Ken Follett, internationally praised master of split-second suspense, author of numerous bestsellers, reaches beyond the expected to achieve his most luminous and outstanding novel. The epic story “The Pillars of the Earth” is about the building of a cathedral in 12th century in England and the lives of the people intertwined with it and each other and represents a deep, enduring narrative. It also may be regarded as a gripping tale of faith, aspiration, bloodshed and treachery. “Pillars of the Earth” represents an example of the struggle between church and state, shows the development of a village to a town and the characters’ life stories. The book covers over nearly a fifty-year period. It is a historical novel, for the story is made somehow real by close connections to historical events.
Ken Follett tells us a story about a magnificent Cathedral in Kingsbridge that arises in a time of famine, civil war, religious strife and war. The time that plot takes place at is known as Dark Ages. At the same time the author acquaints us with Tom, the master builder, Aliena, the noblewoman, Philip, the prior of Kingsbridge, Jack, the artist in stone and Ellen, the woman from the forest who casts a curse. While reading this story the characters become as real as people you know. Their strengths and weaknesses feel as sound as earth. Moreover, almost from the very beginning the story grasps the reader’s attention with an intrigue and remains that way through to the end. This is a sensuous and continuing love story and an epic that shines with the violent spirit of a passionate period in history.
England of early twelfth century was a country of instability and permanent change. King Henry I had died without a male heir. His daughter Maude was to be the queen. However, English barons, for the most part, refused to swear fealty to her. As a result, Stephen of Blois, Maude’s first cousin, usurped her rights and proclaimed himself a king. That event was to thrust England into a ferocious civil war that was to last for many, many years, turning England into a almost lawless, chaotic and disorderly land, until Maude’s son became King Henry II of England.
In fact, it is almost impossible to summarize the plot of this book. The story takes place in the 1100’s, and tells one history of a man called Tom Builder and his starving family that consists of a pitiless son Alfred and a charming daughter Martha. His life long dream was to build a cathedral. His beloved ones die and are driven away because he is too blind to see the conditions that could lead to their loss. The lives of his family intertwine with a life of a humble and clever monk Phillip. Although, the fates have been involved and provided Tom with a chance to pursue his dream, building a cathedral. A number of other individuals some evil, some good have a great impact on the lives of characters and their goals. For example, Ellen is one of the strong personages of the story. Many alleged this strong-willed independent woman of the forest to be a witch. Aliena (another character) the Earl’s daughter is good-looking, independent-minded, and nearly as interesting as a colourful fungus growing on a fallen tree. Philip, extravagant but wasteful young monk with an uneasy childhood, is the only interesting character. However, he manages to spoil that with actually incredible level of naiveté, being carefully foiled at every turn by the simplest and most transparent of plots and manoeuvrings.
Returning to the plot we see that simultaneously there was the war among kings for the leadership in England. It is important to mention that these events are based on real developments within England at that time. One of the victims of war was Aliena with her brother, the children of a deposed earl. After long lasting hardships and sufferings end up at the same monastery as Tom. They vowed to their father that they would regain back what was once his. The Prior of the Monastery was monk named Phillip who also dreamed about a cathedral. However, stepping on a higher rank has turned his back on God, let himself be ruled by ambition and refused from his dream.
We see how skilfully the author merges the ambitions of three men that collide throughout four decades during which social and political confusion and the domestic politics of the church has an effect on the growth of the cathedral and the fortunes of the protagonists. Beginning with a mystery that impact the following events, the narrative is a swing of anxiety where circumstances change with shocking but true impulsiveness and unpredictability. The depictions of an aloof and idealistic master builder, a devout, dogmatic but kind-hearted prior and an immoral, deceitful and ruthless bishop are moderated by other protagonists. It is significant to point out Ken Follett’s portrayals of the enduring human emotions, such as greed, ambition, bravery, dedication, revenge and love.
Follett’s perfect swiftness of plot creates a feeling of suspense in a story. Action, intrigue, violence and passion are very important parts of the story and represent a contrast with a systematic description of an edifice rising in slow stages. We should not omit Follett’s depiction of the unstable balance of power between monarchy and religion in society in the Middle Ages times. It is noteworthy how finely the author conveyed the bright points of architecture so that the cathedral becomes clearly visualized in the reader’s mind. The author also imparts his extensive knowledge of the design and building of the great cathedrals.
Unfortunately, Follett felt compelled to include a few brutal incidents not essential to the plot and some sexual escapades that make the book inappropriate for younger readers.
It is unnecessary to say that in the end many different threads intersected through the plot are parts of the same bundle. It is also difficult to say what character is a central one, for there are so many ones. Of course, one significant character that holds the whole story together and represents the symbol of it is that of cathedral of Kingsbridge. In fact, the story is built on contrasts; it begins and ends with a hanging. By this, the author wanted to communicate the idea that cathedral that is erected by mortal beings is supposed to outlive them. Follett’s symbolism of human death and eternity in stone threads throughout the story.
It is an incredible thing that Follett has succeeded with so many different characters and with such a long-time period in creating such engaging characters. There are many individual characters and to get to know them better the outlook is close to one character for a particular time. This is done so skilfully and in a very subtle manner. Follett’s characters are brightly and sometimes even extravagantly portrayed. The device of the author is that though none of the characters is completely good or evil and it is for a reader to decide who is decent and who is rather deceitful. Moreover, and old battle between good and evil is ever present throughout the destinies of all the characters of Follett. There were those who sought to do good but did evil, believing that the end justified the means. The sharply drawn characters grasp the imagination of the reader, especially against a backdrop of civil war. England of twelfth century is represented in scrupulous detail, providing an unforgettable panorama for the lives lived within the pages of this excellent work of historical fiction.
Despite the wide range of historical details, especially concerning architecture and construction of the cathedral, much of the language style as well as the psychology of the characters and their relationships seem to be firmly rooted in the 20th century. It is full of surprises and is written beautifully all the way through so that you can almost feel what it is like there in England of twelfth century and what the characters were feeling.
Follett, K. The Pillars of the Earth. Pan: 2003.