“You think you will be healed of your hell when you have made hell everywhere about you.”
One of the main heroes of Edith Pargeter’s Heaven Tree trilogy spoke these words to a villain who’d made it is mission to bring misery to all those who crossed him. And he succeeds in inflicting what looks to be unceasing pain on others, capturing not just their bodies but their minds and spirits — to an extent. But the beautiful thing about this book is that it shows that it is possible for those seeking to make a heaven everywhere about them can succeed.
Edith Pargeter is perhaps best known as Ellis Peters, the pseudonym she used when writing her Cadfael mysteries. This historical trilogy, however, was published under her own name, and it is an exciting and emotionally complex series, one that I’d especially recommend to fans of Dorothy Dunnett’s novels or Sigrid Unset’s Kristin Lavransdatter series.
The series is set mostly around the border between England and Wales in the early 13th century. The first novel, The Heaven Tree, follows the life and career of Harry Talvace, who was born to wealth but abandoned it when he came to understand the inherent unfairness of the system in which he lived, especially when it came to his best friend Adam, who was born a servant who lacks the rights Harry enjoys. Harry has a gift for carving stone, so he and Adam become stone masons, and their talents, especially Harry’s, are much sought after, and the novel traces how his loyalty and goodness both give him great power and put him under the power of others. The second novel, The Green Branch, tells the story of Harry’s son, also named Harry. This younger Harry becomes obsessed with the legacy of his father and wants to do whatever he can to honor his memory, a desire which gets him into his own form of trouble. The Scarlet Seed tells of the consequences of both Harry’s actions and the actions others took to help him.
One of the striking things about the characters in these novels, both good and evil, is how committed they are to honoring their word. When someone makes a pledge, they stick to it, no matter how preposterous the circumstance. (This includes voluntarily returning to a state of unjust captivity if allowed to go free temporarily.) I don’t know how accurate that is to the typical 13th-century mindset, but I appreciate that Pargeter was able to give the characters’ motivations that felt different from our own, yet also comprehensible. But it was so frustrating to see these characters acting in a way that was against their own interests and even, in a sense, the interests of their captors. Pargeter also allows the characters to question the system, as Harry questions the system that puts Adam under a more severe punishment than his own for the same offence. So the characters are different from modern characters, but they recognize clear injustice as they see it.
Perhaps the most fascinating character in the series is Ralf Isambard, who employs Harry in The Heaven Tree to build a great church. (To describe him as he evolves through the series, I’ll have to spoil the first book to some degree, although I will try to keep the details vague.)
Isambard is the chief antagonist of the series, and his evil acts are indeed vile. There’s a sequence of events toward the end of The Heaven Tree that involves extreme cruelty and torture that arose not out of a wrong-headed system of “justice” but simply out of personal malevolence. He’s a nasty piece of work. Yet, in subsequent books, he draws people in. He does so not by becoming good or denying what he’s done in the past. And he doesn’t win allies exactly. He is not well liked at all. But Harry, as well as Isambard’s former mistress, Benedetta, end up feeling a sense of grudging loyalty and respect for him. It’s all rolled up in the morality of making and honoring vows. It gives everyone a system for relating to each other, so that everyone knows where they stand. And, in the end, having that system allows relationships to happen that keep the world from becoming the hell that Isambard seems to seek in the quote above. (Benedetta, incidentally, is a great character, and the dramatic evolution of her character is almost as great as that of Isambard.)
All of this takes place against the backdrop of the conflict between Llywelyn the Great, Henry III, and others in the Welsh Marches. Llywelyn is, in fact, a major character in the series, I know nothing at all about this history, but that didn’t affect my enjoyment of the book (although I did consult Wikipedia to get my bearings a bit.) The central drama of the series is the personal one, and the history is relevant only as it touches the decisions characters have to make. It’s not a book about the history, but about the people living in that time.