The Pillars of the Earth

A Novel by Ken Follett

Ken Follett, a Brit, is renowned as the author of over a dozen best-selling thrillers (e.g. Paper Money, Eye of the Needle), but his fame has been exponentially increased by his 1,000-page elephant, Pillars of the Earth – a literary triumph despite the fact that it was not critically acclaimed; its reputation came from the word of mouth of thousands, now millions, of devout admirers, who simply can’t stop talking about it, even now, some 15 years after it was first published. It is no surprise that Follett views this as his finest work.

Many ingredients make this book so compelling. It is set in the 1100’s, squarely in the blackest days of the barbaric feudal system in England, as seen primarily through the eyes of monks, builders and the common men of that era; its thrilling plots are filled with intrigue, love swiftly unfolding events, and hand to hand combat. It reveals the imaginative and sometimes grisly ways in which the great churches were conceived, financed and built, but, more importantly, it unveils the reasoning that motivated these magnificent edifices and lays bare the great good (and harm) that their creation and existence wrought. It demonstrates an uncanny knowledge of the history of the era and the likely actions and thought processes of those who then peopled the globe – each and all of which more than justifies reading Pillars.

Pillars gives great credit where it is due (to The Church, meaning, of course, the first church, The Catholic Church), which is ironic in itself, as the author is a confessed atheist; yet, his admiration for the really good men of The Cloth is boundless and unabashed (as is his contempt for the less prevalent, evil clergymen). Yes, as his storyline conveys, The Church (and Christianity itself) has been and remains inexplicably sexist, always reluctant to accord women the place that they deserve, as equals (or betters, in the eyes of many males, who acknowledge them as the very cement of all civilizations).

While the first hundred pages are required to fully grip the reader’s mind, thereafter, Follett drives the reader with inscrutable zeal to turn each and every page to the very end, as if in a breathless race to an unknown destination. This, of course, is the First and Ultimate Test of great fiction: the reader wants to read it, all of it. This achievement is an art form in and of itself. No matter what shortcomings may exist in his prose, Follett is a Master at crafting compelling fiction!

Pillars’ weaknesses include: a sometimes confusing lack of good syntax; the absence of stimulating metaphors and similes; an unchallenging vocabulary; simplistic dialogue; characters that are too predictable (too good or too bad) to be believable; plots and endless sub-plots that strain credulity (e.g., Ellen, a very intelligent woman, chooses to live in the forest alone and among outlaws; Aliena, who inexplicably rejects Jack after falling in love with him, but, then, travels half the civilized world (largely on foot), with her new born child, to find her lost love, Jack, and, unrealistically, she finds him); finally, Follett provides us with a 1940’s Hollywood ending, tying every sub-plot and character into neat bows and a blissful ending, and with few words as the author then shows his own fatigue; while this joyous denouement is comforting and rewarding to the exhausted reader, it is not reflective of real life. Some of the foregoing short suits, however, may be justified responses to wishes of Follett’s readers.

While Follett’s prose will never rival those of Boris Pasternak, Theodore Dreiser, Tolstoy, Dickens, Poe, Margaret Mitchell or the like, Pillars is remains fascinating, albeit a painful revelation of the brutality of medieval society. In sum, for those with the slimmest interest in life in medieval England, in architecture, in glorious church edifices, in The Masonic Order, or simply in passing time in an enjoyable paroxysm of spine-tingling curiosity, this wonderfully entertaining and edifying book is a Must-Read.