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The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
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Jul 09, 2010

Read in June, 2010

I thought The Pillars of the Earth was going to be a long, technical novel that I’d have to muscle through--it’s almost 1000 pages long, it’s set in the 1100s, and the cover is decorated with a diagrammatic sketch of a church. These are not the typical makings of a gripping read. (I remember now that The Canterbury Tales, a collection of stories written in the late 1300s about a pilgrimage to a cathedral, is one of the bawdiest pieces of writing around.)

So I was surprised to find that The Pillars of the Earth is a page-turning thriller reminiscent of hack-and-slash gothic/fantasy novels. Knights and earls, priors and monks, millers and wool merchants—all jockeying for power. Oh right, and much of this does indeed revolve around the technical but surprisingly-immersive construction of a cathedral.

Assuredly, there isn’t anything wondrous about how The Pillars of the Earth is told. It is full of eye-rolling clichés like attractive protagonists and ugly antagonists; blunt, generic descriptions; and supposedly clever villains that repeatedly oversimplify their opposition (e.g. “In that case it’s only a matter of time before he disappears from sight. And then, I should think, the earldom is yours.”). But through all this the tale the novel tells is grand in scope, true in feeling, charged with emotional pull, and full of detail about life in the Middle Ages.

Notably, there is a lot of bloodshed in The Pillars of the Earth. I lost track of the number of murders and the number of rapes, finding myself announcing “another one” with surprising regularity. This may be an accurate reflection of the early Middle Ages; many other details Follett references reveal that he’s done some homework on the medieval era, from dress to habits, social structures, politics, economy, diets, and more—as well as cathedral construction.

Indeed, The Pillars of the Earth is a vast lesson on cathedrals and the life surrounding them. We learn about the geography of cathedrals—the naves, clerestories, chancels, and crypts, etc. We learn about the technology of cathedrals—the arches, the roofs, the windows, and, of course, the flying buttresses. We learn about the politics and architectural styles of cathedrals—how they are financed, who constructs them, and who and what influences the style. And we learn about the intersections of all these lessons—how technology can change the geography, how style grows out of culture, how politics can overtake everything else.

And Follett has a way of making all this complexity accessible.

Enter the thriller format: the storylines of the cathedral and the handful of main characters whose lives thread together and apart over the course of almost 50 years are couched in the what-happens-next structure of a mystery. Chapters end with cliffhangers, characters are strong-willed, and confrontations are frequent. Life is frequently on the line. As a result, the book grips you, and the savvy of the novel’s construction is that the details of the cathedral and the details of life in the Middle Ages become the points of dramatic suspense. Defense against invading enemies depends on the technique of the masons. Romantic catharsis relies on social rules set by the church. Political victory is made through architectural prominence. Denouement only follows with the balancing of power between church and state.

Most importantly, though, is that even if the novel is packed with sensation, Ken Follett gets people. He has an empathic imagination that lands on the kinds of details that make a reader want to say out loud: “Yes! That’s so true!” If you’ve ever lost all motivation for something, you’ll recognize the “disconnected, desolate thoughts” of a listless and beaten character. If you’ve ever had a crush, you’ll recognize characters’ increasing self-analysis. If you’ve ever reflected on your work environment, you’ll find yourself nodding when you read: “Philip was good to work for. His orders were clear, he left Jack room to make decisions for himself, and he never blamed his servants for his own mistakes.” Yes! That’s so true!

These kinds of details are the stuff of the humanities. They show us truth in action. The Pillars of the Earth didn’t win any great awards—likely because the story lacks any subtlety whatsoever and the prose is unremarkable at best—but it is a vast novel of great scale that explores the trials and tribulations of a lifetime, successes and failures great and small in love, work, neighborliness, politics, friendship, and faith.

Would I recommend it? Yes, but not for the weak of stomach. It contains much violence.
Would I teach it? No. Too long, too graphic. No close reading.
Partnered texts: The Canterbury Tales, Morality Play.
Lasting impression: The Pillars of the Earth is a great escape. It’s dressed up like a beach read, but underneath it’s an exploration of architecture, history, politics, and love.
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3GirlsMom Apparently a member of the labour party and a strong union man, maybe even a socialist? His prose reflects the idea of the strength and resiliency of the working class and the entitlement and dishonor of the ruling class. Read from this angle, it gives deeper meaning to the events & characters in both novels. Not at all propagandizing, but when you re-read, this side shows up loud and clear.

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Peter Interesting, 3GirlsMom--but applying labour party and unionist views to Follett seems a stretch to me. Isn't it merely a historical depiction of the community (and social power) of the masons? Note that the merchants and practitioners of other trades haven't banded together as the masons have. And aren't Prior Philip and others (Aliena?) benevolent rulers? Could it be argued that Follett is pro-democracy because the monks elect their leaders and Philip is the likable protagonist?

(Note: I haven't read anything else by Follett.)

Barry I greatly enjoyed this novel, but I had some very real frustrations with it as well. You touch on a number of them. I'd add two more. First, his characters have an annoying tendency towards somehow, almost supernaturally -knowing- things about other peoples' motives and inner thoughts. A person could blink the wrong way and the witnessing protagonist would somehow infer that blinking the wrong way meant very, very specific things. Ridiculous. Additionally, by about halfway through the book I was incapable of summoning up any tension whenever the good guys were in trouble. Almost nothing bad ever actually happens in the book. Even when something bad happens, it's temporary, and ultimately resolved because the bad guys are inevitably outwitted. The death of Tom Builder is an exception to this, of course -- that was sincerely unfortunate and caught me completely off guard.

Anyway, good read. You should check out the miniseries which recently released. It's on Netflix On-Demand. Rufus Sewell as Tom Builder is delightful.

Melissa I really like your review. I think it is an accurate portrayal of the merits of the novel, and still communicates the elements that are weak. I loved the book and was completely enthralled by the cathedral building techniques, as well as the back stories about the politics of religion.

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