Book review: “Pillars of the Earth” by Ken Follett

I don’t know where I first stumbled on Pillars of the Earth, but it has stuck in my mind as an almost-classic that I had yet to read. Sabriel by Garth Nix was another one. Probably because this book is THICK. 800 pages long. I think I vaguely remember walking past it in the fiction section when I worked at Barnes and Noble on the daily, that’s why it stuck. I finally got around to it, because the eBook was available at my library, and there wasn’t a waiting list! I did try to plow through it, as I was afraid someone would reserve it and I wouldn’t be able to finish it in three weeks.

Pillars is a piece of historical fiction set in southern England in the twelfth century. While the book is in fact based on historical events– a civil war known as the Anarchy centering around the succession crisis after the death of the only legitimate heir of Henry I– most of the characters are completely fabricated. The origins of the book are really interesting, as explained by Follet’s preface. The question he wanted to answer was, “How were these magnificent cathedrals of the middle ages actually built?” The stories protagonists aren’t going to be remembered by history books because they are masons, craftsmen, and monks.
Topic: building cathedrals and 12th century history, background of the murder of Thomas Becket/civil war. Follet had a keen interest in cathedrals, and would take every chance he could to visit them when he travelled. He observed the architecture and design and managed to incorporate it into a book. There are many a passage throughout the book where he will wax lyrical about flying buttresses or stained glass windows or clerestories.

Of course, I am always interested in the engagement of religion in literature, and this is no different in Pillars. I found it interesting that, despite Follet’s professed atheism, religion isn’t all bad in the book, and in fact is a very positive force. While there are power-hungry priests that remind you of Judge Claude Frollo (I know Disney didn’t have the guts to actual make him a priest, but it’s clear what he represents), there are also dedicated and sincere monks and priors. Prior Philip of Kingsbridge is the best example of a competent and caring ruler. The religious actually fare much better in the moral dynamics of the book than the ruling class. There isn’t a single nobleman who is painted in a positive light. King Stephen refuses to hear the please of a righteous cause giving into unscrupulous followers. William Hamleigh is the personification of pure evil, and whose dark shadow ruins the lives of everyone else in the book. Even Earl Robert, the brother of the protagonist the Lady Aliena, doesn’t do much for himself and just takes what he believes he is entitled to.

The darkest aspect of religion in the book is William Hamleigh’s inner beliefs. He has a deep-seated fear of hell. Yet he also believes that he just needs to find a priest who will grant him absolution. He justifies murder after murder, working in tandem with Bishop Waleran Bigod who forgives him for his crimes.

Yet there are also positive models of faith too. Prior Philip has a knack of bringing out the best of everyone. I think one of my favorite scenes is when he extends forgiveness to his long-time enemy Remigius, a fellow monk who also aspired to be prior. Remigius had lost everything in a bid gone wrong for power. Prior Philip finds him starving wandering the streets. Philip offers him food and drink, and offers to let him back in the monastery as a humble monk with no rank.

When Remigius looked up again, his face was wet with tears. “Yes, please, Father. I want to come home.”

Philip felt a glow of joy. “Come on, then. Get on my horse.”

Remigius looked flabbergased.

Jonathan said: “Father! What are you doing?”…

“Let him ride,” Philip said. “He’s pleased God today.”

What about you? Haven’t you pleased God more than Remigius?

“Jesus said there’s more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people. Don’t you remember the parable of the prodigal son? When he came home, his father killed the fatted calf. The angels are rejoicing over Remigius’s tears. The least I can do is give him my horse.”

While religion does play a large role in the book, so does sex. Just saying, if I had tried reading this when I was in middle school, I would have thrown it in the trash. In that way, I’m a bit like Prior Philip who many of the protagonists view as a bit of a prude (Jack, you may take a pragmatic approach to God’s laws but we prefer to be rigid– that’s why we’re monks. And we can’t have you as a builder while you’re living in a state of adultery.) I would say that sex isn’t gratuitously placed in the book. Even a prude like me found that they added to the overall cohesion of the novel.

While the book is fiction, the book makes a keen political argument about the role of government. As mentioned above, there are no truly good rulers in the book. Much of the book is the righteous petitions of citizens going unheard, and unscrupulous rulers ruining the lives of everyday citizens with no respect for the rule of law. The only force that has a chance of fighting back is the Church, specifically the monastery at Kingsbridge. I couldn’t help but thinking back to a historical argument made by Fareed Zakaria in The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad:

The lesson of Rome’s fall is that, for the rule of law to endure, you need more than the good intentions of the rulers, for they may change (both the intentions and the rulers). You need institutions within society whose strength is independent of the state. The West found such a countervailing force in the Catholic Church.

This sounds very similar to the conclusions Philip draws in Pillars:

For Philip, the importance of the whole phenomenon lay in what it demonstrated about the power of the State. The death of Thomas had shown that, in a conflict between the Church and the Crown, the monarch could always prevail by the use of brute force. But the cult of Saint Thomas proved that such a victory would always be a hollow one. The power of a king was not absolute, after all: it could be restrained by the will of the people. This change had taken place within Philip’s lifetime. He had not merely witnessed it, he had helped to bring it about. And today’s ceremony would commemorate that…

The king was to be whipped.

Finally, in terms of literature, this book was a difficult one to read. So much bad happens over the span of two generations. In most novels, you anticipate there will be a happy ending in the lifetime of the protagonists. But that doesn’t happen for many of the characters here. There is a sense of justice at the end, but it takes 40 years to get there. I don’t think many authors would risk that level of sustained misery. But it was this that really made me connect to the book, and Prior Philip in particular. In one passage, he compares the trials of Kingsbridge to Job:

Now, I believe that Satan had a conversation with God about Kingsbridge. I believe that God said to Satan: “Look at my people in Kingsbridge. Aren’t they good Christians? See how they work hard all week in their fields and workshops, and then spend all day Sunday building me a new cathedral. Tell me they’re not good people, if you can!” And Satan said, “They’re good because they’re doing well. You’ve given them good harvests, and fine weather, and customers for their shops, and protection from evil earls. But take all that away from them, and they’ll come over to my side.” So God said: “What do you want to do?” And Satan said: “Burn the town.” So God said: “All right, burn it, and see what happens.” So Satan sent William Hamleigh to set fire to our fleece fair…

Perhaps we shouldn’t be quick to compare ourselves to Job (As Joseph Smith found out, God telling him thou art not yet as Job). But there are times in life when we feel helpless, that the forces of the world are arrayed against us and there is no justice in the world. By all outward appearances, there isn’t any reason to hope. Ken Follett has painted a beautiful picture of how good can live through these times and survive.

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