Visions of Paradise

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Pillars of the Earth

For readers of science fiction, there are certain acknowledged classics which all serious fans eventually read (Dune, Foundation Trilogy, Martian Chronicles, etc.) The same is true for readers of historical fiction, and one of those recent classics is Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth. Follett is primarily a writer of contemporary thrillers, certainly one of my least-favorite genres, but many people have told me such good things about his historical epic, and its premise about the building of a medieval cathedral in England also intrigued me. I knew eventually I would read the book, and my interest was spurred even higher recently when he published a quasi-sequel World Without End which also garnered very positive reviews.

There are several main characters in Pillars, most of them dedicated to the building of the cathedral, several whose lives interact with the builders, and two who are dedicated to the destruction of the cathedral:

• Prior Philip is the dynamic prior of Kingsbridge Monastery who spearheads the plan to build the cathedral and spends the rest of his life carrying out those plans;

• Tom is the “master builder” who works hand-in-hand with Philip until his unfortunate death threatens to derail the entire project;

• Jack is Tom’s stepson who is a wild card early in the novel but who during his travels across Europe becomes as enamored with Kingsbridge Cathedral as Tom and Philip ever were;

• Ellen is Jack’s mother who is considered a witch by most other characters in the novel for reasons which remain the novel’s overriding mystery until its very end. Initially she and Jack live in the forest until she falls in love with Tom and eventually follows him to Kingsbridge;

• William is the son of the Earl of Shiring who does whatever is possible to destroy both the cathedral and the entire town of Kingsbridge which, under Philip, has grown from a tiny village to a thriving community rivaling Shiring in importance;

• Bishop Waleron is initially Philip’s supporter in the building of the cathedral, but soon his own greed turns him against Philip as he becomes a supporter of William. Waleron is also deeply involved in the mystery surrounding Ellen and Jack’s mysterious father;

• Aliena is the daughter of the original Earl of Shiring who makes the mistake of supporting Queen Maud in the civil war with King Stephen of England, while William’s father supported Stephen. Aliena’s father is killed and she falls under the protection of Philip.

Obviously Follet is a master plotter, and while Pillars shows evidence of his thrillers, it is primarily a long, detailed saga. The people are varied and interesting, not only the main characters but many of the secondary ones as well. Only the villains–William, Waleron, and Tom’s elder son Alfred–could have used more rounding as they were all fairly one-sidedly evil.

Follett also does an outstanding job in creating 12th century England by showing its people, their activities, and their surroundings. The way the civil war between Maud and Stephen affects the lives of ordinary citizens is shown in numerous ways, some subtle, some important to the overarching story of the cathedral. While I am not a historian, I truly felt absorbed into the life of medieval England.

Follett is a master at writing exciting sequences, such as the burning of Kingsbridge, the collapse of the cathedral, and the defense of Kingsbridge against William’s second attack. But what really raises the book above the level of a simple-plotted adventure is the cathedral itself, since it is the real main character of Pillars. Through nearly 1,000 pages we watch the cathedral grow and fall and its effect on the lives of the people involved with it as well as on the entire community of Kingsbridge. Later we watch the cathedral transform and grow even bigger and more majestic. The fact that Philip, Tom and Jack all love the cathedral gives the novel a focal point which helps make Pillars greater than the sum of its various parts. While I cannot guarantee that all readers will be enamored either with the cathedral itself or, as I was, with the characters’ love of the cathedral, still Pillars of the Earth is an exciting and fascinating look at life in 12th century medieval England. I recommend it highly.


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