Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

My next book here at Reading Matters is Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett.  Ken Follett began his literary career writing spy thrillers all of which were bestsellers. Then in 1989 Follett changed course and published Pillars of the Earth a historical novel set in 12th century England.

The result was phenomenal.  Readers worldwide loved Pillars of the Earth.  It became his biggest bestseller and critics were impressed as well.  I had read Follett before.  I knew he was talented and since I enjoy historical fiction decided to give Pillars of the Earth a try.  Its a 1000 page read so it takes committment but it's a measure of Ken Follett's skill that he kept me interested and you learn about history in an entertaining way.

Pillars of the Earth begins in 1120 with the sinking of the White Ship in the English Channel.  Its a true historical event in which about 300 people died including William Adelin, the only legitimate son of King Henry I.  William's death threw the British monarchy into crisis as to who would succeed King Henry I.  A civil war broke out from 1135 to 1154 in which Stephen of Blois, a nephew of King Henry I and Empress Matilda, King Henry's daughter, battled for the crown. But Pillars of the Earth does not so much focus on what was happening in the monarchy as it does on the building of a cathedral in the fictional town of Kingsbridge during this period of turmoil.

Two characters in Pillars of the Earth stood out for me. William Hamleigh the evil son of Lord Percy Hamleigh.  You definitely root for him to get his just desserts as the attrocities he committs keep mounting. And then my favorite character in the novel is Philip, the Prior of Kingsbridge.  Phillip is a monk, an intelligent, good and brave man who runs the monastery at Kingsbridge.  He is intent on building the cathedral as a beautiful monument to God but also he understands that a cathedral in Kingsbridge would attract worshippers and improve the livelihood of the townspeople.

Phillip's determination to continue building the cathedral is aided by another major character in the novel, a gifted architect Jack Jackson.  The characters determined to stop the cathedral seeing it's construction as a threat to their power, are William Hamleigh and Waldegron Bigod, the Archdeacon of Shiring.  There is also a love story between Jack Jackson and Aliena, the daughter of the Earl of Bartholomew.  We meet Thomas Beckett, a real historical figure whose murder rocked England to its core.  I had heard the name Thomas Beckett but always thought he lived in the 15th or 16th century but Pillars of the Earth educated me on who he was, why he was important and the time period in which he lived.

I ended Pillars of the Earth impressed with Ken Follett's talent although maybe the book could have been condensed a bit without losing its power.  In 2007 Follett published a sequel to Pillars of the Earth that takes place once again in Kingsbridge but this time in the 14th century.  Follett has also written Fall of Giants the first in his century trilogy which focuses on five fictional families throughout the 20th century. Its a book I definitely want to read and as with all of Ken Follett's novels its a major bestseller.

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