The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett

Title: The Pillars of the Earth PillarsoftheEarth(Kingsbridge #1)
Author: Ken Follett
Year of Publication: 1989
Length: 983 pages
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Read? Re-Read
Rating: 4.5 stars

I love an epic. I particularly love a historical epic. And The Pillars of the Earth, set primarily during the 12th century civil war between Stephen and Maud, is about as good as they come.

A monk named Philip, who believes God has a mission for him, sets out to reform a tiny monastic cell in the woods, but ends up prior of the Kingsbridge monastery, seat of the Kingsbridge bishopric. He initially thinks of Archdeacon Waleran as an ally, but when he realises that Waleran shamelessly manipulated him in order to get himself appointed Bishop of Kingsbridge, Philip vows never to be blindsided like that again. Though an extremely clever man and a capable organizer, Philip begins the book with almost astonishing naivete — not even in general ignorance, but because he, a man whose intentions are always good and peaceful, has trouble conceiving that not everyone is as honest as he is. Just as he’s taking control of the monastery, his path crosses with that of Tom Builder, a genius architect and master mason. Unfortunate circumstances have left Tom out of work: he had been building a mansion for a local knight’s son, William Hamleigh, who was meant to marry an earl’s daughter, Aliena, but Aliena refuses to have the boorish oaf, and with the wedding off, William cancels the house as well. Tom and his family wander in the woods looking for work, but when his wife died in childbirth in the wilderness, Tom decides to expose the infant they cannot care for. (This infant will later end up in the care of the Kingsbridge monks). In the woods, he encounters the outlaw Ellen and her son Jack. Ellen has been living in the forest for over a decade, after she cursed a monk, a priest, and a knight for unjustly hanging Jack’s father, but she falls in love with Tom and decides to accompany him, also believing that Jack needs exposure to civilization. In order to assure Tom of work and their family of stability, Jack starts a fire in the Kingsbridge cathedral, bringing it to the ground — and Philip gives Tom the job of master builder to design him a new and more glorious building. Meanwhile, Aliena’s father gets involved with the first phase of the rebellion against King Stephen, but the Hamleighs get wind of it and seize his castle. William brutally rapes Aliena and disfigures her brother Richard; Aliena later escapes and finds her father in prison. He makes her swear an oath to help Richard recover the earldom from the Hamleighs — but first she has to keep from starving to death. After several failed attempts at other jobs, she takes to purchasing wool fleeces from peasants to sell to the markets — but immediately finds that she’ll be cheated simply because no one will pay a girl what they’d pay a man. Prior Philip comes to her rescue, buying her wool at a fair price and allowing her to get herself and her brother back on their feet.

And this is all only in the first section of the book. Throughout the novel, Philip and the rest have to contend with the scheming Waleran, the murdering brute William, and his insidious mother Regan, among other petty enemies, all of whom want to see the Kingsbridge Cathedral fail. They find themselves in a delicate balance during the civil war and the Anarchy, when Stephen and Maud trade power, and when, more often than not, the rule of law means next to nothing. And for a lot of the book, the good guys lose. It’s hard to get through at points, because it just seems so damned unfair — but there’s always a glimmer of hope, always some way that the clever, resourceful, loyal people will win out over the vicious and mean-spirited, and so, as a reader, you plunge along with them.

Follett is a masterful storyteller. He nimbly balances the need to convey information about the time period with his character building, something that’s not easy to do. The technical explanations can easily drown the human story if you’re not careful. And make no mistake, a reader of Pillars of the Earth will learn a lot, not just about the Anarchy, but about the social history of the Middle Ages, about the ecclesiastical hierarchy and monastic daily life, about masonry and geometry, about fulling and parish guilds and medieval war tactics. Yet somehow, it all feels naturally conveyed, not like a lecture, because all of those details are integral to the characters’ lives. The cathedral is, appropriately, a framework, but the story is about how people live with each other. 

Philip is incredibly clever and generous of heart, but he’s also somewhat dogmatic and more than a little prideful. He struggles with that, knowing he should learn better humility, but finding it incredibly difficult — which, as any gifted student can attest, is a real challenge when you know you’re a mile smarter than anyone around you. By contrast, Tom Builder is quietly confident and incredibly smart, while being completely illiterate. He yearns to build something beautiful, something to last the ages, but he struggles with the secret of having abandoned his infant son in the woods — and as the boy grows up in the monastery, Tom has to try not to give himself away. He also has a blind spot where his older son is concerned, as Alfred is an unabashed bully, and moreover, not remotely talented. He’s a competent workman, but not intelligent or imaginative; all that he is comes from brute strength, which he has no compunction about using on those smaller and weaker than him — including his sister Martha and stepbrother Jack. That leads to conflict in the family, as Ellen tries to call Tom out on his favoritism. Jack is a strange boy at first, poorly socialized, but he soon proves himself a genius as well, who quickly takes to the intellectual challenges of building. And then there’s Aliena, an incredible woman who pretty much everyone falls in love with, but who rejects all advances. Follett does a nice job conveying the psychological reality of a rape survivor in a world with even less sympathy for that condition than our own. Aliena builds a tough shell around her, but triggers still leap up to surprise her, and they definitely continue to affect her life for years afterwards. Aliena is a Scarlett O’Hara figure in a lot of ways. She comes from privilege but suffers incredible trauma, then has to claw her way back to some semblance of stability, and every time she thinks she’s making advances, something slaps her back down. She keeps going, though, putting her shoulder to the wind and braving her way through every challenge. She also has the misfortune of being a supremely intelligent woman in a world that doesn’t reward that: her brother Richard, while not a fundamentally bad person, is listless and lazy, suited for nothing but soldiership, ungrateful for the assistance he receives and embarrassed to have to take it. The last POV character, interestingly enough, is William — and I do find it interesting that Follett gives us so much insight into his head. He’s not even the prime mover among the villains — that would be Waleran. He’s all muscle, brute force, and senseless violence, a pustule of indignant fury and irrational resentment. I suspect a lot of the reason for making him a POV is to heighten the tension for the heroes. The reader frequently knows that something terrible is about to happen, and the terror of wondering how the Kingsbridge set will defend themselves drives much of the novel.

The book sometimes falls prey to accusations of historical inaccuracy, and there are a few — a very few, and they’re pretty nit-picky details (the name Francis would have been unlikely for a Welsh peasant; sugar was not yet widely available; British squirrels don’t hibernate; etc). Many of the things I suspect most people would take as inaccuracies are actually the result of common misconceptions about the medieval period. Many of the characters have attributes which in the 12th century would have been extraordinary, but not impossible. There was more of a middle class than high school history classes let on. The economic power which Aliena wrests from her society would not have been the norm, but it would not have been even particularly uncommon. Many women took over businesses after husbands, brothers, or fathers died. What makes Aliena more unusual is that she managed it at such a young age without having married first. And we do see that it’s a struggle for her, and we see the traps that religion and economy lay for her — but still, there were women who did as she did. The brilliance of Tom and Jack is likewise unusual, but clearly there were men of such prodigious intelligence and talent. Even Ellen isn’t impossible, and I do thank Follett for not attaching any overt pagan religion to her. She’s anti-Christian and makes oaths “by all the gods”, but there’s no pretense of making her a Druidess or anything. Her curses are firmly grounded in folk superstition. It’s unusual that as many characters in the book would be bilingual as they are, but Follett at least gives plausible explanations in each case. On the whole, this book offers more authenticity than it doesn’t.

There are only a couple of things that ding this book down from being a solid 5 stars, for me. One is is that the delineation between good and bad is a little too neat. While the POV characters are fabulously complex people, they and their opposite numbers still come down very solidly on either side of the morality line. Philip, Tom, Aliena, Jack good; William, Waleran, Alfred, Regan bad. While Follett does a lot to explore various psychological and emotional realities, no one’s really presented as morally grey. I also think that more female characters could use detailed attention. Aliena is, as I’ve said, fantastic, but she’s really the only woman whose head we get a look into — and she’s the POV for fewer pages than any of the other main characters. Ellen, also fantastic, is off-screen for too much of the book, and she’s never a POV character. Regan is barely more than a stock villainess, Martha is broadly overlooked, and no other female characters rank higher than tertiary status.

Overall, The Pillars of the Earth is just flat-out a masterpiece. It’s beyond engaging, it’s absorbing. Follett makes England of 900 years ago seem real and vital, full of believable people, relatable despite its differences from the world we live in now (and, in some cases, he makes it apparent how little people have changed in nearly a millennium). Reading a thousand-page book is always an investment, but it’s one I very seriously recommend that any fan of historical fiction make for The Pillars of the Earth.

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