Master and Man in Masterpiece, Part I

I am very fond of narratives set in academe.  So today’s post is going to focus on peri-ac in popular culture:  the dreaming spires of Oxford and a television show set there, the PBS Mystery series called, in various incarnations, Inspector Morse, Lewis, and the latest, Endeavour (  Detectives in Oxford, often called to the university, pursuing murders in the town and among the gown.

I was late coming to the first of these, Inspector Morse.  A detective show featuring a college is right up my alley, but I was unenthusiastic about some other sleuths on Masterpiece Mystery—I find Miss Marple a bit tedious and Inspector Foyle a study in grey—and simply didn’t tune in enough to know that Morse was my cup of tea.  So I only became a fan once he was gone and had been replaced by his sidekick, one-time Detective Sergeant Robbie Lewis, promoted to the rank of inspector and then to the title of his own TV show.

So I love this series, now, and have steadfastly watched as it returned every summer, morphing to a different duo (Robbie Lewis and his sidekick, Detective Sergeant James Hathaway), and then to a different era (the early 1960s of Endeavour, a prequel showcasing the young Morse).

My initial focus on Lewis, though, led me notice motifs in the show that may have gone unnoticed had I started with Morse. The interlinked series seems to be knowingly playing with the medieval concepts of the three orders–concepts of master and man and their mutability in contemporary life.

And what is the three orders, you ask?  Lucky for you I’ve got my meta on. I am indebted to Peter Speed’s sturdy trilogy, among the first books I was assigned in graduate school. Their titles serve as a handy recap of the three orders: 1) Those Who Fought (knights and squires; kings and masters were a subset), 2) Those Who Worked (peasants, usually tilling the land of those who fought; the yeomen, as it were), and 3) Those Who Prayed (the religious orders). The idea of triple status, Speed cheerfully tells us ended only with the revolutions of the Enlightenment.

In the original Inspector Morse the titular character was the master—those who fought. Why?  The class distinction between Morse and Lewis in the original Inspector Morse was marked:  Morse has an upper class education and accent; Lewis is a relatively uneducated lad with a Geordie accent; Morse is an aesthete who loves opera; Lewis’s information on cultural or historical subjects is often lacking or comes from television.  Morse gives the orders, often condescendingly and in haste; Lewis carries them out.

Morse’s transport is also distinctive, just like a knight’s steed would be. In righting wrongs on the streets of Oxford, he drove a bright red Jaguar.  The international provenance of the operas he listens to links him with a cultivated elite—those who ruled. Lewis was a dogsbody, often on foot.  Master. And man.  Yet I think as the series morphed into Lewis, Lewis became a type of dual-order character.

Part II, explaining more about this, comes soon.