On the shelf: ‘The Pillars of the Earth’ by Ken Follett

By Lisa Boss, Grand Rapids Public Library, Main


The year is 1123, England is full into the Middle Ages, and a routine event is occurring in the town square: a man is being hanged. There’s something odd about this particular execution though. The man is unknown to the people.  He sings in French before his death, and the crowd becomes uneasy, absorbing the unrest of the officials at hand. Suddenly, a young woman appears, cutting the throat of a cockerel as she utters a terrifying curse, and throws the blood spattering bird directly at the three men responsible for the stranger’s death. Shock momentarily paralyzes the populace, and she disappears into the forest.


This is the heart of the mystery that pulses at the center of the numerous plot lines: who was this man and why was he killed?


The Pillars of the Earth is a riveting, epic work, with a cast of real, engaging characters, living in times that will definitely take your mind off your 401K.  Written in 1989, it has always enjoyed a place on “great reads” lists, and was chosen as an Oprah Book Club pick in 2007. Like all epics, the author celebrates the continuous struggle of Good against Evil in this work, and how human nature can be so easily inclined either way. I loved (or hated) the characters. Listening to it on audio, I found that I was constantly making excuses to drive somewhere to find out what was going to happen. I was hooked after the first few minutes, actually sobbing out loud as one early drama (probably very commonplace back then) unfolded. So, there’s plenty of emotional connection to the characters, and the plot is filled with unexpected twists and turns.


Follett begins his tale with a brief reference to a great historical disaster for the English Crown that occurred in 1120: the wreck of the White Ship. King Henry I, (1068-1135), who was the youngest son of William the Conqueror, had one son. On a fatal night in November 1120, the White Ship set out from France to England, carrying this son of Henry; but it foundered on the rocks, and all aboard perished in the sea, save one man.


The end result of this disaster was the lack of an obvious inheritor to the throne. Henry arranged for his daughter, Matilda (Maude) to succeed him, but his nephew, Stephen, also had factions supporting him, and civil war broke out. Later known as “the time of anarchy”, chaos and lawlessness broke out, lasting almost 20 years until another undisputed king was crowned.


During this time, wars are fought, political alliances are formed and betrayed, bishops are created, men and women live and die, and life in Kingsbridge increases and wanes, according to the whims of the larger forces that seek power, and the fierce spirit of human creativity and growth.


Follett was well-known for writing intricate, popular thrillers before this work. He said that Pillars of the Earth grew out of his fascination with the history and architecture of the great cathedrals. He began to imagine the men that built them, the mathematical discoveries that informed their advance into new building forms, resulting in the creations that would inspire and awe for generations to come. If you’ve ever walked into an old cathedral, you’ll appreciate this book all the more. Follett said that he wanted to tell their story, but in a way that would convey everything that was put into them and going on around them. If you’re looking for a long, absorbing historical novel that’s also a total thriller, this is for you!