How can an old man and a monk be sexy? We are talking about the two categories of men that are usually relegated to the opposite side of the word. This was intriguing to me as I watched the 1994 Mystery series on Netflix. Because everything I see or hear will eventually end up in a novel, I was curious to deconstruct the character to see what elements were involved that made Cadfael so appealing.
First, I will define sexy. The simple definition would suggest that something sexy is someone or something one would want to have sex with. But inanimate objects are described as “sexy” all the time. Most notably automobiles…The meaning of the word has achieved some creeping connotations with the success of the advertising industry. For simplicity I will define “sexy” as “emotionally appealing”. (That will cover automobiles as well.)
Cadfael is a Benedictine Brother, not a priest, in Shrewsbury (near Wales) in the 12th century and was created in the 1970’s by mystery novelist Ellis Peters. He is an herbalist and healer and finds himself solving murders in a time where justice had a very different meaning than it does today. This is part of his appeal.
In his youth he was a soldier in the Crusades and was exposed to ideas and cultures of the Middle East when the vast majority of Englishmen rarely traveled ten miles from their place of birth in their entire lives. This is another part: his great intelligence and worldly experience.
But how can he be so deliciously wonderful? It is not just me, folks, so let’s get that out of the way. The series of books was and is very popular and if you have seen the series you can see the enormous expense in filming the thirteen 90 minute episodes. It is a gorgeous and historically rich production.
So, back to deconstruction. First, his age. He is older, yes, though still handsome in a Derek Jacobi way. He is tall and has broad shoulders, so physically he is imposing and impressive. Those attributes transcend youth and are always sexy. He has a limp…he was badly wounded in the Crusades, so this lends an air of vulnerability as well as valor to his character. Also appealing.
He has retired to peace and quiet, which in the 12th century means a monastery. He had enough adventure in his youth. He is not a priest, but has taken vows of obedience and chastity. This makes him somewhat righteous…and I am thinking of all the youthful “bad boy” motorcycle and vampire characters that are so appealing to young women. Why? Because bad boys defy authority and act against the social norm. They are courageous in their naughtiness. Those boys reflect tendencies that are the opposite of a righteous monk. Cadfael should be boring, un-sexy and dull. But he is not.
Because Cadfael is a Bad Boy.
Yes. That is why he is sexy. Cadfael brings to the stories of murder and mayhem the naughtiness of compassion and intelligence that was sorely lacking in Medieval times. He insists on finding the truth, wants justice for the dead and the wronged, and will defy the local authority figures to get it. He does it by outsmarting them. That is what is appealing to me. He does not rush in with a sword and kill all the bad guys. You do not see him walking towards you in slow motion as behind him thatched cottages erupt in righteous and vengeful flames…he outsmarts them…he outsmarts them.
And he lets a confessed murderer go free (In the episode, The Leper of St Giles). He has a much much deeper understanding of justice than we see today, or for all time. His compassion is the true compassion of his God, and though the Medieval Church is focused on penitence and punishment, Cadfael (who fought for those ideas in a bloody and senseless Crusade) has transcended those limited beliefs and out-Christians the Christians. This is delicious too.
And his vows? The conflict between his great love and compassion for humanity and the necessary renunciation of any kind of physical human contact is painfully evident in the novels and the script. This aspect makes you want to give him a hug, because he needs a hug many times (he is haunted by the horrors of battle and the loss of his true love)…and yet hugs are not possible. He flinches from even a touch. So we have this chasm of compassion for him as well.
Cadfael exists beyond touch, in the pages of a novel and in the light of a screen. But he touches our hearts.
Thank you, Ellis Peters.