Murder in the Cathedral

O Thomas our Lord… do not ask us
To stand to the doom on the house, the doom on the Archbishop, the doom on the world.
Archbishop, secure and assured of your fate, unaffrayed among the shades, do you realise what you ask, do you realise what it means
To the small folk drawn into the pattern of fate, the small folk who live among small things,
The strain on the brain of the small folk who stand to the doom of the house, the doom of their lord, the doom of the world?”

O Thomas Archbishop, save us, save us, save yourself that we may be saved;
Destroy yourself and we are destroyed.

– Chorus of the Women of Canterbury, Murder in the Cathedral (T. S. Eliot)

Thus speak the “small folk.”  I have met them many times before.  I grew up with them in the Hobbit holes and comfortable inns of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.  I recently stumbled onto their shores during the rule of Rhadamanthus in the Odyssey.  And I met them, again and again, peopling the choruses of Sophocles’, Aeschylus’, and T. S. Eliot’s tragedies.

I know the small folk well.  They love good food and afternoon naps, they approve of sensibleness and moderation, they fear (when it comes—and they thank their stars it is not often) the hand at the window and the fire in the thatch.

The quintessence of the small folk is that they always live in the shadow of great doom.  From time to time, champions must arise to shield them from creeping things that would freeze their blood, from angry sea-gods, from cursed kings and judicial pollution and living worms that gnaw their guts.  Sometimes no champion arises, and the small folk are overcome—for if they could save themselves, they would not be small.

Why are these small folk so familiar to us?  Why do we find them so persistently peopling the choruses and inns and shores of our stories?  Is it because we live among them and know ourselves to be of them?  Because we, in fact, are the small folk who love good food and naps, who shut the door and sit by the fire, who dwell only in the shadowlands…because we cannot bear too much reality?

“We acknowledge ourselves as a type of the common man,” declare the women of Canterbury.  Then the danger they face upon the return of Archbishop Thomas is a doom from which the champion must shield us as well.

But what is it?



  1. Fanny Price said,

    March 28, 2006 at 9:43 pm

    Well, it has to be tied to the king and the priest. And I think the little people fear for themselves in fearing for the priest. So I think their fear is from the king.

    These little people know better than some little people that there has to be some greater sanction for the rule of a king. There has to be some greater law to which the king aswers. But in defying the church the king has defied that which sanctions his rule.

    These little people who know so much also seem to be aware by intuition that the priest has a responsibility to resist the king and that his resistance will cost him his life.
    When the priest is gone who will stand for order? And if the king raises his hand against the priest, setting his law above God’s law, what is left but human will and chaos?

    They sense tyranny. They fear the attacking of civilization. They fear a blow against the social order which protects and nurtures the little people.

  2. neoplatonist said,

    March 29, 2006 at 10:44 pm

    I was haunted by the recurring line “king rules or barrons rule” in the oppression passages. It’s entirely natural that the little people would look to the Church for the stability and safety of a moral law in the face of upheaval and tyranny. But is this all? Why would the doom on the Archbishop also be a doom on the world?

  3. Fanny Price said,

    March 30, 2006 at 12:12 am

    Don’t you think that the doom of the priest is more than the doom of one man?

  4. neoplatonist said,

    April 1, 2006 at 4:13 am

    Yes, but why not just the “doom of England”?

    I’m thinking of the words just before the quote above:

    “But now a great fear is upon us…
    A fear like birth and death, when we see birth and death alone
    In a void apart. We
    Are afraid in a fear which we cannot know, which we cannot face, which none understands,
    And our hearts are torn from us, our brains unskinned like the layers of an onion, our selves are lost lost
    In a final fear which none understands.”

    Can this kind of fear merely be about political tyranny?

  5. Fanny Price said,

    April 4, 2006 at 8:07 pm

    I don’t think it is. Do you think I said that?

  6. neoplatonist said,

    April 4, 2006 at 8:15 pm

    That’s the way I interpreted the end of your first post–“They sense tyranny. They fear the attacking of civilization”–which is doubtless true. But apparently neither of us thinks that the politics is the real issue.

    How about spiritual tyranny? Like the tyranny of vice or the ambition of men over the service of God? Is that a more acceptable way of understanding the chorus’s fear of tyranny?

  7. Fanny Price said,

    April 4, 2006 at 9:14 pm

    If you are trying to separate the greater consequences of political tyranny from the act of political tyranny then I do not accept this understanding. I think the little people know a tyrant and fear him, but what makes these so wise is their sense that more comes of it than just hardship – the doom of the world.

    But would they have anything to fear if it didn’t begin with a renegade king?

    So I think they are afraid because the king, by his greater position, has upset the order of the world. The little people are left only with human will and chaos. Because the king’s authority is real, his choices carry consequences for all his subjects. Because the king’s position is also spiritual – it is ordained by God – his disobedience carries spiritual consequences.

    And perhaps going further than the question, Thomas is passive. But he can for he knows that carries spiritual consequences as well.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: