truth poorly presented is rarely ever a winsome truth or a credible one. In every book it is the quality of the story that gives credence to the moral, and rarely the other way around. And plus--just for the writer in me--a story that's less than it could be is one of the greatest tragedies in literary existence.

In the end, I will never reach a satisfactory conclusion with either of these stories. The truth is, we must have both quality and morals. And if we don't find both--well then, we'll have to find a different book. Quality and morals together simply won't be found in either telling of The Holy Thief, and since I'm keen on getting both in the books I read, I will have to look elsewhere. I would probably watch the movie again, as it wasn't so bad, but the book and I will happily part ways, due to the poor presentation of justice it presents.
I'm still left wondering. How can filmmakers who changed one Cadfael mystery to add in justified euthanasia, change another to give a young man an honorable release from his crimes? It will forever be an enigma.

A good thing I never say books are always better than movies--because in some instances, it just isn't true. :)

Lady Bibliophile

*The movie The Holy Thief contains acts of violence, including a rather unexpected suicide, and some language. Viewer caution and some editing is advised; not for children.*


  1. Great post! Quality is always important in book, or else the story and morals are lost on the reader. *nods*
    Looking forward to the next "Sinners We Love" post. I'm trying to think if I have any villians I'd like you to do... ;)

    1. Why thank-you, Junior B. :) If you have any villains, I should dearly love to feature them!

      Love and cuddles,

  2. ITV, not BBC, did the Cadfael TV series. Had BBC produced this series, I am sure that it would have had more respect for the author's stories.


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