The Heretic’s Apprentice

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In the summer of 1143, the Abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul receives two visitors, and the intrepid Brother Cadfael is on the brink of yet another mystery. First to arrive is Gerbert, a monk from Canterbury who ranks high in the household of Archbishop Theobald. Gerbert is a man much concerned about the rise in religious dissent and thus quick to root out the sprout of heresy before the weed comes to full flower. Next is young Elave of Lythwood, with a somber duty to perform. Seven years earlier, Elave left on a pilgrimage to Palestine as companion to his former employer William of Lythwood. Now Elave is back with his employer’s body to request burial on the monastery grounds.

If there are those who rejoice at Elave’s return, there are also those who are hostile and afraid. Aldwin, who succeeded to Elave’s position as accountant, is concerned that the pilgrim’s return means an end to his employment. Conan, the shepherd, is equally unhappy to see Elave. In addition to his master’s body, Elave brings a dowry for William’s adopted daughter, Fortunata. Conan has considered marriage to Fortunata for some time, and the arrival of a dowry would seem to make the prospect all the more appealing, but Fortunata is obviously smitten by Elave and he by her.

Elave plays into the hands of his enemies when he reveals in an unguarded moment religious convictions which appear to verge on heresy. Moreover, when Aldwin is killed subsequent to laying an accusation of heresy against Elave, the young man’s future seems short indeed. Brother Cadfael, however, is convinced that Elave is innocent of both heresy and murder. With the help of Hugh Beringer, the local sheriff, the identity of the murderer is revealed, justice is properly rendered, the charge of heresy is disproved, and Fortunata and Elave are engaged to marry.

Ellis Peters is quite familiar with the circumstances of twelfth century England. She is equally at home with what was then contemporary theological speculation. Accordingly, THE HERETIC’S APPRENTICE represents a fruitful marriage of a plot which could easily occur in any period with historical fiction at its best. Those familiar with Brother Cadfael will not be disappointed, and newcomers to the series would be encouraged to forage further.