Monday, September 05, 2011

Cultures in Conflict

In January, I began reading the Sister Fidelma mysteries by Celtic scholar Peter Berresford Ellis writing as Peter Tremayne.  Now 19 books and two collections later, I have read the complete series.  The most recent is entitled The Chalice of Blood.  Just to review, Fidelma is a dalaigh or advocate of the ancient law courts in seventh century Ireland.  She is also a member of a religious order and sister to the king of Muman, one of the five kingdoms of Ireland in that period.

Although the background of the series is the growing conflict between the Roman and Celtic churches, over the course of the series there is also definite character development for Fidelma as she falls in love with the Saxon monk Eadulf (her partner in crime solving), marries him, has a child, wrestles with her true calling, and finally decides that she must choose the law over the religious life.  Along the way, she and Eadulf face and overcome charges of murder, she experiences postpartum depression, and she comes to terms with a sometimes difficult temperament. Behind all of this melodrama, however, are major questions about how cultures interact with one another, the place of intellectual discourse in the discovery of truth, and the evil done in the name of faith. 

When Fidelma and Eadulf meet, she is already known and respected as an advocate of the law. Although she has chosen the religious life for some measure of security, she is not into “proselyting” and wears her faith loosely.  Eadulf, a hereditary magistrate in his own homeland, was converted from paganism as a young man by Irish missionaries but has embraced the ways of Rome.  As they come to know each other, they also learn lessons about the world in which they live and their shared commitment to find some stability in a changing world. 

Fidelma and Eadulf experience not only the clash of Celtic and Roman Christianities, but the conflict of the various cultures they encounter in Ireland, on the British Isles, on the continent of Europe, and in Rome itself.  They often find themselves interpreting and exegeting not only the laws but the customs of the lands in which they travel, trying to do some good as they walk an often difficult path.  They respect the cultures they encounter but recognize the real differences in each.

Fidelma has a great respect for all learning.  Although the books often go too far in extolling the virtues of the people of Ireland and their legal system, it is clear that Fidelma (and the author) value all cultures.  When fanatical Christians resort to burning the books of pagans and heretics (including some classical writers as well as ancient Irish texts), both Fidelma and Eadulf are appalled, realizing that the loss of any learning makes everyone poorer.  As one character says, “Fear the man who has only one book.”  The more points of view one has the opportunity to consider, the more informed the final decision.

Another key factor in the books is the desire for power, even among those of Mother Church.  Abbots, various church leaders, and ordinary clergy often resort to lying, theft, extortion, and even murder to accomplish the “greater good.”  Arguing that ends are more important than means, they often abuse both their power and those they have been called to serve.  Have things really changed that much?

The author knows the historical context and uses it well not only as the setting for the stories but as a means to carry them along.  I look forward to other offerings in the further adventures of Fidelma.

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