#33 Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett
The Pillars of the Earth is a 973-page historical novel by Ken Follett first published in 1989 by the New American Library, a division of the Penguin Group. Divided into 6 manageable part that offers intense story lines backed up by a proper stage, The Pillars of the Earth keeps the reader wanting more. The novel is about the building of a cathedral in the fictional town of Kingsbridge, England. It is set in the middle of the 12th century, primarily during the Anarchy, between the time of the sinking of the White Ship and the murder of Thomas Becket. The book traces the development of Gothic architecture out of the preceding Romanesque architecture and the fortunes of the Kingsbridge priory against the backdrop of actual historical events of the time. Set during the reign of King Stephen and the Anarchy, the novel explores themes of intrigue and conspiracy using historical events to explore medieval architecture, civil war, secular/religious conflicts and shifting political loyalties.
The novel’s Kingsbridge is fictional and not Kingsbridge, Devon, or any other British town of the name. Its location is that of Marlborough, Wiltshire; Follett chose it as Winchester, Gloucester, and Salisbury can be reached within a few days on horseback. Kingsbridge Cathedral is based on the cathedrals of Wells and Salisbury.
In the 1999 Preface to The Pillars of the Earth, Follett informs readers that: “When I was a boy, all my family belonged to a Puritan religious group called the Plymouth Brethren. For us a church was a bare room with rows of chairs around a central table… So I grew up pretty much ignorant of Europe’s wealth of gorgeous church architecture.” But his passion for historical English cathedrals and the stories behind their erections drove him to write this masterpiece.
With his novel, Follett provides an intimate look into cathedral building in 12th century England, in his novel, The Pillars of the Earth. The story follows Prior Philip, a devout monk with a dream to build a great cathedral and his architect Tom along with the timeless struggle of good versus evil, ambition, lust and power. Follett does an amazing job of both presenting a realistic picture of the period and connecting the characters so closely, that the 2 threads are interwoven, instead of one outshining the other.
The imagery he portrays, even in the opening paragraph makes this novel one that is hard to put down:
“The small boys came early to the hanging. It was still dark when the first three or four of them sidled out of the hovels, quiet as cats in their felt boots. A thin layer of fresh snow covered the little town like a new coat of paint, and theirs were the first footprints to blemish its perfect surface.”
Best known for his tautly suspenseful espionage thrillers, Ken Follett took a radical departure far into the past with this epic story of the construction of a cathedral. While there is a mystery here, the book focuses more on the lives of the various people who created the cathedral or were touched by those who did.
I didn’t know what to expect when I first opened this novel; now I believe it is far and away Follett’s best work. While it does not offer the high-level of suspense he so brilliantly maintains in his thrillers, there are still moments of breathless anticipation and heart-pounding fear. The characters are, as Follett’s characters usually are, sympathetic, flawed, ingenious, courageous, cowardly, poignant, and real. His depiction of medieval England is vivid; he weaves a tapestry of adventure, drama, romance and mystery so richly textured that the reader is almost unaware of the underlying themes of good and evil, spiritual trauma, human frailty, and hope.
One of the most enjoyable elements is the way Follett shares his love of cathedrals and his knowledge of how they were constructed in the Middle Ages through revealing human detail. We follow Tom as he plans out the structure, and see how it’s the kind of edifice that a builder lives to create. Later, Jack yearns to carve not merely the decorative geometric shapes he has been given to work on, but natural shapes and designs, and he eventually does carve a figure that strains and grimaces as it appears to hold up part of the church. It is these details that make the cathedral more real to us, just as the people become more real to us, as well. This book is a wonderful way to absorb history and enjoy a multilayered story in the process, but does not overwhelm the reader.