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Tom Chaney: The Wisdom of Sister Fidelma

Of Writers And Their Books: The Wisdom of Sister Fidelma. Tom reports on a series of mysteries set in seventh century Ireland with detective Sister Fidelma a nun and a brehon, a judge in the courts of the five kingdoms, who is rooted in the old ways but recognizes the coming changes. This column first appeared 22 February 2009.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: A. A. Whitman -- Hart County Poet

By Tom Chaney

The Wisdom of Sister Fidelma

For several years now, several of us around and about The Bookstore have eagerly awaited the latest Sister Fidelma novel from the pen of Peter Tremayne. Tremayne is the nom-de-plume of a renowned scholar of Irish and Celtic matters, Peter Berresford Ellis.

Out of his scholarship Ellis as Tremayne has produced a series of mysteries set in seventh century Ireland. His detective is Sister Fidelma a nun and a brehon, a judge in the courts of the five kingdoms of Ireland. It does not hurt at all that she is also sister to the king of Cashel, one of the five kingdoms.

Fidelma is married to Brother Eadulf, a Saxon priest. They have one son.

Tremayne's latest novel is Dancing with Demons. As it opens, the high king of the five kingdoms Sechnussach has been murdered. He is discovered dead in his bedchamber. The obvious suspect is Dubh Duin, a clan chieftain of the old faith, who is found with the murdered king. Dubh Duin is dying of a self-inflicted wound.

He utters a final dying word which muddies the water around the death of Sechnussach.

The Great Assembly of the five kingdoms invites Fidelma to investigate the murder. The solution to the crime involves stolen knives, religious persecution, unreliable help, and secret passage ways -- enough to keep any aficionado of fictional murder most foul and complicated awake for several nights of good reading.

I'll not give a single clue to who done it. 'Twould spoil a good book to know too much too soon. But I do want to talk about a couple of ideas within the book and the series which are of most interest to me.

The stories of Sister Fidelma are set in a time of change in the church in Ireland, indeed a time of change in Irish culture.

A couple of weeks back I talked about Gore Vidal's fine novel, Julian set at a time when the Roman empire is adapting itself to the new sect from the eastern end of the Mediterranean -- Christianity. The rapid spread of that religion was made possible in part because it was so flexible in accommodating itself to the rituals, holidays and worship places of the existing system of worship.

For instance, the Christian calendar adopted the Roman festival Saturnalia as Christmas. The Lupercalia became, after Augustus, a fertility festival roughly corresponding to our St. Valentine's Day. And there was the Cerealia which in April celebrated the beginning of the fertile crop months.

By fourth century the new religion was so deeply entrenched in Rome that it was more than a single emperor, namely Julian, could do to root it out.

From the Fidelma novels we learn that three centuries later similar upheavals were happening in Ireland.

Sister Fidelma, a member of a religious order, is married to Brother Eadulf, a Saxon priest -- from what was to become England. By the seventh century the rule of Rome was being extended to the far reaches of what was becoming an increasingly Christian world. This brought Rome into conflict with the church in other, differently civilized nations.

In Fidelma we have a picture of that conflict. The church in Ireland did not forbid the clergy to marry. The rule of Rome had just instituted the rule of celibacy for all members of religious orders and clergy and was trying to impose this rule in all Christendom. The religious houses of Ireland contained members of both sexes. Rome forbad this.

Tremayne pictures a world which in three centuries has moved from the newly adapted Christian world of Rome -- establishing itself as the church in the west against the so called pagan religion -- to the seventh century push to establish its rule in the outer reaches of Christianity.

Rome saw danger in the Christianity of Ireland where the church was established on the foundation of a pre-Christian civilization which permitted women to have a significant and equal role in society; which allowed marriage within the ranks of clergy; and which was based on the ancient law of Ireland rather than that of Rome.

It is also interesting that the chief conflict in Dancing with Demons is not between the Irish rule and that of Rome, but between Christianity and the ancient, pre-Christian worship in Ireland.

When the golden symbol of the old religion is melted down, Fidelma has reservations.
"Part of my mind agrees," she replied slowly, "yet I cannot help thinking it was made in good faith by our ancestors long before the coming of the word of Christ. It was a sacred and dear object to them. By melting it down, we are in danger of cutting ourselves off from our forefathers. Is that a good thing? . . . .

"Part of me is worried that we are creating a deep abyss between our new world and those of our ancestors in the old world. Once that chasm has been made, we will never be able to re-cross it and know their thoughts, their fears and their hopes. . . . I fear we may soon be stumbling forth in the world, never knowing what knowledge and example our parents would have bequeathed to us."
Yep! History never was so interesting as in the hands of fine historian/novelists such as Gore Vidal and Peter Tremayne.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2014-02-23 02:15:22
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