The Summer of the Danes

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In her novels featuring Brother Cadfael, a soldier turned Benectine monk at the Abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul of Shrewsbury, near the border of his native Wales, Ellis Peters skillfully recreates medieval life as she places murder mysteries within authentic historical novels set in the reign of King Stephen, the most obscure of British monarchs. Usually, Brother Cadfael plays sleuth, using his powers of deduction to solve the murder, but in THE SUMMER OF THE DANES, he is mainly a spectator, subordinated to Brother Mark, a young deacon sent by his bishop into Wales on a diplomatic mission to two rival bishops, one Norman, the other Welsh.

The journey becomes dangerously complicated as the Benedictines get involved in a quarrel between the Welsh prince Owain Gwynedd and his reckless brother Cadwaladr, who has been driven from his lands for supposedly ordering a murderous ambush against some of the Owain’s men. In retaliation, Cadwaladr has made a deal with Otir the Dane to bring a fleet of mercenaries to Wales and restore him to power, in return for two thousand marks. The conflict is further complicated when one of Cadwaladr’s men is murdered while a guest on in Owain’s camp; on the night of the murder, a young woman steals a horse and flees from an arranged marriage. In the pursuit, she and Cadfael are captured by marauding Danes, and Brother Mark becomes a hostage for Cadwaladr. No one wants useless killing, and Otir and Owain treat each other as honorable antagonist, but both are betrayed by the hopelessly selfish, irresponsible Cadwaladr, who nevertheless has the gift of inspiring unconditional loyalty among his followers, some of whom are determined to violate the negotiations in progress.

With the exception of Cadwaladr and his fanatic followers, Ellis Peters presents her twelfth century Welshmen and Danes as civilized, eloquent men of honor, not as bloodthirsty warriors and barbarians. Heledd, the runaway bride, is strong-willed woman determined to forge her own destiny, who finds true love where she least expects it. Through intricate, suspenseful plotting, the conflict between the brothers and between the Welsh and Danes is resolved. This time Brother Cadfael does not solve the murder; the solution is revealed when the killer confesses. Though Brother Cadfael’s role is secondary, the novel has Ellis Peters’ usual grace of style, substantial characterization, and historical depth.