Imagine you are an independent architect. But you are living in the Middle Ages. In Twelfth Century England, to be exact. You want to erect a spectacular building, but you find yourself caught up in the chaos of civil war. A vicious band of warriors is riding toward your town, intent on rape, pillage, and slaughter. What can you do? Can your talents save the town and your work?
Author Ken Follett provides an answer to this question in his epic page-turner, The Pillars of the Earth. The historical-fiction novel spans fifty years and two generations of characters, as heroes and heroines struggle to build a better world while villains scheme to grind them into the dirt.
A Gothic cathedral stands, and rises, at the center of this story. If you have ever stared at one of these architectural behemoths and wondered how and why the structure was built, this book is for you. In the midst of a hair-raisingly violent story, you will come to understand the vital role of cathedrals in supporting town markets and the rise of a middle class.
Most of all, you will imagine the impression that these stone skyscrapers would make on you as a citizen of the Middle Ages, when cathedrals were easily the tallest and most beautiful buildings you had ever seen. How could you help but gasp in awe at the human ability that had made such things possible? Even if the hymns in the church told you to be humble before heaven, how could you help but feel proud of the human power to reshape the earth?
Follett is probably best known for his thrillers, including such espionage classics as The Key to Rebecca and Eye Of the Needle, and his thriller style carries over into this work of historical fiction. As in a spy novel, the author works hard to keep the reader on a see-saw of suspense. The sex and violence scenes have a graphic quality usually missing from tales of the Middle Ages. The prose is simple and direct, the dialog is written in modern English, and at times characters express themselves quite crudely. No attempt is made to give the writing an antique finish by plopping in assortments of “thee,” “thou,” and “verily.”
This is the longest of Follett’s books, and he reports that writing it was exhausting. It took him more than three years to complete it, and he says that “towards the end I was working Saturdays and Sundays because I thought I was never going to get it finished.” His publishers and friends were worried that he was wasting his time on a historical novel since his success had always been in thrillers. But they needn’t have worried. Pillars was a huge commercial success and continues to sell well. Follett reports that this is the book readers usually want to discuss with him. “It’s becoming a cult,” he says.
Speaking of religion, the book takes a curiously balanced view of Christianity. It features a heroic monk, Prior Phillip, but it features an equally heroic nonbeliever, Ellen, the “witch.” When the monks send her away from the man she loves, she castigates them as hypocrites and defiles one of their holy rule books in quite a vulgar way. It makes for a great scene.
Other great scenes include: A boy caught in the high rafters of a cathedral in flames races to find a way out before he is burned alive. The daughter of a vanquished earl walks into her ancestral castle with a bold plan to seize it back for her brother. Two great armies meet in ferocious battle to determine who will rule England.
Throughout the story, Follett emphasizes the rise of the middle class, merchants, and tradespeople, who use their growing power to insist that the law must prevail over naked force. One of the heroes, observing the changes taking place, speculates wildly: “You never know. There may come a time when savages… aren’t in power; when the laws protect the ordinary people instead of enslaving them... Think of that — a time when towns in England don’t need walls!”
So beg, borrow, or buy this book, and enjoy the building suspense as the cathedral climbs to the sky, and as productive people begin to assert their rights against tyranny.
John Enright lives in Chicago with his wife, Marsha. He is the author of the recently published novel Unholy Quest, and a book of poetry, Starbound and Other Poems. His web site is www.unholyquest.com.