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2018 Book #31 - Murder in the Cathedral by T. S. Eliot



Not sure how this came to be on my book shelf; I must have thought it looked interesting at some time. I suppose it tied in with my general interest in the medieval. It's a play in verse about the murder of Archpishop Becket during the reign of Henry II.

Against all advice, Becket returns to England after an absence of 7 years. Everyone knows the king has it in for him. There's a Greek-style chorus of peasant women, a procession of Tempters, and a lot of poetic musing on temporal vs. divine power. Four knights come in and talk some smack. The priests try to convince him to make a getaway but he reckons the jig is up, so he hangs around to deliver some high-toned talk until they stab him. There's an odd postscript where the knights address the audience directly, justifying their actions, not too convincingly.

I found the chorus odd because they kept mentioning things that the farmer's wives of Canterbury would never have known about, like the feel of elephant skin. (I'm sure Eliot could have defended that with a learned remark about Greek theatre.) Some of the poetry is evocative, but I felt myself resisting its high-churchiness. 

This was written in 1935, as Fascism loomed in dark ascendance (as Eliot might have put it) over Europe, so I suppose it is some kind of allegory. Its relevance is obscure to me, though, since Becket declares himself loyal to the king right up until they stick him. (It seems to me that in this telling Becket fell for the fourth tempter's spiel: vainglorious martyrdom.) There were times martyrdom was the best long game against the fascists, but only as a last resort; when the SS is in the drawing room, if somebody shows you a secret exit, you should generally hop to it. If you stand around speechifying, you'll just be another body on the pile.

Clearly, I lack Eliot's faith in the divine plan.
Tags: 2018 book reviews
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