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The Pillars of the Earth

November 14th, 2010

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As a new age dawns in England's twelfth century, the building of a mighty Gothic cathedral sets the stage for a story of intrigue and power, revenge and betrayal.


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Fiction Books As a new age dawns in England's twelfth century, the building of a mighty Gothic cathedral sets the stage for a story of intrigue and power, revenge and betrayal.
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  1. Lawyeraau
    November 15th, 2010 at 08:48 | #1

    Rating

    This masterful, well-written saga of life in twelfth century England is epic storytelling at its best. The author weaves a rich and colorful tapestry of people, places, and events surrounding the building of a magnificent cathedral in the medieval town of Kingsbridge.

    Early twelfth century England was a country in a state of flux. King Henry I had died without a male heir. His daughter Maude was to be queen. The English barons, for the most part, however, refused to swear fealty to her. Maude’s first cousin, Stephen of Blois, then usurped her rights and proclaimed himself king. This was to plunge England into a civil war that was to last for many, many years, turning England into a virtually lawless and tumultuous land, until Maude’s son became King Henry II of England.

    For most people, however, life would go on with every day concerns being paramount. The book tells the story of a number of these lives. One story is that of Tom, a master builder, whose life long dream was to build a cathedral. The lives of Tom and his family would intersect that of a humble and intelligent monk named Phillip who would become the prior at Kingsbridge Priory. The fates would intervene and provide Tom with an opportunity to pursue his dream.

    Their lives would intersect with a number of other individuals, some good, some evil, who would have a great impact on their lives and their goals. Tom would lose his first wife, Agnes, by whom he already had two children, brutish Alfred and sweet Martha, due to complications sustained during the birth of another son. This son was to provide a connection between Tom and Phillip of which Phillip would long be unaware.

    Tom would ultimately marry Ellen, a strong willed independent woman of the forest, perceived by many to be a witch. Her son Jack, a sensitive, highly intelligent lad, whose father was deceased, would grow to manhood. His dream would begin where Tom’s had left off. In Jack’s background, however, was a mystery surrounding his deceased father, a French jongleur. That mystery in some way involved Sir Percy Hamleigh, Waleran Bigod, and Prior James, the old prior of Kingsbridge before Phillip.

    When Earl Bartholomew of Shiring makes the treasonous mistake of siding with Maude in the conflict with Stephen, he ends up on the losing side. Sir Percy Hamleigh and his son William, siding with Stephen, attack the Earl’s castle, and take Earl Bartholomew captive. Imprisoned for treason, he loses his earldom to the Hamleighs. His young son and heir, Richard, and his daughter, the beautiful Lady Aliena, are left to fend for themselves, but not until William Hamleigh has slaked his thirst for revenge upon them. You see, William had been engaged at one time to marry the Lady Aliena, only to be spurned by her to his vast public humiliation. This was the moment for which he had been waiting. Aliena and Richard would ultimately migrate to Kingsbridge to begin a new life.

    Meanwhile, the church itself was having its own political intrigues. Phillip was tricked by Waleran Bigod, an ambitious arch-deacon, into supporting him for the post of bishop. Phillip would later best Waleran and incur his enmity for a lifetime. Remigius, a spy for Waleran Bigod, was a monk at Kingsbridge Priory who saw his dream of becoming prior at Kingsbridge dissipate with the advent of Phillip. He would spend a lifetime undermining Phillip and plotting against him. Moreover, the fate of Kingsbridge and the building of its cathedral would always seem to hinge upon the political vagaries of the time. Its fortunes would ebb and flow with the political winds.

    Ever present throughout the destinies of all these characters is the age old battle between good and evil. Complicating it further were those who sought to do good but did evil, believing that the end justified the means. Spanning over fifty turbulent years, this is a spellbinding story of love, hate, faith, betrayal, revenge, and triumph. Against a backdrop of civil war, the sharply drawn characters grasp the imagination of the reader. Twelfth century England is laid out in painstaking detail, providing an unforgettable backdrop for the lives lived within the pages of this memorable work of historical fiction. This book is simply riveting. Bravo!

  2. Paul Dsouza
    November 19th, 2010 at 15:52 | #2

    Rating

    This is an epic. An epic set in 12th century England that attempts to convey a story about the intertwined lives and conflicts. The story, very cleverly, uses the building of a cathedral as the anchor or glue to bind all the sub-stories together. One story is that of Tom, a skilled builder whose life ends ups meshing with that of a monk, Phillip. The story then moves to the next generation, i.e. Tom’s stepson Jack. What is amazing about this story is that it effortlessly uses the backdrop of medieval England without allowing the history to overwhelm. The focus is on the characters and their lives, not the history, which is used more as embellishment.

  3. M. Phipps
    November 20th, 2010 at 12:59 | #3

    Rating

    Personally, I don’t place a lot of stock in Oprah’s book club lottery. The instant stardom that placement on this reading list bestows authors isn’t always, in my opinion, justified. That being said, this is a wonderful book.

    Pillars is complex, moving and informative. The research was excellent, the characters are engaging and the story moves at a surprisingly quick pace for a novel of this length. The descriptions of the scenes, the completeness of the political interplay and the twists of the plot make this one of my favorite books of all time. Normally, I have little patience for historical fiction unless it brings something new or truly engaging to the table. Pillars certainly does that and more.

    In other words, while there is no such thing as the perfect book, this one comes very close. My advice is simple…READ THIS BOOK — YOU’LL LOVE IT!

    But do yourself a small favor, go to the used bookstore or the library, this is not a new release and you can enjoy Follett’s favorite work for a fraction of the cost. A quick search of Amazon shows dozens of options that don’t have the Oprah name or any other bells and whistles that I’m sure are unneeded to enjoy this spectacular piece of fiction

  4. Kait Rankins
    November 21st, 2010 at 04:23 | #4

    Rating

    I borrowed this book from my voice teacher after she recommended it to me, and soon after I did so everybody at my high school was talking about this book: my Shakespeare teacher, my friends in madrigals, my fellow English students . . . somehow everyone had come upon this book at once and I had to know what the big deal was.

    _The Pillars of the Earth_ opens with a prologue that vaguely introduces future characters and a mystery that will gradually tie the numerous characters together. It is exciting and bizarre and sets the expectations high. It is apparent by this prologue alone that Ken Follett has done his research in terms of twelfth-century culture, a theme that is consistent throughout the novel.

    After this, the book was disappointing at first. It was hard to get into, with the story following Tom Builder and his family in his struggle to find work in order to survive. At this point the writing seems pedantic – it is too simple, sometimes as if Follett is speaking to a child. It reflects the education level of the characters in focus, which is an interesting narrative tool but grew quite tiresome. The first part of the book took me three months to read because of this. However, I either got used to it or it lessened as the book went on – something that was most fortuitous.

    Once the narration leaves Tom Builder, Follett begins to bring us into the major part of the story involving Brother Philip of St.-John-In-The-Forest. Philip is an incredibly engaging character, whose strong Christian conviction is honest without being preachy or comedic. This young, nobly ambitious monk is only one of the fine characters that make this novel worthwhile. Also of special note are Jack Jackson, the sharply intelligent and rebellious bastard son of a witch; Archdeacon Waleran Bigod, the self-serving and double-dealing priest who is just too slick for words; and Aliena, the beautiful daughter of a fallen earl who, though at great risk for becoming a dull and vapid Mary Sue, remains a fascinatingly admirable and sometimes unsympathetic character. None of the heroes are perfect – all of the protagonists have their flaws that make them undeniably human, something that most novelists don’t do with their characters because it risks the character’s likeability.

    The story is long. It has to be – it’s about the building of a Gothic cathedral, which takes twenty, thirty years to build .. and so the story spans some thirty years. Everything that could go wrong does go wrong, as is to be expected with a project of such expanse. At times it can be tedious but those points are rare. When the plot is not racing along to the point where one can’t help thinking “Good Lord, what _else_ could happen?”, one is learning about the culture of the twelfth century, which never reads like a textbook and always adds color and context to the story.

    The unexpected thing about _The Pillars of the Earth_ is its political intrigue. It is not generally thought that such games of power would have to be played for the building of a cathedral, but this book proves it wrong. Such maneuverings are seen through the eyes of naive Philip, who must learn to move in this world if he wishes to see his cathedral built. We learn along with him what people must do for the king and just how far some are willing to go.

    All in all, it is an incredible story. However, there is some gratuitous sexuality and violence that is not necessary for the plot. It seemed that all love was based around physical attraction and lust, even the most innocent of loves (never mind the constant rape scenes involving Lord William Hamleigh). This is, perhaps, to show a marked contrast between ‘normal people’ and the celibate monks, and also because the twelfth-century English culture did not blush at sexuality. Only a few scenes of Lord William’s sexual abuse are integral to the plot; the rest are to enhance one’s hatred of him and understanding of his mind. Don’t read this, certainly, if you are squeamish – everything is put into its most vulgar terms (making it a historically accurate narration, and I was most impressed with that fact) and the violence is not flowery and romantic.

    My other complaint was some words were used that were definitely not in the twelfth century, having been invented by either Shakespeare (such as “puke” and “weird”) or someone long after his time. This will not stick out to most readers and ought not to affect the enjoyment of the novel unless one is a history buff or lover of word-lore – it might jar that sort of reader for a moment before one can move on. There are not enough instances of this for it to be distracting, and although the novel feels contemporary and the characters seem modern, it all fits ideally into the time period it was set in, making it a historical novel that is accessible to contemporary readers. Brilliant.

    My recommendation? READ THIS BOOK. It is something that will stay with you for a very long time. The characters are bound to follow you at school, at work, anywhere you’re not supposed to be reading. You will probably be disappointed when it finally ends. For me, it was a struggle to get through the beginning but once Philip was introduced it was quite a ride. Loved it. Read it. :)

  5. Busy Mom
    November 21st, 2010 at 16:14 | #5

    Rating

    A friend in a book club just kept nagging me to read this book as she said it was one of the greatest novels she has ever read. Finally, I went to the bookstore and bought it. And I was hooked. Aliena, Jack, Richard, Philip, Tom, Ellen, William among other characters come alive in these pages. You feel exasperation, horror, awe, wonder as you discover just how hard life is in the middle ages. You learn how they build catherals then. You become involve with the intrigues, treachery, loyalties, passion ~~ it’s a great book for both men and women to read. It may be a hefty book to read, but once you do, you cannot escape the characters’ words and lives as easily as you think. Follett takes you right into his middle ages world and you walk out with a view of life then forever changed.

    If you need to escape from realism ~~ or you’re looking for a book that has love and hate, loyalties and treachery, hope and despair, I guarantee that you will find it all in this one!

    **** UPDATE ****

    This is now seven years later and I just finished reading it again for a book club. I swore that I wasn’t going to spend my time reading a monster book like this one. I loved it then and am sure that I would love it again, but I just didn’t have time to devote to the size of this book. But it took me in and wouldn’t let me go, you know. I just HAD to read it again and could not put it down till the last page was turned. This is probably the only time where I can honestly say that it’s a good thing that there’s nothing on TV (all of my favorite shows aren’t on the air these days), because I was able to finish this book in a week. I really couldn’t put it down.

    What do you say about this book that hasn’t been said by hundreds of reviewers? It’s big. It’s fast. It’s full of likeable characters and dishonorable ones too. It shows all the ranges of human emotions between fear, anger, disgust, love, pride, and shows the depths of actions like fighting for one’s honor, dreams, ambitions and so forth. There’s Tom Builder who had a dream of building his own cathedral and nearly starved himself and his entire family while holding out for that dream. There’s Philip the Monk who wanted to have Kingsbridge to have the largest cathedral in England at that time. There’s Aliena, a displaced Earl’s daughter who suffered abuse, starvation and indignity at the hands of her rejected suitor, William, and yet, somehow overcame those adversities to find love again and regained her honor, her dreams and kept her oath to her father at the same time. There’s Richard, her brother, a weak man who was twisted by anger and revenge. There’s William Hamleigh, a weak man who preys on others to make himself feel invincible. There’s Jack, the hero of this novel, who grew up in the forest not knowing who his father was nor his family history, but still became a builder of great proportions. There’s ambitious bishops, devious priests, kings and queens fighting over everything at the expense of the people.

    This is a novel of immense proportions and a perfect one for book clubs to discuss. It’s one of the best novels around. If you like historical fiction, you will like this one. If not, then don’t waste your time because it’s a huge book to read and it might discourage you from reading it all the way through. However, if you’ve wanted to try reading in a new genre, I will have to say that I can’t imagine a better one to start with. It’s just full of good reading and it cannot be put down till the last page has been turned.

    I think I appreciate it better this time around than I did the first time. There’s so much more that I picked up that I didn’t remember the first time around. So in my opinion, this book is a keeper.

    1/28/08

  6. Danusha Goska
    November 22nd, 2010 at 15:34 | #6

    Rating

    Fond memories: reading Ken Follett novels when I should have been paying attention in algebra class. I used to hold his paperbacks under the desk and give them all my attention, naively certain that the teacher never noticed.

    “The Key to Rebecca,” “Night over Water,” “The Man from St. Petersburg,” “Eye of the Needle”: even as I was entranced by these books’ plots, I marveled at the master who penned them. He wielded a magic wand; he bewitched me into turning those pages until I reached the final page. How did he do it? I wanted to do the same, to hold readers in thrall to a propulsive narrative. No less than sexual seduction, seducing millions of readers is a powerful, Darwinian gift.

    Now, these many years later, I teach Follett to my writing students. I encourage them to think about what Follett does to get readers to turn those pages so breathlessly.

    “Pillars of the Earth” changed my mind about Follett, so much so that it made me think, long and hard, about all popular entertainment, and my own consumption of it.

    A two-dimensional villain tortures another man by lowering that man into a crackling fire. “Pillars” describes the victim’s skin blistering, his cries of pain.

    This torture scene doesn’t contribute any twists or pace to the plot. It doesn’t plumb the use of torture in the Middle Ages or today. It doesn’t teach me or move me. I’m willing to read a difficult scene, to be taught, to be moved, to be changed, to be made a better person with a richer view of life. Rather, this torture scene in “Pillars” is there for … entertainment — the entertainment of “seeing” the torture victim’s skin blister.

    I found that reading a torture scene that was meant to be entertaining to be a very disturbing experience.

    Not long after, there is a rape. The same two-dimensional villain who had tortured the man by roasting him catches a noble virgin alone in a defeated castle. The villain previously murdered her family and friends. He rapes the girl in front of her brother, and then invites his servant to rape the girl, as well.

    Plot elements conspire to disempower the girl utterly. She can not attempt to resist; she can not attempt to seek justice.

    A rape scene can be handled in any number of ways. If the author did not want to dwell on the rape, but to make the point that it did occur, he could have mentioned it and moved, quickly, on.

    If the author wanted to make more of a point of it, he could have dwelled on what the rape did to the victim.

    Follett chose to describe the rape from the point of view of the rapist, in a pornographic manner, in a way that would entertain someone who would enjoy such a scene by positioning himself as a vicarious violater. Follett dwells on the physical attractions of the girl, her complete powerlessness, how much she is hurt, and how much the rapist enjoys the rape.

    Again, there is no greater point made about women as collateral damage in competitions waged by men for men’s prizes, no greater point made about the status of women in medieval society.

    After reading that scene, I resigned my figurative “Ken Follet Fan Club” membership card.

    I ask myself, is it me that has changed? Were Ken Follett books always this way? I don’t know. I haven’t gone back to reread the ones I so enjoyed in my youth, before I gave these matters the unavoidable, pained thought I do give them in maturity.

    My guess is that Follett, whom I’m sure is a great guy, had no intention of writing a scene that would do anyone any damage, that he was just using his tried-and-true, mix-and-match, sex-danger-crime-punishment elements to create reader involvement and suspense.

    I’m saying that for me, given what I, and all too many other women, and too many men, girls, and boys, know about rape, that scene, written the way it was written, struck me as having been handled — even if only accidentally — in such a wrong way, that I can never approach a Ken Follett book in the same way.

  7. Suzanne Cross
    November 23rd, 2010 at 04:53 | #7

    Rating

    I’ve never been a fan of Follett, and picked this book up with some misgivings – anyone these days can try to do an “historical” novel with some quick sex, some fake archaic new-speak, and a TV-movie-miniseries concept of history. While there are some minor flaws in this book, its sweep, characterization, tensions, and love of its subject are simply riveting. I could not put the darned thing down and have lost sleep for a week compulsively page-turning. Follett, unbelievably, seems to have made little splash with this book when it first came out – more shame to the critics who missed a “Gone With the Wind” from a conventional thriller author.

    His primary strength in the book is his magnificent characters. By the end, Prior Phillip, Aliena, Jack, Richard, “Witch” Ellen, William of Hamleigh, Waleran Bigod, and a host of supporting characters are as real as people you know. Their strengths and weaknesses feel as sound as earth. I’ve just reached the part where the Cathedral is finished, and its magnificent image, built in love, hardship, and devotion, colors the whole book like light through stained glass. And I suspect the ending will be as immensely “right” as the entire rest of the book in its proportion in spinning out complicated human lives and emotions.

    Follett manages to write of an age of religious devotion without tumbling into the two pits – making fun of medieval Christian faith, or uncritically adopting it. An IMMENSELY satisfying read.

    I could quibble with what I feel is some gratuitous sex, some slightly contrived plot twists, but that’s like complaining about some flotsam in the river as you’re going over Niagara.

    DO NOT MISS THIS BOOK if you love wonderful story-spinning and history.

    Well done, Mr. Follett!

  8. Anonymous
    November 23rd, 2010 at 12:01 | #8

    Rating

    Like many of the 265 others who have posted here before me, I found this book amazingly absorbing. I read the last 500 pages in one night because I couldn’t bring myself to go to sleep before I had finished the novel. I am nearly 60 years old and an accomplished scholar and there are not many books I have read since childhood which have caused me to lose so much sleep.

    The question is, what standards should we bring to bear on a book like this? Does giving it 5 stars mean I think it is as good as The Brothers Karamazov or Pride and Prejudice or War and Peace? No, not really. I give it 5 stars because it was a wonderful and informative book and I would love to have others share the experience of reading it. The characters are great, but not as rich and profound as in books like the ones I mention above. But if you compare The Pillars of Fire with classics of historical fiction such as the novels of Walter Scott or Alexandre Dumas, I think it holds up very well, and that, in my opinion, is the appropriate basis of comparison.

    My title question is serious. I think this book would make an extraordinary movie or TV mini-series. Some readers have said that they found the plot obvious. I personally don’t share that view — or, rather, I enjoyed the obvious skill with which Follett has constructed his plot, his efficiency in using just about every detail to advance the plot. But in my opinion this kind of plot technique is really more suited to drama than to the novel. Except in the case of mysteries, the novel as a literary form does not depend as much on plot mechanics as on the development of character and personality. Drama, on the other hand, depends almost entirely on plot, and I think that what appears as obvious in the novel might make for an extremely taught drama on the screen.

    Finally, let me say something to those academics who have complained that the book is not historically accurate. Apart from the fact that, as a novel, historical accuracy is hardly required here, and that the book is clearly at least as accurate as the novels of Scott or Dumas, there is at least one detail in which the book is strikingly more accurate than most of the textbooks. I am referring to the discussion about the function of the flying buttress. Even today you will find encyclopedias and textbooks which perpetuate the myth that the structural function of a flying buttress is to absorb the outward thrust generated by the weight of the roof or the interior vaults of a gothic cathedral. About twenty years ago, however, it was demonstrated by means of mathematical modeling that the flying buttresses would have been unnecessary for this purpose. What made them necessary is something that armchair builders tend to forget about, thinking that the only important force a builder needs to deal with is gravitation, but which a practical builder can never afford to forget, namely wind pressure. And increasing the height of a wall dramatically increases the amount of wind that it intercepts. Therefore, it is striking that Follett gets this right when the Encyclopedia Britannica still has it wrong.

  9. K. Krut
    November 24th, 2010 at 02:16 | #9

    Rating

    So here’s the 15312nd review. First, kudos where kudos are due – its a good book in so many ways. Plot – well mapped; pacy; research on medieval period and cathedral building – good. In short, a page turner.

    So why the three stars?

    Well, its a novel about a cathedral, about religion, but no-one seems to have the slightest idea of what that means. People admire the cathedral as a building, not as a cathedral.

    Characterisation is weak, for the same reason. The author has read the Wikipedia article that says that cathedrals were symbols of power and status, which he dutifully relates. But in our day, as the Beijing Olympics show, sports stadia are also symbols of power and status. But people do not go to sports stadia because they are symbols of power and status, but because they want to watch sport. Similarly, people built cathedrals for lots of reasons; big infrastructure projects, status, upliftment of local economy etc, but the primary underlying reason is medieval piety. And that is never properly explored in this book. Prior Philip is a prior because he was born in a monastery; he never seems to question his faith, or get much out of it. We know he is religious, because Follett tells us so, or sticks in kick-the-reader-in-the-face sentences like “Prior Philip stopped a moment and prayed” so you get it that he is a clergyman. There’s a bit at the end when he “saves” a soul. But after having read 900 pages or so, the role of his faith in this central character is pretty difficult to describe.

    Similarly, what do all the masons, carpenters and suppliers think they are doing? They build this huge structure, seemingly, because they are masons and carpenters and suppliers and that is what they do. One character (no spoilers) seems to take an architectural delight in beauty. Fair enough, as far as it goes, but anyone who knows anything about the period or church architecture knows that function, and not form, is what informs and defines construction. There is a meaning to the shape of the medieval church; a meaning to windows (beyond letting light in! Duh!), a meaning even to its orientation. Decorative carving and interior outfittinfg are, if anything, even more important than the purely structural elements Follett focusses on, because the interior outfitting defines function. Follett appears entirely ignorant of all this, to a degree which is quite astonishing. He is on a level with a man who goes to the Grand National, and emerges at the end thinking it was a hat show rather than a horse race.

    So to sum up, this book has many things to recommend it, its an engaging read on many levels, but ultimately its pretty flat and unnuanced. Medieval piety is the feature of this period and despite the book being largely about a priory and a cathedral, its treatment is non-existent. The author regards such piety either as, at worst, superstion, or at best, as a socially useful fiction. How do you engage with a period when you utterly lack sympathy for its main feature?

    So its not literature, its just a very (very) long beach read. Nothing wrong with that, but the way people carry on about this book you’s swear it was Shakespeare.

    Hope this helps,

  10. shan1212
    November 24th, 2010 at 11:12 | #10

    Rating

    This book, which is obviously highly recommended, begins auspiciously enough. The opening scene paints a picture of the medieval ages and employs sophisticated syntax and turns of phrase which are sadly not repeated in the latter two thirds of the book. The conflicts faced by the main characters, though they devolve into archetypal good vs. evil battles later, are interesting enough for the first three or four hundred pages.

    The thing is that by the time you have read that far, you are compelled to finish the book. At least I was. Yes, there was the anachronistic diction, the predictable see-saw as the good and evil characters won and lost again the upper hand, the endless recaps of what had already happened, and the embarrassingly descriptive and enthusiastic sex scenes. But what was most irritating, at least to me, was the dialogue engaged in by the characters as they attempted to outdo their nemeses once and for all, time and time again. The way they would use group-think to come up with yet another plan to deflect yet another attack, and the way a character (who was supposed to be cunning and intelligent, as the characterization repeated every few chapters would reiterate) would be “shocked” by such a “cunning” suggestion was almost too much to bear. And then somebody else would always be “outraged,” and then later “impressed.” And then the plan would work, but the villains would regroup and try to thwart them again! But wait, there would be more sex, more drama, more sallies to deflect, more rapes to deplore, and more opportunities to gloat that the good guys had gotten the bad guys’ goats just when all seemed lost! So shocking, outrageous, and impressive!

    I gave this book two stars rather than one because I appreciated that this was a work of love, and had I not been forced to skim the lengthy descriptions of exactly how the cathedral was built because I was just trying to finish the darn thing, I think I would have been “shocked” and “impressed” at how “cunning” Follett’s working of his knowledge of cathedral building was. But instead I found myself saying, OK, we’re burning down a church now, when will this end, skip, skip, skip, begin reading again. Instances where I said, OK, we’re breaching the wall, we’re defending the wall, we’re executing the bad guy, etc. etc. etc., skip, skip, skip became more and more common as the book wore on.

    As I said, the book had a promising start. It seems as though Follett reverted to his old mindless-fodder-for-the-masses techniques after the novelty of writing a different type of novel wore off. He admits in the introduction that he didn’t know how the novel would end originally, and this is another flaw. There is no reason to follow the characters for a lifetime without something to reveal about the fate of humanity or the nature of humans, and while I’m sure Follett would argue that his lengthy, pedantic insights into economics, politics, and the need for walls and laws address these concerns, the reality is that the platitudes expressed by the “good” characters are rather elementary and laughable.

    I wish Follett had not bitten off more than he could chew because I read the first bit of the book thinking I had found a great novel to read during a week at the beach. Once I finished the novel, I was embarrassed that I had said as much to people before I got to the middle and the end.

    If you’re interested in a novel that traces the ups and downs of more than one generation of folk in the middle ages, I recommend Jane Smiley’s The Greenlanders.

    If you’re interested in a novel that combines insights into human nature with mysticism and the middle ages, I’d recommend T. H. White’s The Once and Future King.

    If Follett had just stuck with what he had going on in the first few hundred pages, this could have been worthy of the accolades heaped upon it.

  11. Valerie Mutton
    November 26th, 2010 at 13:05 | #11

    Rating

    This book was highly recommended by the owner of the bookstore I frequent. Another customer noticed I was holding it in my hand indecisively and declared it was the best book she’d ever read. On the strength of these recommendations, I bought it for my vacation reading. It was a good read, but I had higher expectations of it than it delivered. I must disagree with those who have reviewed this book and called it “an epic”. It’s not an epic–it’s just a long book. It has more similarities to a t.v. mini-series than to the epic tradition. I will forgive any number of transgressions in your average 300-page murder mystery, but given that “Pillars” is 983 pages long,I expected “more bang for my book”, to pervert the idiom. I wanted to learn things that I didn’t know before.

    The first few hundred pages are quite well written. Follett’s writing flags toward the middle (but by then, I was two days into the book, and it was raining at the cottage, so I continued reading). The problem, I think, is that we are to believe that this is a mostly historically accurate portrayal of daily life in the Middle Ages. Follett even thanks several people at the end of the book for assisting him with their “encyclopedic knowledge of the Middle Ages”. In my opinion, if an author is going to go to that much effort for historical accuracy, he can’t marry it up with sentences such as: “They looked fascinated: they had probably never seen a woman done by two men at the same time”. There are parts of the book where the reader is brought up short by Follett’s lapse into lurid prose and it is all of a sudden unclear whether one is reading a historical novel or a Harlequin romance. And that makes us suspicious of the historical aspect of the novel and ruins the suspension of disbelief.

    Follett’s writing style is uneven–he devotes an inordinate number of paragraphs to a description of a bear-baiting contest at a fair, yet resolves the dispute between the King and the Archbishop of Canterbury in only a few pages. There are too many disembowelments and heaving bosoms used to–pardon me–”flesh out” the middle of the book. All in all, a decent vacation read, but not the best book I’ve ever read

  12. Tom Blair
    November 28th, 2010 at 06:11 | #12

    Rating

    … Few writers can write about history without using the devices of Good and Evil. Neither can Follett. Nevertheless – this book is terrific.

    The Pillars Of The Earth faithfully (re-)creates the world of 12th Century England by creating a society full of the minor characters surrounding the titantic struggle between Henry II and Archbishop Thomas Beckett.

    The story is an epic – spanning almost 2 full generations of monastic, court, and village life. At the center of the story is the effort to build a magnificent cathedral in the modest town of Kingsbridge – a generation-long effort requiring faith, wealth, medieval engineering brilliance, determination, and luck.

    I enjoyed reading the details of Medieval life faithfully told by Follet. I especially loved the discourses on the engineering of Medieval gothic cathedral architecture, design, and construction.

    I also loved the human contrasts – the mysterious heathen woman of the forest with her commonlaw husband Tom, strong, and intelligent who began building the cathedral; their son Jack – a mixture of the two; lovely, independent, Aliena; Phillip the humble but human prior of the monastery; Earls, Bishops, tradesmen, knights, etc.

    50 years of struggle culminate in ultimate triumph of the spirit over the sword – but just barely. At 980 pages The Pillars of the Earth requires quite an investment – but you will get hooked and enjoy the ride.

  13. james g. moose
    November 28th, 2010 at 15:21 | #13

    Rating

    I actually listened to this book on tape, while my wife read the paperback. Both of us loved it. I not only recommend the book, but also urge people to rent the Book on Tape version, narrated by David Case, whose acting and narrative talents shine through, bringing the various characters to life. (But still purchase the book from Amazon!) I came to Pillars of the Earth after spending about two solid years reading, in my spare time, nothing but medieval histories, with a focus on fourteenth century England and the Plantagenet kings. I had never before read a book by Follett, who I had assumed mass-produced pulp spy fiction. I only chose the book because of of my interest in medieval history. To my delight and surprise, I discovered the book to be a true work of literature, which might well still be read in 100 years. I found myself amazed by Follett’s ability to create an extremely complex and compelling plot, with compelling characters, against a backdrop that seemed true to the histories I had been reading. The early twelfth century is a period neglected by us moderns; but it’s one that’s inherently interesting. Who, today, has even heard of King Stephen (who preceded the famous Henry II, immortalized twice by Peter O’Toole in the 1960s movies Beckett and Lion in Winter)? Because, in England at least, Stephen’s reign was a time of virtual anarchy, Follett was able to use the period to create characters who demonstrate the brutal lengths to which people can go when unconstrained by law and an effective legal order. At the same time, though, he has created religious and other well-meaning characters who, if alien to us because of their belief in Hell and a God intervening almost minute-by-minute in human afairs, display courage and the best of intentions in the harsh face of barbarism. This juxtaposition of the brutal and the well-meaning makes for an interesting meditation on human nature and on the hope for the gradual further civilization of our species. His ultimate message is encouraging, though he certainly doesn’t shrink from depicting the nastiness of which humans are capable. In short, the book is a marvelous piece of fiction, in which Follet has done an excellent job capturing the feeling of a distant and neglected period of history.

  14. Lawyeraau
    November 28th, 2010 at 17:00 | #14

    Rating

    This masterful saga of life in twelfth century England is epic storytelling at its best. The author weaves a rich and colorful tapestry of people, places, and events surrounding the building of a magnificent cathedral in the medieval town of Kingsbridge.

    Early twelfth century England was a country in a state of flux. King Henry I had died without a male heir. His daughter Maude was to be queen. The English barons, for the most part, however, refused to swear fealty to her. Maude’s first cousin, Stephen of Blois, then usurped her rights and proclaimed himself king. This was to plunge England into a civil war that was to last for many, many years, turning England into a virtually lawless and tumultuous land, until Maude’s son became King Henry II of England.

    For most people, however, life would go on with every day concerns being paramount. The book tells the story of a number of these lives. One story is that of Tom, a master builder, whose life long dream was to build a cathedral. The lives of Tom and his family would intersect that of a humble and intelligent monk named Phillip who would become the prior at Kingsbridge Priory. The fates would intervene and provide Tom with an opportunity to pursue his dream.

    Their lives would intersect with a number of other individuals, some good, some evil, who would have a great impact on their lives and their goals. Tom would lose his first wife, Agnes, by whom he already had two children, brutish Alfred and sweet Martha, due to complications sustained during the birth of another son. This son was to provide a connection between Tom and Phillip of which Phillip would long be unaware.

    Tom would ultimately marry Ellen, a strong willed independent woman of the forest, perceived by many to be a witch. Her son Jack, a sensitive, highly intelligent lad, whose father was deceased, would grow to manhood. His dream would begin where Tom’s had left off. In Jack’s background, however, was a mystery surrounding his deceased father, a French jongleur. That mystery in some way involved Sir Percy Hamleigh, Waleran Bigod, and Prior James, the old prior of Kingsbridge before Phillip.

    When Earl Bartholomew of Shiring makes the treasonous mistake of siding with Maude in the conflict with Stephen, he ends up on the losing side. Sir Percy Hamleigh and his son William, siding with Stephen, attack the Earl’s castle, and take Earl Bartholomew captive. Imprisoned for treason, he loses his earldom to the Hamleighs. His young son and heir, Richard, and his daughter, the beautiful Lady Aliena, are left to fend for themselves, but not until William Hamleigh has slaked his thirst for revenge upon them. You see, William had been engaged at one time to marry the Lady Aliena, only to be spurned by her to his vast public humiliation. This was the moment for which he had been waiting. Aliena and Richard would ultimately migrate to Kingsbridge to begin a new life.

    Meanwhile, the church itself was having its own political intrigues. Phillip was tricked by Waleran Bigod, an ambitious arch-deacon, into supporting him for the post of bishop. Phillip would later best Waleran and incur his enmity for a lifetime. Remigius, a spy for Waleran Bigod, was a monk at Kingsbridge Priory who saw his dream of becoming prior at Kingsbridge dissipate with the advent of Phillip. He would spend a lifetime undermining Phillip and plotting against him. Moreover, the fate of Kingsbridge and the building of its cathedral would always seem to hinge upon the political vagaries of the time. Its fortunes would ebb and flow with the political winds.

    Ever present throughout the destinies of all these characters is the age old battle between good and evil. Complicating it further were those who sought to do good but did evil, believing that the end justified the means. Spanning over fifty turbulent years, this is a spellbinding story of love, hate, faith, betrayal, revenge, and triumph. Against a backdrop of civil war, the sharply drawn characters grasp the imagination of the reader. Twelfth century England is laid out in painstaking detail, providing an unforgettable backdrop for the lives lived within the pages of this memorable work of historical fiction.

    I loved this book so much that, having read it a number of years ago, I decided that it would be worth listening to an unabridged audio book version. Well, this book was made to be read aloud. The narrator, George Ralph, does a masterful job reading this spellbinding story. For thirty hours of pure listening pleasure, he holds the listener totally in his thrall, bringing to life all within its pages. This book is simply riveting. Bravo!

  15. Col Kev
    November 28th, 2010 at 19:45 | #15

    Rating

    My parents recommended this book years ago. But after reading the jacket, I really had no interest in it. I took it home with me with an empty promise of reading it when I had time. It sat there for years, unread, until late one night when I couldn’t sleep and was desperate for something to read, I picked it up with no small amount of reservation.

    I re-read the jacket and realized that it was the same Ken Follet that wrote “Key to Rebecca” and a couple of other novels I’d enjoyed. I thought I’d give it a chance, and man was I in for a treat. It was one of those “great reads” that I’ll always remember. Not quite up there with the first read of “The Lord of the Rings”, but close.

    The scope of the book is immense. It covers a wide geographical area and spans 50 years during a tumultuous time in England’s history. You will learn to love (or hate) the memorable characters, and you will find yourself thinking about the book long after you’ve finished it.

    I strongly disagree with the reviewers who say the character development is terrible. For example, some reviewers have said the women are too much of a one dimensional “damsel in distress”, while others have said they were too 20th century. Some have said that the characters are to neatly cast into either good or evil, but I don’t buy that either. Philip struggles with pride, Tom pursues his dream at the cost of his wife, and he basically kills his newborn son at the start of the book – only luck keeps his son alive. I could go on, but my point is that many of the one star reviews are just not accurate. Someone just didn’t like the book and came here to throw a tantrum and impress us all with their insight. When one negative reviewer gives exactly the opposite critique of the next, I know the author was right on the mark.

    Others drop names of “real” classic authors like Dickens, etc. while crying “THIS IS NOT AN EPIC” as loud as they can. It’s almost as if calling this book an “epic” might somehow tarnish the “classics”. I have suffered through more than one of the “classics”, and you know what? I don’t want to read archaic English, horrible sentence structure, and unresolved plot lines. It’s like saying you love Shakespeare above all modern fiction. I don’t know about you, but I don’t find myself dying to get back to reading Othello. Search for your favorite book – I guarantee that, unless it’s obscure and relatively un-reviewed, you’ll find a small vocal group of people who hate it.

    Follet imbibes the characters with very plausible attitudes and feelings for the time, keeping them progressive enough for me to relate to. And then he weaves it all together within a historical context that is both interesting and exciting.

    Don’t let this one sit on the shelf. I finally talked my wife into reading it – it took years – and it’s now one of her all time favorites as well.

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