The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

December 7, 2010

I thought I had previously read one of Follett’s novels. I thought it was The Falcon and the Snowman, but that book was written by somebody else. Maybe I read The Eye of the Needle. I was in high school, decades ago now. It may be telling that I cannot recall enough of the book to determine to which book my wisps of recollection belong. Perhaps, after all, the book I remember was not Follett’s. If only I had blogged back then…..

There are many types of books in the world, but let’s pretend there are two. In one category, we have books that are a delight because “the characters are easy to love or hate”. In the other, are the books I tend to love. This book belongs in the former category. If not knowing within a page of meeting a character whether you should love that character or hate them is an irritating distraction for you, then this is your book. (The quote, by the way, is not from this novel, but a close paraphrase of someone’s description of a book they loved and which I did not. Our different reactions made sense to me after reading their reason for loving the book. Digressions are the hobgoblins of busy bloggers. I move on.)

Or, we can pretend the two categories are different. In one, a character who gets stabbed with a knife might “scream[] like a stuck pig.” In the other, are the books I tend to love. Perhaps, the prose is more pleasing if you have not actually heard a stuck pig. I think not, however. My real problem is that the sentence is, basically, “a stuck man screamed like a stuck pig” as getting “stuck”, in the pig context, is to be stabbed by a knife. The beauty of the symmetry is lost on me.

But those categories are so arbitrary. It is more helpful, perhaps, if I describe some of the novel’s good qualities. It is very long and, therefore, thick and, therefore, potentially useful for many things in addition to reading. It was a bestseller and, according to a BBC survey in 2003, is the 33rd most beloved book in Britain. Oprah likes it too. There are lots of characters to love and lots of characters to hate. Did I mention it is easy to tell them apart? So, there’s that.

At least one negative should be mentioned, to be fair. There is a sequel with the terrifying title World Without End. I think I said the novel is “very long.” The copy I have is 973 pages and a couple of months long.

While purportedly historical fiction, the novel is really a thriller which, coincidentally, is Follett’s forte. The prologue is set in England in 1123. There is a hanging attended by a knight, a monk, and a priest. The priest says to the knight….kidding. No, it is actually a gripping opening which ends with a headless cock running around “in a ragged circle on the bloodstained snow.” All the principal characters involved are later important. Follett knots his yarn well. If only he could write, that would be something. Well, if he could write and if trusted his readers a bit more, that would be something. His lack of trust in his readers shows in two ways. One, the characters are exceptionally very easy to categorize as “love them” or “hate them”, though, to make it more fun, you can try loving the hateful ones and hating the lovable ones. In that case, it has a tragic ending. The other way he does not trust his readers (or perhaps himself…and maybe he has a point) is that he often needs to explain things which really would be better shown.

I should expound upon the writing if I intend to be ungracious about it. Aside from stuck pigs, there are moments like this involving a starving family and an asshole:

”Suppose I give you money for food,” William said to the builder, to tantalize him.

“I’ll accept it gratefully,” the man said, although William could tell it hurt him to be subservient.

“I’m not talking about a gift. I’ll buy your woman.”

The woman herself spoke. “I’m not for sale, boy.”

Her scorn was well directed, and William was angered.

I shit you not.

If someone can tell me in the comments what that last sentence even means, I will be grateful. But look at the first sentence. We already know both (a) that the family is starving and (b) that William is an asshole. Shouldn’t the author be able to assume that his readers will know that an asshole offering money for food to a starving man is probably just being an asshole? But Follet tells us that William made the offer to “tantalize” the starving man, in case we missed it. In a much shorter book, maybe that would not become irritating, or maybe it would. It’s hard to tell.

I am being altogether too negative though. One of our young heros-to-be enjoys playing chess. You may know, I also enjoy playing chess. Of course, he “win[s] them all.” Perhaps, there is another way to show the boy is intelligent and that he enjoys chess. I am being unreasonable. If a character is going to play chess and be a hero, he ought to play well. Really well.

There is a nice structure to the novel. The 1123 prologue, as I mentioned, is fairly gripping. The main body of the story begins twelve years later with a fresh (so it seems) slate of characters. It may be a spoiler to say this, but any character worth loving or hating will appear more than once, often many times, often you will have least expected their reappearance a hundred or so pages before they do reappear, by which time you will have expected it. Somehow, it still is mildly satisfying. Like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich when you are really jonesing for a steak and cheese. It gets the job done, but if the timing had been better….

I think it is my mood. The book is much better than I am making it out to be. However, I have managed to convey the novel’s basic type. I should add that, despite the shortcoming I have identified, Follet is a bestselling thriller-writer for a reason. There are loads of characters and you will definitely be able to find one of the type you might imagine yourself to be, particularly if you are a man. The good men are sometimes ugly. The good women, never. The good women are often raped. The good men, never. Perhaps there is a bit of misogyny, but not too much for Oprah.

If you have not visited any European cathedrals, which would be my position, you likely will want to after reading this book. Follett clearly enjoyed researching cathedrals and cathedral building for this book. The cathedral in the book is fictional rather than historical, as is the town and most of the characters. Historical events sort of play a role, but are altered to fit the plot. Most interesting is the way Follett has weaved an alternate history that begins with the sinking of the White Ship and, largely, ends with the murder of Thomas Becket. Follett has filled the space between these two events with a tale that spirals from the aspirations of Tom Builder to that final assasination. I cannot really say too much more about the success of the plot without spoiling the good thing about this novel which is the story. And, so, I won’t.