World Without End, by Ken Follett

Title: World Without EndWorldWithoutEnd (Kingsbridge)
Author: Ken Follett
Year of Publication: 2007
Length: 1025 pages
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Read? Re-Read
Rating: 4 stars

Kingsbridge of the 14th century is a different place than Kingsbridge of the 12th. Two hundred years does a lot for England, and the sense that you get in World Without End is that it’s more advanced yet less imaginative in some ways, more dogmatic but less truly spiritual. Politics are no more stable than ever, but at least they more or less confine themselves to the nobles, rather than tearing apart the countryside in civil war like in Stephen and Maud’s time. There’s a sense of stagnation. Things are the way they are because that’s the way they’ve been, and few people think to question it. Life is more orderly, and less free.

And then the plague hits, and everything changes.

The book starts about twenty years before the plague, when Merthin and Ralph, sons of a knight who’s fallen on hard times, join up with Caris, daughter of the richest wool merchant in town, and Gwenda, daughter of a landless labourer, playing in the woods on a festival day. They oversee an altercation between several knights. The survivor, Thomas, makes Merthin help him to hide a letter, with the promise to deliver it if he should hear of Thomas’s death. The mystery clearly has dangerous political origins, but Merthin can’t learn anything more about it, and Thomas enters the monastery, determined to live a quiet life from now on.

Ten years later, Caris and Merthin are in love, Ralph is struggling to win acclaim as a squire, and Gwenda is pursuing the serf Wulfric. Their trials are, as you can imagine, many. Caris can’t figure out what her place in the world should be, as a clever woman who would like to be a physician but clearly can’t be, and Merthin is finishing an apprenticeship under a master who is jealous of his talent (a descendant of Jack Builder, Merthin has clearly inherited that genius). Unlike in Pillars of the Earth, the enemies are inside the walls here. The prior, Godwyn, is no righteous protector of the city, but a greedy abuser of it, and he has help from Gwenda’s brother Philemon, a sycophantic kleptomaniac. The townspeople and the nuns both find themselves at odds with the monastery under his leadership, and Merthin and Caris in particular have to battle him for the good of Kingsbridge — particularly when it comes to rebuilding the bridge into town following its collapse. From Gwenda, we see the point of view of the lowest of the low — and the main villain in her piece is Merthin’s brother Ralph, no noble knight, but a raping and murdering brute whose shame over his own failures leads him to oppress his tenants.

It’s hard to talk about a lot of this book without giving away major plot points, but suffice it to say that World Without End does a nice job examining the major social changes happening in England in the early- to mid-fourteenth century. Years of famine and poor weather start the trickle, racheting up the tensions between the peasantry and the nobility, and then the plague turns the tables entirely. For the first time, the lower classes have power, in the form of a labour shortage — with fields going untilled and harvests going unreaped, landless labourers can demand higher wages, and even serfs try to negotiate new terms for their tenancies. The plague also up-ends religion in some major ways, making some people doubt the power of God, leading others to give themselves over to fanaticism. I remember how astonished I was back in high school, when my AP Euro teacher explained to us (with the backing of Simon Schama) that without the Black Death, the Renaissance likely could not have happened. This book doesn’t cover enough of a span of time to really see that happen, but you can see the first snowballs of the avalanche.

I enjoy this book, but I feel like it falls down in a lot of places that Pillars of the Earth doesn’t. For one thing, its villains don’t have the sort of sweeping power that the original’s do. There’s no one with the sort of broad scope and vaulting ambition that Bishop Waleran had. Godwyn and Philemon don’t demonstrate any larger aims — they’re confined to Kingsbridge, and the things they choose to care about are so much more petty, so small, so pedestrian. They’re middle managers, not evil overlords. Even Ralph’s sadism pales next to that of his opposite number from Pillars, William Hamleigh. William at least had drive as an antagonist. He was a brute, no intellectual and no planner, but he had naked hunger and a lust for revenge in him, which made him a more interesting opponent. Ralph is just a thug. His villainy is almost casual.

Caris feels anachronistic in ways that Aliena doesn’t. I don’t know if Follett was attempting to write a heroine that would more strongly appeal to modern female readers, but mostly it just ends up ringing falsely. Her desire for such complete and total independence just isn’t rational inside the world she lives in — but even more than that, it also comes off more as selfishness than as some sort of proto-feminism. I do appreciate that she comes to find satisfaction in her work, as it demonstrates that she’s not totally irreconcilable with her reality, but still, there is so much in her attitude that seems peevish rather than autonomous. She wants people to do as she wishes, but she doesn’t want to give anything back, and she’s hellbent on the idea that forming any sort of attachment to anyone will jeopardize her own sense of self. The secondary female characters — Lady Phillippa, Mattie, Madge — actually give a more realistic view of how a woman could be successful and as independent as possible in the Middle Ages while still being part of her family and community. Unfortunately, as in Pillars of the Earth, we never get any other female POVs, so we don’t get to experience a lot from that angle. I also end up finding the romantic drama between Caris and Merthin tedious, rather than inspiring. Their conflict never really changes, and it takes them rather longer than seems sensible to arrive at the logical solution to their problems.

The book’s views on medicine are also somewhat anachronistic, but I’m more willing to forgive that as cast in the same light as the exceptionalism in Pillars of the Earth. Such wholesale rejection of the theories of Galen wouldn’t start happening in Europe for about another century, though, and it wouldn’t really catch on in the general populace until much later on. The same goes for some of the religious notions that creep in towards the end of the book.

Despite all of that, World Without End is still a cut above a lot of historical fiction. I appreciate how much Follett deals with those outside the aristocratic sphere — townspeople, merchants, nuns, priors, and serfs. Gwenda in particular is a great character: tough as nails, pragmatic, hard-working, and sharp-tongued. Caris’s cleverness is great fun when she’s not being too cantankerous, and through Merthin we get more insights into architecture and principles of building. The world is well-drawn and detailed, breathing in a way that makes it easy to visualise life in a village of the fourteenth century. The book also deals, without much obliqueness, with the idea of homosexual relationships in the medieval period, a topic which gets little treatment, either in non-fiction or fiction. I appreciate Follett’s willingness to combat the erasure. Really it only suffers by comparison to its exemplary predecessor, which is perhaps an unfair mark to hold it against. If you enjoy historical fiction, and if you like a good long epic as much as I do, you’ll enjoy World Without End.

Follett has announced that he intends to write a third Kingsbridge novel, which he will probably begin writing in 2014. I can’t express how fervently I hope that it’s going to take place another two hundred years later, during the dissolution of the monasteries. It would be a perfect way to round out the trilogy — watching how the town deals with the Reformation, factions on each side, trying to protect the books and artwork belonging to the cathedral and the monastery when so many across England were destroyed — there’s just so much potential! I’ll be eagerly awaiting further word.

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