The Pillars of the Earth (1989)

by Ken Follett

Ken Follett is renowned for writing some of the top thrillers in the English language, including Eye of the Needle and The Key to Rebecca. The book Follett considers his best, however, is a historical novel that received lukewarm reactions from publishers and most critics and no prize nominations. As Follett writes in a preface to The Pillars of the Earth, "This is a word-of-mouth book. . . . the personal recommendation of one reader to another . . . was selling Pillars."

Why did the builders of medieval cathedrals want to erect such astonishing monuments to faith? Follett, a self-described nonbeliever, wrote an almost 1,000-page novel to try to understand. Among The Pillars of the Earth's many well-drawn characters, the godly Prior Philip is the main one. It is for Philip's priory in Kingsbridge that first Tom Builder (many surnames were inspired by occupation) and then Jack Jackson (his father was named Jack) struggle  through many natural and manmade setbacks over more than four decades to build a cathedral. Other important characters are Aliena, daughter of a deposed earl, shrewd wool merchant, and love of Jack's life; Jack's strong-willed, forest-dwelling mother, Ellen, considered by some a witch; the cruel William of Hamleigh, whose family seized the earldom from Aleina's; and an unscrupulous archdeacon, Waleran Bigod.

Follett steeps his story in the fine points of arches, windows, vaults, and the geometric proportions needed for both aesthetic beauty and structural soundness. Just as thorough as the architectural details is his historical research about the political and religious culture of 12th-century England. Political intrigues, including one that cost Jack's innocent father his life, drive the plot. Two royals vie for the English throne, their subjects take sides and court favors, and the fate of Kingsbridge and its cathedral hangs in the balance.

Written by an author who knows how to write a well-paced, suspenseful, lively tale, The Pillars of the Earth is enormously entertaining as well as informative. Readers clamored for Follett to write a sequel. He decided the characters were too old at the end of Pillars to survive another book, so he wrote a novel about their descendants two centuries later. World Without End (2008) revolves around the Black Death and the foundation of modern medicine.


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