My days of reading very long books are fewer and farther between than they used to be, but maybe it’s that infrequency which makes it even more satisfying to finally finish one. For the last couple weeks I’ve been working my way through Ken Follett’s novel The Pillars of the Earth. This 1000 page pageant of a novel covers English history from the sinking of the White Ship to the slaying of Thomas Becket. The bulk of the book is set during the civil war between Stephen and Maud, an era when England was so torn apart by war and mayhem that one contemporary said it seemed like “Christ and his saints slept.”
The story has several principal characters all revolving around the town of Kingsbridge. Philip is the young, idealistic prior of Kingsbridge, determined to bring order to the monks and the town. Tom the Builder is the master stonemason whom Philip engages to build a new cathedral there. Jack, Tom’s stepson, has a gift for stone carving, and after many hard knocks succeeds Tom as master and attempts to turn the cathedral into a Gothic masterpiece. Aliena, the daughter of the former Earl of Shiring, uses her wits and skills to regain the neighboring earldom of Shiring for her brother, and falls in love with Jack in the process.
Then you have the villains of the piece. William Hamleigh is the evil baron who has wrested Shiring from Aliena’s family and instated a reign of terror in all the nearby villages and hamlets. Waleran Bigod is the nefarious archdeacon who long ago connived at the death of Jack’s father. Together, these two oppose Prior Philip in all of his plans, determined to thwart the building of the cathedral in Kingsbridge.
The story, told in third person, shifts in point of view among these main characters. Ken Follett does a remarkable job interweaving convincing plot lines and holding the reader’s interest while covering large spans of time in the characters’ lives. He describes a full-orbed picture of medieval life, and the pages come to life with fleece markets, grain mills, colored stained glass, Gothic arches, and the daily life of monks.
One objection to this book, and it is a substantial objection, is the graphic sexual descriptions that saturate the story. William of Hamleigh spends all of his time violently raping women in the present, reminiscing about violently raping women in the past, or dreaming about violently rape women in the future. The “good” characters in the novel also spend a great portion of their time fantasizing about sex or actually having sex (in graphic, anatomical detail), most of it out of wedlock. All of the sexual scenes could have been rewritten in a more tasteful way or omitted entirely, and they do detract from the story.
When I wasn’t busy filtering out all the lurid sex scenes, I did truly enjoy the detailed historical plot of the novel. While reading a historical novel, I can never stop myself from evaluating it and wondering, “Just how historical is all of this?” Right away, I could tell that Follett had definitely done his political research. The continual battlefield reversals between Stephen and Maud framed the story with a precise historical outline, and the scene at the end of the book showing Thomas Becket’s murder showed strict adherence to primary source accounts. But what about all the main characters and the events of their lives? Were they “real”?
I had never heard of the town of Kingsbridge or the cathedral there. Digging a little deeper on the Internet, I discovered what I had suspected all along, that aside from the major political figures, all the characters of the story and the town they live in are fictional. This, of course, is no detriment to the story since it is the historical fiction author’s prerogative to invent characters that shed light on the history of an era. The one requirement, however, is that those characters must accurately represent the time from which they are sprung. For the most part, Ken Follett’s characters meet this requirement although I do think that some of his characters (like Jack’s mother Ellen) were more “free-thinking” than any medieval would have been.
I appreciated that Ken Follett did not make the institutional church the villain of the novel, even though there are several villainous churchmen in the cast of characters. Instead, as he wraps up the book with the story of Thomas Becket’s martyrdom, he uses that story to encapsulate the struggles that all his varied protagonists have encountered throughout the book. The lawless men who are willing to kill and rape and pillage seem to have triumphed, but in the end it is the weak ones that refuse to compromise who win the day. Henry II ends up kneeling in penance at the tomb of Thomas Becket, William Hamleigh ends up being hanged, and Prior Philip ends up getting a new cathedral in Kingsbridge.
Ken Follett has a “sequel” of sorts to The Pillars of the Earth which is titled World without End. Another long historical pageant, the events of this novel take place in the same fictional town of Kingsbridge, 200 years later during the time of the Black Plague. If you know anything about my own historical interests, you’ll know that there’s no way I’m going to be able to pass up that read. I’ve already placed a hold on it at the library.
I guess my days of reading very long books aren’t as few and far between as I thought….