Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Pillars of the Earth

Title: The Pillars of the Earth
Author: Ken Follett
List: #33 on BBC Top 100
Worth reading? Yes.

Last week, I finally finished The Pillars of the Earth and I can definitely see why it made the BBC Top 100 list. It is a moving, enthralling, and satisfying read.

The story takes place in 12th century England, mostly during the period of anarchy following the death of King Henry in 1135. The author gradually introduces readers to a variety of key characters and their hopes, dreams, and weaknesses. The different story lines unite when a central figure, Prior Philip, starts building a cathedral. Prior Philip is a brilliant young monk who believes he can make a difference in the world and improve the situation and standing of the priory of Kingsbridge. Prior Philip is extraordinarily fair minded and capable of amazing feats of forgiveness, but very strict in all religious matters. Importantly, he is not afraid to take a strong stand for causes he believes in.

Prior Philip meets the other important characters at different stages throughout the first part of the novel and draws the heroes to Kingsbridge, while inciting the hatred of two powerful individuals. One of the heroes is Tom Builder, a mason and master builder whose dream in life is to design and build a cathedral. Unfortunately, when we first meet Tom, he loses his job through no fault of his own and is forced to wander from town to town in search of work with his pregnant wife, teenage son, and young daughter in tow. The family almost dies of starvation in the winter, and Tom’s wife dies shortly after giving birth to a son.

Shortly after Tom’s wife’s death, Tom’s family joins forces with Ellen, a fiercely independent and self-sufficient woman, and her son Jack. Ellen and Jack have lived in the woods as outlaws since before Jack’s birth 11 or 12 years before, but when Ellen falls in love with Tom and decides Jack needs some socialization, the outlaws join Tom’s family on their quest for work. They finally end up in Kingsbridge, and after the old cathedral burns down, Tom convinces Prior Philip and the other monks that he is the one to design and build the new cathedral.

Another hero is Aliena, the daughter of an earl. When she refuses to marry William Hamleigh, the son of a lord, she incites his wrath and, in a bid for revenge and to support Stephen who seeks to claim the throne after King Henry’s death, William’s family overthrows Aliena’s father. King Stephen grants the Earldom to the Hamleighs, leaving Aliena and her brother Richard almost destitute. Fortunately, Aliena’s father has secreted some money, and, with Prior Philip’s help, Aliena becomes a savvy business woman who uses her proceeds in an effort to help her brother reclaim the Earldom. She bases her business in Kingsbridge, under Prior Philip’s protection.

William Hamleigh never forgives Aliena for refusing him and takes out his wrath on her and people across the country. Once he takes over the Earldom after the death of his father, he also seeks to destroy Prior Philip because, once Kingsbridge begins to prosper with the building of the new cathedral, the town attracts money and people away from William’s nearby earldom. William joins forces with Bishop Waleran, who dislikes Prior Philip and Kingsbridge for his own reasons—mainly because, in an effort to gain money and supplies to build the cathedral, Prior Philip foils Bishop Waleran’s plans to gain the same money for his own purposes.

And so the stage is set for the decades long battle between Bishop Waleran and William Hamleigh on one side, and Prior Philip and Aliena on the other. This sketch of the opening plot encompasses only a fraction of the novel. William Hamleigh’s despicable behavior and Bishop Waleran’s evil schemes create a constant struggle for success in Kingsbridge, affecting the lives of Aliena, Richard, Prior Philip, and Tom Builder and his family. The epic continues as the characters age and the children become adults. The ensuing tale of love, betrayal, and revenge that connects all the characters results in a wonderfully written, sweeping epic that is impossible to put down for long.

Unfortunately, at times I did have to put down the book because I could not continue reading it until I had time to recover from the previous scene. Some of the vivid writing and the author’s ability to draw the reader completely into the story were too much for me. In particular, the author’s descriptions of the atrocities committed by William Hamleigh were horribly vivid, and I wish the author did not go into quite as much detail. However, the author’s skill in writing, and perhaps even his level of detail, very effectively causes readers to despise William and hope for his defeat. Despite my shudders at certain events in the novel, I picked up the book again every time because I simply had to find out if the heroes prevailed over William Hamleigh in the end.

The Pillars of the Earth is moving, fascinating, and brilliant. The characters have a lot of depth and personality, and seem like they could walk, live, off the page. Either that, or draw you into their world so that, if only briefly, you find yourself among the 12th century English craftsmen building a cathedral for the ages.

1 comment:

  1. I watched you read this book, seeming to struggle through the massive tome. I am very glad that you enjoyed it, obviously from your post you did. But I am still no going to try to tackle it myself! Too many other books to read, not enough free time.

    Also, when I first started reading your post I couldn't believe you were giving away so many details. Hello, spoilers?! But with the size of that thing, it makes sense you probably only summarized the first 75 of 800 pages. Great post!

    What is next on your list? Or do we need to make a library run first?