When I posted about Ken Follett’s historical novel The Pillars of the Earth a few weeks ago, I mentioned that I would soon be reading World without End, the sequel set in fourteenth century England. World without End is set in the same fictional medieval town of Kingsbridge, and although the main characters are all descendants from those in the previous novel, it’s not really necessary to have the background of the first novel to enjoy the second.
The story centers around the lives of several young people. Merthin and Ralph, the two sons of a disgraced knight, have very different personalities and ambitions. While Merthin aspires to be a master builder (and eventually to remodel the Kingsbridge cathedral), Ralph tries to regain the family position by serving the Lord of Shiring and becoming a knight. Merthin is intelligent and kindhearted; Ralph is proud and cruel, reminiscent of the evil William Hamleigh from the previous book.
Merthin spends most of his life trying to marry Caris, the daughter of a wealthy wool merchant. Though she loves Merthin and has a sexual relationship with him, Caris is unwilling to give up her own independence. As a young woman, she shrewdly helps her father with his business, developing a prosperous new way of making cloth; when circumstances conspire against her forcing her to become a nun, she becomes adept at the art of healing and a leader in the convent.
Caris’s cousin Godwyn is a self-righteous young man determined to become prior of the monastery of Kingsbridge. He believes that lies, theft, even murder are justified as long as they are in the service of God. Both Merthin and Caris have several conflicts with Godwyn as he strives to impose his will on the town of Kingsbridge.
There are a multitude of other characters besides these four I have described, and Follett uses the first several hundred pages of the book to establish the characters and their relationships. The first part of the book gives us several glimpses of the Hundred Years’ War–Caris travels to France and witnesses the Battle of Crecy–but it is about halfway through the book that the central historical event takes shape. The Black Plague comes over from the continent and decimates the inhabitants of Kingsbridge. The main characters and the rest of the town folk struggle to stay alive and maintain orderly lives in the face of the ever-present death and chaos.
One thing I found rather off-putting in this book was the way that Follett used the character Caris as the voice of modernity catapulted into the world of fourteenth century England. In the realms of medicine, morals, relationships, and religion, Caris’s convictions are remarkably forward-thinking. She doesn’t believe that prayer or relics have the power to heal; she also has no faith in any of the standard medicinal practices of the day such as bleeding or the doctrine of the four humors. She doubts that the Church knows what God thinks about things, but in and of herself feels “sure that God was much too wise to make a rule against [lesbian behavior].” She refuses to marry Merthin (even though she is very willing to sleep with him) because she doesn’t want to be doomed to give up her ambitions and live her life through a man. She aborts their unborn baby from the same fear of losing her independence, saying, “I don’t want to spend my life as a slave to anyone, even if it is my own child.”
By making Caris into a modern mouthpiece, Follett shows that he cannot simply create and enjoy the world of the Middle Ages without judging it by his own standards. Though the book does contain a rich and fairly accurate tapestry of life in a medieval town, the picture is somewhat distorted by the insertion of such an anachronistic character. Despite this, I did enjoy the book and found it about on par with its predecessor, The Pillars of the Earth.