Troy's Reviews > The Pillars of the Earth

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
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M 50x66
's review
May 10, 2008

really liked it
Read in March, 2008

"Pillars of the Earth" is a very long book. It's got a lot of soap-opera-like twists and turns - no amnesia, but just about everything else, including mistaken identities, illicit marriages, illicit lack of marriage, illegitimate children, questionable parentage, love triangles, revenge, greed, power, a few murders, rape, witches, politics, knights, swords and horsies. OK, that last bit is not so soap-opera-like. There's also lots and lots of architecture. And it's a very long book.

Main story follows a single family of stone masons for (roughly) three generations, and the extended families associated with re-marrying, etc. Around this family revolves an aspiring monk/prior, a powerful but morally questionable bishop, a ruthless Earl (title, not name), and several kings. The thing is, even with all the re-marrying and such, there are so many evolving inter-relationships between these main characters as the struggle for political power unfolds, and of course everybody grows up, has children, etc - that EVERYTHING seems to happen to this small group of people. And just when you think things have settled down for a while, something else happens, or attempts to happen. And these things keep happening for approximately 980 pages.

Along the way, you learn a lot about medieval culture - particularly the role of religion, the political power of a monestary, priory, or diocese - how life is funded, and just how much it sucks to be a serf. There's also quite a bit of focus on the reason for, and the means to, building cathedrals - Follett muses in his Foreward that one of the things he never could understand is why people in such destitute times would have put so much energy into buildings of such scale, and this book addresses that. You also learn a lot about architecture and the evolution of cathedral-building. I can also now tell you the difference between a nave, chancel, transept, cloister, and clerestory. Oh, and probably 7 different words for "horse".

Really though, I very much enjoyed it, despite its very lengthy nature. Very full of words. Long. Not a day went by I didn't read at least 50 pages (note - at that rate, it will still take about 3 weeks to finish).
The building is a constant, its a reason to keep the central family of masons from wandering off and having more illicit marriages, and its a reason for the ongoing political power struggles. It's essential, but it's not distracting, and the cathedral is not the focus. The people are. They're engaging, you feel for them, you assign labels (good, evil) you change labels several times (he's pretty self-serving and conniving for a "good" guy), and you constantly wonder just what more can possibly happen to these people. There's also an underlying mystery that keeps you wondering... right up until 100 pages too soon.

My only complaint is this - the big climax occurs, the mystery is revealed, it all comes together - and there are still 100 pages to go. The last part of the wrap-up, the rise and fall, takes a while, has an interesting but probably unnecessary historically accurate reference to English church vs. king to give the whole novel an air of "this could have really happened in some obscure English medieval village somewhere, I wonder which cathedral this is supposed to be? Can I go see the real thing?" But it loses momentum right at the very end. Loose ends nicely tied up, but it wasn't the gripping page turner it had been in the first 900 pages. By that time, though, you've got so few pages in your right hand you just keep going because the end is in sight.
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Reading Progress

03/04 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-12 of 12) (12 new)

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message 1: by Nyki (new) - added it

Nyki Thank you for your detailed report. My sister-in-law just recommended this book to me and after looking at just how long it was in the store I just wasn't sure I really wanted to spend the time or the money on it. Your review was VERY helpful. I might just skip the last 100 pages!!!

Walter Louis Lol, you won't be able to. Too many loose ends to tidy up.

message 3: by Jen (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jen Funny review

Claudia Out of curiosity.....all the rape didn't bother you? I was floored by all the rape going on in medieval times.

Kelly Troy-
First I must mention I loved the review, really hilarious. Tom bored me to tears, but his wife was, *cough, cough* ahem, very interesting I must say.

I KNOW! I was not very shocked due to how many great history books I have read on that period, and yes, people really were just as disgusting as they can be now. Except, it's been a while before I have seen someone pee on a saintly relic, it's been a long while.

message 6: by Jim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jim Ceallach,

You may recall the prologue - wherein an unjustly convicted man is hanged - witnessed by jeering boys. My impression based on that and the rest of the story is that Englishmen and we Americans are considerably kinder and more civilized not: "just as disgusting as they can be now."


Moving on - I'd like to flesh out the setting a bit and a little I've discovered about the history surrounding the story. To start I'll share part of a letter I sent to Follett asking:

"What is the 12th C. evidence for:
1) Entrepreneural activity by single women (alluding, of course, to Aliena as wool merchant and as purveyor of fulled cloth)
2) The development of automation in cloth finishing.
3) Earls behaving like criminal arsonists with impunity. I understand the political implications when the King is struggling to hold the throne, but could they really get away with that stuff in peacetime?
4) Three-ways (you knew I had to ask!)
5) Priories getting land as part of political deals."

The time spent on describing architectural building features was well-spent. AFAIK no illustrated version of POTE has been published. If one ever is, I want it.

As for horsies, not only are there several names for these once vital beasts, there were several names for the various ways they move - "canter", for instance.

Within the first seveal pages of the the main text I discovered some terms I'd not seen before:

(the many types of) monkish services

I found out that judges were likely to have what we would now regard as an improper "interest" in a trial or dispute - thus getting a glimmer of the reason we now use juries.

Before this novel, I did not know that old-style English pennies were silver.

I see that Follett refers to crop rotation, the practice of "resting" (fallow) cropland, and the practice of nitrogen fixing - all related to each other.

I later found that, according to a monk's written account, Thomas Becket's killer really did stir his brains on the cathedral floor witih a sword.

There was more rich cultural and historical detail, but I'm out of steam for now.

message 7: by Ellie (new) - added it

Ellie I read this many, many years ago but I barely remember it. Your review is great and made me want to re-read it. Putting it on my long long list of books I want to read.

message 8: by Dorothy (new) - added it

Dorothy I saw the series and loved it. Now I want to read the book

Jennifer Hartfelder You nailed it! Nicely done, I agree wholeheartedly.

Alison Tull absolutely loved this book...made me Feel I was thereé..always a good sign of a good book if u can picture the scene and ur there :-) recommended by my father who died last year... someone mentioned a sequel...without my father's advice, cud someone tell me the title please.... hopefully it's as good as 1st....

message 11: by Jim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jim You can confirm with at wikipedia - but I think it's World Without End - which is comparably entertaining,

message 12: by Christina Maria (last edited Dec 16, 2014 05:54PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Christina Maria Comparing this novel to a soap opera is pretty spot on. The novel focuses on the relationships and intrigues of the characters, and there is a lack of an overarching plot. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but that kind of writing is usually delivered in doses over time-not hundreds of pages read over a few days or a week. It's easier to anticipate plot twists when the forshadowing for them is fresh in your mind.

Also, the little dramas become repetitive. William/Waleran threatens town/church. They cause trouble/delay progress before they are outwitted (usually by Philip). They try again. And so on.

While the premise of the story is the building of the cathedral, and you recieve pages of information on it, the book does not address much of the thought that goes into why it's made. Tom and Philips's mindset seemed to be "It would be a pious and awesome thing to do." The cathedral's purpose is as the frame story for aforementioned drama-and a reason to keep them all together.

Length isn't a reason to dislike a book, and many of the descriptions were indeed interesting. However, they were also unecessary, and the book would not have suffered without them, since they distracted from the plot as far as there was one.

I have to disagree with on the characterization. Every character was pigeonholed into "good" or "evil", and while the good characters did have flaws, they did not have any moral ambiguity.

The mystery keeps you going, but for most of the book you only get passing mentions of it, and for a while it seemed as if the author forgot about it. When you finally do find out the reason Jack's father is hanged, there's nothing really satisfying about it. It wasn't hard to guess that it was a conspiracy because a) he was on the the White Ship and b) Waleran was involved, and he eats, lives, and breathes politics.

The last few hundred pages did seem awkwardly shoved in with the rest of the story. There is no reason for us to care about Henry or Becket-the purpose is for Philip to despair the (temporary) victory of force over justice and to bring about William's downfall. The last scene, of Henry's penance, did not have the poignance it was supposed to have, because it escapes the numerous connections that hold the rest of the book together.

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