Ken Follett: The Pillars of the Earth (review)

Middle Ages. 12th century. The building of a cathedral. People struggling, starving. Knights fighting for power. Monarchs and monarchs to be fighting over who get to rule. Historical fiction. So not my thing.

I was given this book as a gift, years ago. It has stood on my shelf ever since. For the first several years, I really didn’t care to read it. I just wasn’t interested. But slowly, I became more interested. I must admit that Oprah saying she loved it, was a push for me to read it – mostly because she said it wasn’t her thing either. Also, the publication of the first volume of his Century Trilogy peaked my interest in Follett’s work. So I put The Pillars of the Earth on the list of books I definitely wanted to read this year. I must admit I have been dreading it a bit but finally, it just felt right to start reading it – and well, now I  kind of regret not having read it earlier.

Tom the Builder has a dream. A big dream. A dream which makes him drag his family all over trying to achieve it. Tom wants to build a cathedral. He wanders from place to place, building site to building site, trying to find somewhere where a cathedral is being or going to be built and where Tom can be Master Builder. So he, his pregnant wife Agnes and their two children Alfred and Martha, wander in search of Tom’s dream. But a series of bad luck follow them and leads to Agnes giving birth to a baby boy in the forest in the winter. She dies and Tom leaves the baby to die on her grave. Luckily, a priest finds him and takes him to a chapel in the forest where the priest’s brother, Prior Philip, is the leader. Philip decides that the boy should grow up in the monastery, just as he and his brother did, and he names the boy Jonathan.

Jonathan is the first link between Tom and Philip. After Agnes’ death, Tom begins a relationship with Ellen, a woman who has been living in the forest as an outlaw with her son Jack. Prior Philip becomes leader of the Kingsbridge Priory and takes Jonathan with him. Together with Tom, he makes a plan to build a cathedral and Tom begins the work – happy to be close to his baby boy.

At the nearby castle of the Earl of Shiring, his daughter Aliena is supposed to marry William Hamleigh. She refuses him however, and William takes this rather hard. So hard, that he eventually rapes her and cuts off a part of her little brother Richard’s ear after their father has been thrown in prison. William and his family takes over the castle and Aliena and Richard are homeless, struggling to find a way to survive.

When Prior Philip first became a prior, he did so by striking a deal with Waleran Bigod who then becomes Bishop of Kingsbridge. But Waleran Bigod is a man who wants power and he’s ready to do a whole lot to get more of it. He supports the Cathedral in Kingsbridge just as longs as it’s in his best interest. He has ambitions for where he wants to go and he struggles with Prior Philip, both wanting a cathedral – but for very different reasons.

All these characters weave in and out of each others’ lives. They support each other, they hurt each other, they kill each other. They fight, they starve, they suffer, they dream and build and create. They dream big and they strive to achieve it, no matter what setbacks they encounter. The ways the plot twists and turns and the various strands weave together, only to separate and then come together in some other way, is impossible to recount. The characters are fleshed out, lifelike and you get to care so deeply about them. However, although I do enjoy a good villain, you have to be careful not to make him so evil that he gets almost cartoony. I’m quite okay with William Hamleigh raping, burning, killing, slaughtering his way through the book. But there’s a scene where he wants to stone a cat just for the fun of it – and it just gets to be a bit much. I get that he’s evil – you don’t have to spell it out!

For the largest part of this novel, I just loved it. I devoured it, I read for hours each night, 100-200 pages a day. But – then something happened. Ken Follett likes to wrap everything up neatly and that’s fine, I don’t mind that at all. But it seemed that he maybe had difficulties wrapping up one of his characters –  and therefore, he introduces Thomas Beckett to the mix. Now, for most of the book, the historical facts have been sort of the canvas, Follett painted his characters on. The facts are the background Prior Philip, Tom the Builder, Jack and all the other can live and strive on. But towards the end, the facts and especially Thomas Beckett and his fight with the king and then tragic ending become the foreground of the novel and the characters we have followed and cared for during the first 900 or so pages of the book, suddenly becomes bystanders to the events. This does mean that Follett gets to wrap up all his story lines very neatly – but it also means that the story looses it’s momentum and becomes a bit less compelling towards the end.

By the way, there’s a board game based on this book. It sounds like it could be a great game. Anybody tried playing it?

  • Title: The Pillars of the Earth
  • Author: Ken Follett
  • Publisher: Pan Macmillan
  • Year: 1999 (original 1989)
  • Pages: 1076 pages
  • Source: Own Collection
  • Stars: 4 stars out of 5
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3 thoughts on “Ken Follett: The Pillars of the Earth (review)

  1. I love historical fiction and this is one of my favourites. I agree with you about William Hamleigh, though. Waleran is a more interesting villain, in my opinion.

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