Ken Follett tells the story of how this historical fiction classic was written on his website. In a nutshell, The Pillars of the Earth was the result of his pursuit of a passion for medieval architecture that awakened when he first visited Peterborough Cathedral. Immediately after it was published it did moderately well, occupying the number one bestseller spot in the UK for a week, but it was not the runaway hit that ‘The Eye of the Needle’ had been, and at first there was nothing to indicate that it would become a kind of sleeper-hit. He now says that it is his most popular book, and that the majority of people who write to him ask him about Pillars. He puts its perennial popularity down to the fact that he followed his gut instinct, and readers rewarded him word-of-mouth recommendations.
It is clear that nothing other than passion can drive you to write an epic spanning the civil war years of the 1100s, and Follett had to overcome the misgivings of many of his colleagues and go far outside his comfort zone to write this novel, but it was worth it. Those times were so different from ours (I noticed particularly how difficult and expensive it was for the monks to obtain books before the printing press!), but Follett writes so vividly that he brings a period that could be remote so close that we can see and smell it. Rather than giving in to the temptation of making it a kind of potted textbook full of dates, the events of the period are filtered through the effects that they have on the lives of the characters.
It is plain that life was very political then, as now, and you were dominated by the alliances that were often made and broken for you during the course of your life. Livelihoods could be won and lost at a word from the king (and it could be even more complicated when they were contradicted by another monarch that the first king was fighting at the time).
The book follows a number of everyday heroes. Prior Phillip’s fortunes are most important, as the actions of the other characters are largely judged in the light of what they say about their loyalty to him. Prior Phillip is described as the kind of person who is loved through his actions rather than his words, and I had the same response to him. Phillip was orphaned at an early age, narrowly escaping death thanks to the intervention of a monk, and he rises up through the ranks of the church based on his enterprising spirit and keen sense of social and moral justice. He is not a paragon, however. He is like the CEO of a highly diverse business providing education, social welfare, housing and products like wool and cheese, and with all that pressure he couldn’t possibly be. CEOs rarely are. In the book he is often preachy, overly rigid, and over-ambitious, but because he fights tirelessly for good, we forgive him.
The drive to build Kingsbridge Cathedral and develop the town that grows around it becomes the main source of momentum in the novel. The community of supporters around Prior Phillip’s programme, including the other men of God, masons, merchants, knights, outlaws and dispossessed gentry all have their own stories, but they share a loathing of the same antagonists: William Hamleigh of Shiring and his partner in crime Bishop Waleran Bigod. The conflict between Kingsbridge and Shiring resembles a war of attrition and it encompasses nearly a decade. The novel analyses medieval morality through it, and we find the moral mazes that the characters get trapped in are not so different from our own. The problem of knowing when to compromise and when to hold fast to your principles is as old as time, but it is still very important to explore. The ending is incredible, and the writing packs an absolute knockout punch, I was holding my breath throughout it!
This book is so large at 1069 pages that if it hadn’t been for the deadline of a book group meeting, it may have sat on my shelves for a while. Ken Follett says that his biggest challenge was to find more and more things to say about the same cast of characters and maintain the narrative drive throughout the book’s length, but if he was flagging as a writer, I couldn’t tell as a reader. In fact, there is quite a lot of sex and sometimes shocking violence (for a novel about monks) but I never felt it was gratuitous, and to a degree it reflects the way life was back then. The violence is never excused, although the motivations of the perpetrators are always made clear.
I was sometimes aware of some irritatingly clever plot devices that Follett used to try and make this huge and complex story a little bit easier to tell – the one I remember in particular is where Prior Phillip is conveniently placed at the top of Lincoln Cathedral for a big battle between the two claimants to the throne, and can therefore handily give us a birds eye view of the soldiers’ manoeuvrings. In all honesty though, given the scale and scope of this extraordinary novel, this is a pretty trivial criticism.
If you could be put off by the presence of a lot of religious characters, don’t be. Follett shows that there are good and bad elements in every person and category of people, and the clergy are no different. He also shows the spiritual growth and decay of various characters convincingly. All in all, it is a gripping tale which draws you into a different world, and for me the plot never plods. I have no hesitation in giving it four and a half bites.