Author: Ken Follett
Publisher: Signet Novel
Publishing Date: August 1990
Number of Pages: 983
As a new age dawns in England’s twelfth century, the building of a mighty Gothic cathedral sets the stage for a story of intrigue and power, revenge and betrayal. It is in this rich tapestry, where kings and queens are corrupt, that the common man shows eternal promise – and one majestic creation will bond them forever.
I used to see Ken Follett’s books on secondhand bookstores that I flock to whenever I find myself in the mall. This was my first encounter with the author but I never bothered with his works due to their titles which I found to be a little bit too fancy. The book covers did little to entice me as well because they mostly represented history which I used to have no knack for.
A couple of years thence, I encountered Ken Follett and his works on numerous list challenges. The Pillars of the Earth is a familiar presence on these list challenges but I am not yet swayed until finally my curiosity got the best of me. I purchased a copy of the book last year and included it in my 2017 Top 20 Books to Read because of this burgeoning curiosity.
Let me begin this review by saying that in spite of its length, The Pillars of the Earth is a book I totally enjoyed. I loved unraveling each story line and understanding how all these numerous story lines meet and, at times, overlap each other. But I have to admit, I have more inclination to longer books than I do with shorter books and this book is one of the reasons why.
The story began Tom Builder and his family. He is an impoverished builder who was fired from his job by William Hamleigh, the son of Lord Percy and Lady Regan. William was besotted with Aliena, the daughter of Bartholomew, Earl of Shiring. However, Aliena didn’t like his arrogant behavior and inevitably refused to wed him. The story then followed each character as they all converge in Kingsbridge.
Prior Philip is the main focal point of the story. When they were younger, he and his brother, Francis, witnessed their parent’s murder when they were younger. They were adopted by an abbey which later led to their vocation in the church. From a small cell in the woods, Prior Philip got appointed as the prior of Kingsbridge Priory, which he planned to transform because it was in a sorry state of disrepair.
“Having faith in God did not mean sitting back and doing nothing. It meant believing you would find success if you did your best honestly and energetically.” ~ Ken Follett, The Pillars of the Earth
The first thing that caught my attention in the book is its length. Due to its length, I have perceived a complexity to the story as I turned one page after another. But cleverly, Follett weaved the story in such a manner that all loose end are logically tied up. For a lengthy story, the characters’ fates keep on colliding. This added to the cohesion of the entire story, making it easier to grasp and fathom in spite of its length.
The beginning of the book until the middle part is riddled with numerous misfortunes. The story is gloomy and bleak at most points and the reader can’t help but feel bad for these misfortunes. But the story came full circle in the end as father justice began waving its wand. In the end, the reader will realize that the story plays on the same clichéd line that most stories fall into – good always prevail over evil. It was also in the same manner that the characters were presented – either they lean towards the white or the dark side. There was neither gray area nor in-between.
The book’s leisurely pace, which is neither too fast nor too slow, aided in my overall appreciation of the story. It kept the reader in tenterhook as the book moved from one part to another, keeping the readers hooked. The writing style, on the other hand, is simple and easy to comprehend. However, I found the writing style too simple that it didn’t suit the story. Nonetheless, the author’s overall objective was met because of its seamless storytelling.
“When you’re thinking, please remember this: excessive pride is a familiar sin, but a man may just as easily frustrate the will of God through excessive humility.” ~ Ken Follett, The Pillars of the Earth
Coincidentally, the story included references to numerous actual historical events. The construction of the fictional took place amidst the dispute between King Stephen and Empress Matilda, who were waging a war to determine the rightful ruler. The assassination of Thomas Becket was also included in the narrative. However, there are some historians who dispute the historical accuracy of some details of the book.
Nonetheless, the book realistically depicted the medieval period. Through his words, Follett painted a picture of the medieval period one would have imagined it. There were also some graphic. Follett did not spare any details describing such gruesome events, such as executions, rape and the pillaging of villages. He didn’t mince words when relating events , hence, making it believable. Such violence might be distasteful to some readers.
Aside from the historical theme, the The Pillars of the Earth has also covered a wide array of dark topics such as rape, greed, abuse, thirst for power, and overall violence. It also touched base on betrayal, revenge, fornication and lust. On the lighter side, it had overtones of love, romance, positive religious ideals, and brotherhood.
“She was unique: there was something abnormal about her, and it was that abnormal something that made her magnetic.” ~ Ken Follett, The Pillars of the Earth
There are numerous positive points for the book. However, I just really wished that the novel was written in a manner that is more English, closer to a medieval writing style. For me, this would have made the story more authentic. It felt more like a contemporary story and lacked all the attributes of an English novel. Overall, the story and the writing style felt more American than English.
Nonetheless, I have to hand it to Ken Follett for writing an epic master piece. It kept me the edge from the start until the end because it has my full attention. I hated putting it down because the only thing I wanted to know happens next. The Pillars of the Earth is an epic literary piece and I enjoyed unraveling every piece and every thing, including the darker shades.
Recommended for history buffs and those who prefer plots that revolve over a long period of time. I don’t recommend it for those who object to violence and graphic descriptions.
The Good Ones
Tom Builder – A loyal husband and a great father who puts to heart his responsibility to his family. A skilled builder, he will do everything to ensure that his family is well provided for.
Father Philip – An orphan who grew up in the care of monks. He has a great and practical mind who only seeks justice. Ellen summarized it when she said that “he always gets what he wants in the end.”
Ellen – Tom’s second wife and Jack’s mother. She raised Jack in the forest because Jack Jackson, her first lover was executed for theft.
Aliena – Raised in a guarded environment, her fate got reversed and she had to start from scratch. To keep an oath, she worked hard to bring back her family’s old glory.
Jack – He is the son of Ellen. He is frail and always get bullied by Alfred Builder, Tom’s son by Agnes. However, he more than makes up for this frailty with his cleverness.
The Bad Ones
William Hamleigh – Definitely one of the most hated characters in English literature, He is violent, vile and just a purely detestable character.
Bishop Bigod Waleran – An overly ambitious priest who will stop at nothing to get what he wants. He and William masterminded every misfortune that befell the construction of Kingsbridge cathedral.
About the Author
Kenneth Martin Follett, or more popularly known as Ken Follett, was born on June 5, 1949 in Cardiff Wales. The first child of three siblings, he developed an early interest in reading because he was barred from watching television and films.
In 1967, Follett got admitted to the University College London where he studied philosophy. A year later, he married Mary and shortly after, his first son, Emanuele was born. From London, he returned to Cardiff to work as a trainee reporter for South Wales Echo. After three years in Cardiff, he again moved to London to work for the Evening News as a general-assignment reporter. From journalism, he moved to publishing where he became the deputy managing director for Everest Books.
He took writing as a hobby at first but then began seriously writing books when he needed extra money to fix his car. Success was elusive until the publication of Eye of the Needle in 1978 which became an international bestseller and sold 10 million copies. He worked on thrillers, and later historical novels which also became bestsellers. Some of his works has also been adapted into films.
He is currently residing in England.