A J Cronin’s ‘The Keys of the Kingdom’

‘A humanist rebel is a great attraction as a hero and particularly so when he takes on the might of fighting tradition and bureaucracy, of challenging the ‘powers-that-be’ who are well-entrenched and working in their own self-interest’.

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Cronin’s work have been thought-provoking and ‘The Citadel’ was his most popular and revolutionary book that led to the reforming of the Health Services. Herein he narrates the tale of a rebellious priest who struggles with dogma while doing his best to help people around him. His methods are unconventional and his motivations unique and often run contrary to the staid guidelines that often come to dominate large bureaucracies.

Idiosyncrasy is Father Chisholm’s signature style and it makes an appearance rather early in his life as he survives the unfortunate loss of his parents as a young child and who is forced to live with relatives who are mean and scheming to deprive him of even the slender advantages he holds. Such a loveless childhood does seem to have an impact on his character. As a young man he hopes for the love of a childhood sweetheart but is cruelly disappointed again as the girl encounters a tragic death.

He turns to religion for solace and is shown to have an intense interest in his subject. He displays a curious mixture of scientific temperament and logical skepticism that brings him to conflict again with the establishment. Indeed his initial years as a priest are marked as unspectacular and failures in conventional terms.

He takes up the challenge of re-establishing the Mission in China and finds the calling of his life. He wins the admiration of the people and bridges religious divides with one and all. Known to be quirky he is still a well-loved figure and one who acquires the stagecraft to survive the battles of life. He makes some shrewd moves that show his depth of understanding of the human psyche and the need to play games at times to win the position. Can ends ever justify the means? is an interesting question to pose to him during these adventures. And yet there is a marked lack of self-interest as he is least inclined to gather glory and riches for himself.

Things come to quiet end when he returns to Scotland and adopts a young orphan. He intensely wishes to continue his calling but has run foul of the powerful bureaucracy. It is a tribute to Cronin’s skill that he shows the narrative subtly influence Monsignor Sleeth who comes to sympathize with the iconoclastic veteran and who decides to support him as a fitting tribute to his lifetime of devotion for his calling.

Photographer:Anthony Lee Collection: Caiaimage Courtesy: Getty Images
Photographer:Anthony Lee
Collection: Caiaimage
Courtesy: Getty Images

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