The Pillars of the earth

By Ken Follett

The Pillars of the earth, a novel by Ken Follett
Book details

Fair warning, this isn't going to be a normal review, it's the first one I've written post-covid and is much more personal than usual.

Some years ago, my father started reading again. Previous to that he hadn't read much for the last few decades outside of Haynes manuals and instruction leaflets (always as a last resort). Though my Mother and I have always been voracious readers. I like to think I played some part in his re-awakened literary thirst, some of the first books he read were Mike Shevdon's Courts of the Feyre series that I lent him. He didn't much care for genre, but this series really caught his attention, in part I think due to the historical aspect of the books - but also because they are just damned fine novels. Historical fiction became his real love and he began devouring books from authors such as Paul Doherty, Rory Clements, Peter Tremane, Ariana Franklin and others. Ken Follett was his favourite though, and The Pillars of the Earth his favourite Ken Follett novel.

Earlier this year, just days before Covid 19 set in and changed everything, my father lost his fight with Cancer. We'd known about the illness for a year or so, after he went to the Dr's complaining of a pain in his chest. He was told it was stage 4, had spread pretty much everywhere and was inoperable. He had some palliative care, and the health service were amazing, but it was only a matter of time. We have been lucky in some ways, the funeral was one of the last in the area before such groups were restricted, although turnout was around half of what we expected. I've never approached anything by Ken Follett but I thought it should read at least one of my father's favourite books. 

I'd heard of Ken Follett long before my father read his work. A popular author, he wrote thriller fiction before writing this epic (and I mean epic in every sense, it's over a thousand pages long) and turning his attention to historical fiction. This book and the Kingsbridge series is what I expect most people know him for. It's been translated into at least twenty different languages, was number one best-seller in the UK for some time, was on Germany's best seller list for six years and according to the author still sells over 100,000 copies in the USA each year. It's been adapted into a TV mini-series, three board-games and even a point and click style video game.

The story is set in the 12th Century, in the fictitious town of Kingsbridge and concerns the building of a cathedral, following stone mason Tom Builder - who dreams of building the finest Cathedral the world has ever seen, and his family who suffer / pickup his legacy. Prior Phillip is the monk who shares Tom's dream and tries to help to make it a reality.

The 12th Century was a crude, dangerous and often lawless place and Follett does an admirable job of creating the right atmosphere, his depiction of medieval life and larger events around England convincing with sweeping forests, imposing castles and lots of mud. The staging of the novel is clever, set during the time known in British history as "The Anarchy" (great sounding name but I imagine not so great if you had to live through it). King Henry I dies without a clear (male) heir. This resulting power vacuum causes his daughter Maud and nephew "Stephen of Blois" to fight over the land and rightful crown with civil war and lots of political upheaval.

Although, as mentioned there are descriptions of larger events, The Pillars of the Earth is really an intimate journey of a family and a monastery surviving in such times. The "multi-generational" story spans around 50 years or so, covering Tom's life and that of his children along with the life of Prior Phillip. Both have powerful enemies who seem intent of ruining them. So we've got a view of life in "The Anarachy", some romance, some intrigue and lots of drama.

As mentioned, it's a big book but the pace is fair, I think it helps that the stories moves through a whole fifty years, it's also engaging enough without going into lengthy exposition. Characters are well developed and each have their own agenda, although like many authors, Follett struggles to write about the intimate part of relationships and these parts did jar a little. The characters are somewhat type-cast. The bad guys are suitably evil and do really evil deeds (as often as they can), the women are frequently described based on their physical attributes (although thankfully they are presented as strong characters) while the men are real men, rough and tough. The only character I really liked was Prior Phillips, although I did still found myself caring for what happened to (some) of the others. You can also clearly see Follett's experience writing thriller fiction and this is one of the strengths. It's an historical novel but with some thriller elements, he creates that sense that something serious is about to transpire, keeping you hooked into reading more to find out.

I did really enjoy the The Pillars of the Earth, I can see why it's still so popular and why my Father loved it. The grand, sweeping vision told through fifty years of hardship but yet as an intimate, microscopic view through as small part of medieval England, warts, mud, politics and religious fervor included.

Written on 10th August 2020 by .

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