The Pillars of the Earth – Ken Follett
Religion and politics are closely tied in 12th century England when the king dies without an apparent heir to the throne, and everyone wants to replace him with their own favorite choice. The consequences of this feud extend to all areas of life for everyone in the land, no matter their distance from the throne. Amidst the scheming, politicking, and fighting, Prior Phillip somehow manages to focus his energy on turning his priory into a thriving town. At the center of his efforts, he oversees the building of a new cathedral, which will replace the one that burned down on the same night a master builder took shelter in the monastery. Over the course of a lifetime, Prior Phillip struggles earnestly for peace and justice in a world dominated by shrewd, sinister men, and watches the walls of his cathedral rise to the heavens. Those building the cathedral suffer no small hardship either, as they face the poverty, uncertainty, and occasional joy of the life of a peasant. In a world so full of suffering and sadness, everyone helps each other to see the promise of a new day that might bring success, justice, or just a bite to eat.
“The Pillars of the Earth” is a very thoroughly researched, planned, and written book. The novel encompasses a lifetime, and somehow Follett finds a way to make the storylines compelling all the way through its almost 1,000 page length. It is also an incredibly complex novel, with multiple story lines competing for primacy and even more secondary stories filling out the background. There are more characters than I can count on my fingers and toes, but they are pretty easy to keep track of after the initial introductions. Follett portrays the lifestyle and hardships, or lack thereof, of the different characters in roundabout detail, so instead of telling the reader exactly what life was like, he demonstrates the drastically different standards of living. The heart of the entire novel, though, is the construction of the cathedral. Follett’s introduction to the book was a little long, but worth reading because it tells how the novel should be read. Although the detail Follett gives to the construction of the cathedral gets a bit technical (boring) at times, his genuine awe and wonder at the ability to construct such magnificent structures with such limited knowledge inspires such wonder in the reader as well.
In terms of lengthy novels, this certainly scores high on my list for maintaining interest. The story never really drags, although I wasn’t particularly fond of all the detail about the construction of the cathedral. I had a hard time visualizing the intercepts, clerestory, and the western wall of the nave because I’m not entirely sure what all those things are, but it did leave me with a greater appreciation for the skill of builders and the amount of work that goes into a construction project. For those who were intrigued by the religious side of the Da Vinci Code books, I would highly recommend this book because it gives more information on the inner workings of the Catholic Church in England. For those who aren’t so interested in that, it is also a great novel about the struggles of good vs. evil, and if even that doesn’t sound interesting, there are lots of great battle scenes.