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
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.