The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett is an epic masterpiece set in 12th century England encompassing the construction of a cathedral in the small town of Kingsbridge. It is the first novel to the Kingsbridge trilogy and its prequel – The Evening and the Morning – having come out recently, I thought it’d be a great time to re-read this epic humongous novel once again. Having said that, I’d like to thank Pan MacMillan India for sending across both these brilliant works of historical fiction as part of the #PanMacHistoricalReadathon!
Coming back to the book, the plot kicks off with the sinking of The White Ship, that’s what triggers a set of dominoes to fall – the civil war in England, the rejection of a proposal, the loss of a job and the death of a prior and a bishop. The sinking of The White Ship in general is considered to be a major event in medieval history for England with multiple speculations about why it happened. As Peter Konieczny writes, “It was perhaps the worst maritime disaster of the Middle Ages, not just because it cost 300 lives, but because one of them was the heir to the Anglo-Norman Empire. One scholar has a theory that the sinking of the White Ship on the night of November 25, 1120 was not a tragic accident, rather a case of mass murder.”
The Pillars of the Earth very clearly captures the politics, greed, passion and barbaric nature of humans during a power struggle when the opportunity to acquire more arises. It captures the lives of Tom Builder and his family, of an outlaw Ellen and her son, of William’s barbaric behaviour, of the prior and bishop of Kingsbridge and of Aliena and her brother Richard across a span of 50 years (1123-1174).
The book is divided into six parts and there’s a constantly swinging pendulum of favour between the good guys and the villains. It’s a roller coaster ride when it comes to emotions – greed, passion, love, violence, joy, cruelty and happiness. Despite the daunting size of this book – 970 pages – the entire story and the lives of all the characters has been woven together with a delicate thread. If you’ve seen medieval English TV shows or even read about them, the world building for this book will be quite easy and understandable for you too.
Follett has done a brilliant job to say the least in writing this story from the point of view of every single character. The description of how the cathedral was being built overwhelmed me a little as I don’t understand the intricacies of architectural designs. Overall, the book is well-paced and filled with well-established plot twists.
I rate this book 5 out of 5 bookmarks, since I did re-read it and of course loved it as much as I did the first time. If you’re looking to travel back to 12th century England and trying to understand the political power struggle back then, I highly recommend this book, though I’d like to add a trigger warning for rape and violence.