I became hooked on British author Ken Follett through his most famous novel, The Eye of the Needle. It’s the gripping World War II story of a ruthless Nazi spy’s attempt to bring secrets of the British military back to Hitler, combined with a tragic love story and a dynamite heroine.
A wonderfully plotted, suspenseful story, a heroine of immense presence of mind and courage, and characters that act with strength and integrity — what’s not to like? Donald Sutherland starred in the movie version, but don’t miss the book just because you’ve seen the movie. There’s a lot more in the book.
After The Eye of the Needle, I ripped through many of Follett’s other novels, including The Man From St. Petersburg, Triple, The Key to Rebecca, and Lie Down With Lions. They were all spy novels, but so much more satisfying than many contemporary authors because of the dramatic originality of the stories and because their characters have a psychological depth and self-awareness often lacking in spy novels and thrillers. Simply put, Follett is a modern master of Romanticism.
I moved on from these spy stories to his historical fiction, including A Dangerous Fortune and A Place Called Freedom. The first dramatized the 19th Century banking world, the second, the enslaved life of 18th Century Scottish miners, one of whom escapes to build his life in the challenges — and freedom — of the New World. Their settings and themes, combined with the unusual level of Romanticism in his novels, began making me suspect that Follett may have been influenced by Ayn Rand.
Then I read a novel of his which was entirely different from the others — Pillars of the Earth. (See my husband John Enright’s 2004 review for the Atlasphere.) This thousand-page tome recounts the lives and fortunes of 12th Century English men and women, involved in the century-long building of a cathedral.
My suspicions of an Ayn Rand influence soared! The heroes in this book were the red-haired builder of the cathedral and a woman who becomes a wool merchant. An architect and a businesswoman in Medieval times? And there was the author’s positive attitude towards business and the strong independence of his heroes and heroines.
Set more than a hundred years later, descendants of Pillars’ hero and heroine are instrumental in remaking their medieval town of Kingsbridge into a Renaissance of architectural and business achievements.
Through his creative genius as an innovative architect, builder, and businessman, the red-haired hero, Merthin, achieves fame and fortune. He breaks through the straightjacket of the guilds and lives a uniquely independent life in a time when the church and superstition ruled most people’s thinking. The heroine, Caris, likewise bucks tradition, pursuing the work of a doctor with a very scientific approach, among many other defiant choices, and transforms the town by creating new markets and business methods. She insists on maintaining her personal independence despite tradition and tremendous social pressure.
Both Merthin and Caris habitually demonstrate the close observation of facts and their rational implications — one among the many values drawing them together. And both are de facto atheists in a time of religion’s dominion.
On top of this, the villains are veritable portraits of Attila and the Witch Doctor. Merthin’s brother Ralph is a brutish, power-mad knight, ruthlessly angling for social advancement. And the Priors of the Kingsbridge town Abbey, fearing reason and change, control others through shunning, persecution, appeals to their moral authority, and Ellsworth Toohey-like manipulation.
In addition to themes and characters that echo Ayn Rand, certain scenes also bear an uncanny relationship to scenes in Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. For example, in one scene, Caris is treating a fellow townsman for the plague: “Dora handed Caris a cup of wine, and Caris held it to Mark’s lips. She found it strange to see a big man helpless. Mark had always seemed invulnerable. It was unnerving, like finding an oak tree that has been there all your life suddenly felled by lightning.” Remember Eddie Willers’s feeling when looking at the oak tree in the opening of Atlas?
However, the last scene of the book really did it to me — it parallels, in several ways, the last scene of The Fountainhead. I’ll refrain from describing it here, for fear of ruining a reader’s enjoyment. I’d love to hear what Atlasphere readers think, once they’ve read World Without End.
So what is Follett’s own backstory? Born in Cardiff, Wales, Follett graduated from University College, London with an Honours B.A. in Philosophy. He first wrote as a journalist in Wales, and later, in London for the Evening News. After a number of less-than-successful novels, he struck gold with The Eye of the Needle.
Brought up in a religious Welsh family, he began questioning his beliefs, which led him to philosophy for answers.
On this subject, he once said, “There is a remote connection between philosophy and fiction. When you study philosophy you deal with questions like: ‘Here we are sitting at a table, but is the table real?’ Now that’s a daft question because of course the table is real. When you study philosophy however, you need to take that sort of thing seriously and you have to have an off-the-wall imagination. It’s the same with fiction which is all about imagining situations that are different from the real world.”
Unfortunately for our purposes, this doesn’t reveal much similarity to Rand’s thinking other than that Follett is a realist. And his political leanings — the Labour Party — don’t indicate much affinity for free markets.
If you get hooked on Follett, you’ll be pleased to find many more novels than the ones I’ve mentioned. And in addition to Eye of the Needle, a number of his books have been produced as movies, such as The Key to Rebecca and The Third Twin.
I was happy to read that a mini-series of Pillars of the Earth is in the works, produced by one of my favorites, Ridley Scott, who directed “Blade Runner,” “Gladiator,” “Kingdom of Heaven,” and produced the mini-series “Rome.”
I emailed Follett through his website, asking whether he might have been influenced by Rand, as I had discovered of novelist James Clavell, of Tai-Pan and Shogun fame. (You can read my report on Clavell here.) But I haven’t heard back from him. If I do, I’ll let Atlasphere readers know. Until then — good reading!
Marsha Familaro Enright is a psychologist, writer, lecturer, and educational entrepreneur. Founder of the thriving Council Oak Montessori School in Chicago, Marsha’s latest venture is the Reason, Individualism, Freedom Institute, the Foundation for the College of the United States.