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  Bookends: Dan Davidson

The Pillars Of The Earth

Reviewed: March 25, 2009
By: Ken Follett
Publisher: Signet Books
983 pages, $8.99

Pillars of the Earth seems like a most unlikely novel for Ken Follett to have written. He agrees with this assessment by the way. It appeared in 1989 after the author had had a run of successful thrillers, beginning with Eye of the Needle, a World War II spy story. These had taut, fast moving plots and a limited time frame. Most of his books had been either 20th century historical or contemporary thrillers, so this novel, set in the Middle Ages, following the lives of most of its characters over many decades, was a departure for him.

It worked out well, as the book has been in print continuously ever since and is currently available in hardcover, paperback, audiobook and deluxe editions. It apparently inspired him to write several other books set in historical periods, particularly the 18th and 19th centuries and, in 2007, he finally produced a sequel called World Without End, following the lives of some of the descendants of the original book, but set 200 years later.

I like Follett’s books and have read and reviewed a number of them over the years. but I had avoided this one until last fall, when a tour of the United Kingdom took me through a number of cathedrals, and when reading an e-book edition of the book seemed a pleasant way to spend the time during a couple of drizzly days on the tour bus.

The building of cathedral churches is a painstaking business that requires decades, at the very least, to accomplish. This is why Tom Builder, an itinerant stone mason, is so hoping to find one to work on when first we meet him. Getting hired for such a project would pretty much set him up for life, guarantee the security of his little family, and lift them from starvation and poverty. We spend enough time with Tom, his wife and children to learn just how bad life can be. Recently fired from a reasonable commission with the prosperous Hamleigh family, the Builders eventually stumble into the village of Kingsbridge, where they find refuge. Before this however, Agnes has died in childbirth; Tom and his children have no way to feed and care for the baby and so they leave him with his mother’s body, where he is found by Prior Philip, who heads a small monastery under the rule of Kingsbridge.

Philip and his brother, Francis, were rescued by monks years earlier after their parents were slaughtered during the civil wars that routinely marked the succession struggles of this period. They grew up devoted to the church and each, in his own way, prospers there. Francis takes a political path within the church, becoming aid to a series of powerful clerics. Philip becomes a Prior, and eventually succeeds to the head of the decrepit Kingsbridge.

In the months after Agnes’ death, Tom meets Ellen and her boy, Jack, and the two families are informally merged before they come to Kingsbridge, an arrangement which will cause them trouble later on. Ellen’s history, and the tragedy that led to her living as an outlaw in the forest, is part of a great secret that has been kept by certain powerful men who feature in this story.

When the existing church at Kingsbridge burns, Tom is on hand to help plan its rebuilding and, over many years, he passes on the skills of his trade to both his natural and his adopted sons.

Unknown to almost everyone but Tom, his abandoned baby, Jonathan, is being raised by the monks of the town, where Prior Philip has become the man in charge as a result of his reformation of his first posting. Philip wants only to make his monastery a place where God’s work is done, but he is caught up in the political machinations of his immediate superior, Bishop Waleran Bigod.

The England of the mid 12th century is a dangerous place. Allegiances between houses competing for the throne lead to a time called the Anarchy. This competition destroys the leadership of the house of Bartholomew, giving that lord;s lands and titles to the competing house of Hamleigh. Survivors of that house, Aliena and Richard, make their way to Kingsbridge, where she defies convention and gender, with Philip’s help, and becomes a power in the wool trade, leading to the increasing importance of Kingsbridge as a commercial as well as a religious center.

This haas a cost, as it attracts the attention of William Hamleigh, whose marriage proposal she had rejected years earlier. Since the enhancement of Kingsbridge cuts into the economy of his holdings, William take a blood toll of vengeance using the Anarchy as his excuse.

The threads of these plots interweave beautifully for decades, culminating in an actual historical event: the assassination of Archbishop Thomas a Becket at the hands of Henry II’s nights, some years after Henry secured the throne for his line.

Pillars of the Earth is not a book for impatient readers. If you need something quick, try a different Follett novel. This one does repay the time it takes. For those who like it and want to know more, his website has a lot of neat material, including a series of illustrations from the deluxe edition which show the transition from Romanesque to Gothic church architecture which is at the heart of the book.

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