Ken Follett left his journalism career after three years of boredom to work for a small, London-based book publisher in the late-1970s. He began writing fiction as a hobby, and became proficient enough to end up earning money at it. With the publication of The Eye of the Needle in 1978, Follett entered the international stage and super stardom, selling 10 million copies. For the next several years, he wrote several best sellers and seemed set on a path to writing airport novels.
Everything changed in 1989, with the publication of The Pillars of the Earth – his first historical novel. Set during the 12th century English civil war known as the Anarchy, the novel details the building of a cathedral and the growth of the fictional small village of Kingsbridge into a thriving and major town. The novel took the world by storm, and has gone on to become Ken Follett’s most popular and best-selling book. In 2003, the BBC polled the British public, who voted The Pillars of the Earth their 33rd most beloved book – ahead of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Animal Farm, Dune, and just about everything else.
And all I could think about while reading it was how much like A Game of Thrones it is.
For starters: the book is brutal. Rape, assault, and murder are fairly common. The main villain for much of the book (William Hamleigh) isn’t much nicer than Ramsay Bolton from A Song of Ice and Fire. Characters we like die tragically. There’s a bear baiting scene (no Brienne of Tarth, though). There’s even a child climbing a wall and nearly dying. And, just, so much rape.
Maybe that’s unfair. One character gets raped (and it’s described graphically – so, fair warning), but it is referenced or threatened multiple times throughout the novel.
I don’t know if it’s because this is a fictional world rather than a fantastical one, but the violence in this book is visceral in a way I didn’t expect. I felt real sadness at the violence perpetrated against the characters – even background ones that I knew nothing about. The violence is just so casual. People’s lives are thrown away with little concern for the loss. The people committing the violence are not only not punished, but are actively celebrated. It can be a gut wrenching, heart breaking experience.
And some of the characters are so callous and selfish, I really ended up hating them in a similar way to what I felt for Ramsay Bolton in A Song of Ice and Fire – though they weren’t as over-the-top violent as he was. For one example, swipe to reveal spoilers: At one point in the novel, Aliena loses everything she had built because William Hamleigh burns Kingsbridge. Forced to marry so that she can continue covering the aristocratic aspirations of her brother, she is forced to marry Alfred Builder – who only marries her because he’s a vengeful prick who wants to hurt Jack – who loves Aliena. Years later, he tries to rape Aliena.
While I hesitate to say, “this is how it was” in the Middle Ages – there’s no denying that it was a far more brutal time than the one in which we currently live. Human life was cheap, and the degree to which powerful people could simply burn down a village or rape women is staggering in its casualness. And the Anarchy of 12th century England was a fairly brutal, violent era – even by the standards of the Middle Ages. Much of the pathologically violent behavior is done under the guise of a civil war, so it seems plausible, at least, that the king would turn a blind eye to the behavior of one of his nobles – especially one who provides such a martial advantage to him. That’s what makes it so frustratingly hopeless – the rich and powerful get away with anything, because they all protect one another.
I found the book to be engaging – even though I started it earlier in the year and took a three month break a couple chapters into the book. But even when I wasn’t reading the book, I was thinking about the book. That’s a sure sign that the book is worth returning to. It was.
And, overall, I’m glad that I did. I thoroughly enjoyed this book – which is saying a lot considering this novel is essentially about the building of a cathedral over 50 years or so. I don’t know that I’ve ever read a book quite like this before. The closest I can think of is The Bridge On the River Drina by Ivo Andric – which is ostensibly about a bridge over a river. It’s a marvelous, layered novel about ethnic and religious division in Yugoslavia over 500 years, but it’s all centered around a bridge. The Pillars of the Earth isn’t quite as grand as that – but it’s a surprisingly intimate novel for one that covers the nearly 60 years between 1120 and 1174, and it had a diverse set of characters I legitimately cared about.
Just, be warned that they suffer.