REVIEW: The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
Dear Ken Follett,
I started reading this, your historical saga set in twelfth-century England, because a friend of mine has been mentioning it for years as her favorite book by one of her favorite authors. The book had some good qualities but eventually I had to quit for reasons mentioned in this review.
But first, a plot summary.
The story concerns the building of a cathedral in a fictional English town called Kingsbridge. The novel, at least the part that I read, has two main characters: Tom Builder and Father Phillip, a monk.
Tom has dreamed of building a cathedral for years, ever since he apprenticed to a man who did. As the book begins, Tom is working on a house for a noble couple about to marry, William Hamleigh and Lady Aliena, the daughter of the earl of Shiring. The marriage falls through though, when sixteen-year-old Aliena announces that she will not marry William, and Tom loses his job.
Tom and his family (his wife, Agnes, and his children, fifteen-year-old son Alfred and seven-year-old Martha) are forced to wander in search of other employment for Tom. On their journey, they run out of food and Agnes, who is pregnant, dies giving birth to her and Tom’s third child. Without milk the baby will die, and Tom cannot provide for him in any way since he, Alfred and Martha are already starving. And so he abandons the baby. Some hours later, though, he regrets it, but when he goes back to find his child, the baby is gone.
Tom soon (very soon, more on that later) takes up with Ellen, a woman who lives in the forest and who nurses him and his two children. Ellen once cursed a priest who executed her lover, and has had to hide in the forest to avoid his persecution. She has a twelve-year-old son, Jack, who is growing up without a father figure or peers. Ellen reveals to Tom that his baby son was rescued by monks in a small monastery in the same forest.
The action then moves to the monastery, and we are introduced to Phillip, its effective and devout leader. Phillip is happy to take in the child; he himself was raised in a monastery after his parents were killed.
Phillip learns that the Earl of Shiring (Aliena’s father) is plotting against the king, and he brings that knowledge to Waleran Bigod, one of the bishop’s men. Waleran eventually becomes bishop himself (more on this later, too), and it’s from him that Sir Percy Hamleigh, William’s father, learns of the Earl of Shiring’s plot. Percy and his wife haven’t gotten over Aliena’s refusal to marry William, so they are happy to use this knowledge to attack and depose the earl. In this way Percy gains the earldom.
Meanwhile, Tom and Ellen, along with their children, arrive at the priory Phillip leads. Phillip gives them a little food, but cannot afford to employ Tom, even though the priory’s cathedral is not in good shape. Ellen’s son, Jack, sets fire to the priory one night, so that Phillip will hire Tom to rebuild it.
The Pillars of the Earth got off to a good start. It is very readable and interesting. And very suspenseful—I was constantly on the edge of my seat, so much so that it was a stressful reading experience. Unfortunately, though, the book quickly became disturbing and creepy.
The reader spends a lot of time in the head of William Hamleigh, and he is a sadistic character with a propensity for rape and killing.
To give a few examples of some things that are disturbing, but not quite as awful, Tom and Ellen first meet when he and his family have a brief encounter with Ellen while Tom’s wife Agnes is still alive. Tom is happily married to Agnes and loves her very much, but given Ellen’s beauty it is perhaps an understandable thing that he fantasizes about Ellen while married to Agnes. Except that Tom’s fantasies involve forcing Ellen.
Tom doesn’t rape Ellen, at least not in the part of the book I read. He just has this fantasy while still in a loving marriage to Agnes. He has it a couple of times, once immediately after the brief meeting with Ellen, and a couple of weeks later, it’s on his mind again.
Another creepy thing, within a day of Agnes’s death while Tom’s grief is still very fresh, Ellen finds the exhausted, starving Tom asleep and has sex with him in his sleep, while he is dreaming of a beautiful angel. Ellen has her own agenda and reasons for doing this, reasons that are only hinted at this early in the novel.
Similarly unsettling, Phillip is a good person but a bit naive. He wants to become the prior of the local priory because he knows he could do a lot of good there. Waleran Bigod, the Bishop of Kingsbridge’s man, asks Phillip to support him for the position of bishop, someday when the current bishop dies, in return for throwing his support to Phillip’s bid for the prior position.
Phillip agonizes over this; he’s not one to play politics and he takes his devotion to God and to Christian ideals very seriously. But the only other possible candidate for bishop is slothful and lethargic and Phillip naively believes that man would be a worse choice than Waleran. Phillip really wants to do good to at the priory so he says yes. A day later he learns that the bishop is already dead and Waleran kept it from him. Waleran has conned Phillip.
Also disturbing, Tom’s eldest son Alfred is a bully and when their group is nearly starving to death, Alfred takes more than his share of food, so that his younger sister, Martha, and Ellen’s son, Jack, can hardly have any. Ellen protests but Tom is an indulgent father and doesn’t see the harm in it, or in Alfred’s bullying.
Things only get worse from there.
Spoiler (all the trigger warnings): Show
This was where I cried uncle.
The book is about a thousand hardcover pages long. I read the equivalent of 357 hardcover pages, and I think that’s more than enough to give me a sense of it and what it’s like.
Yes, torture was common in the twelfth century. Probably rape was too. But does it need to be described at such length? It is rarely hinted at; much of the time the cruelty is presented almost lovingly. For example, when William rapes Aliena, we’re in William’s viewpoint as he’s committing the rape. The sadistic pleasure he takes in every bit of it is described in lingering, fulsome detail.
The book reminds me of the Game of Thrones TV show (I have not read the GoT novels) which I also had to quit because I just could not take it.
From what I remember of what I read around the time The Pillars of the Earth was published (1989), that kind of graphic violence was not so unusual in a saga. And I wonder whether, if I had read it back then, I would have found The Pillars of the Earth more tolerable because of my expectations of books at that time.
There are some likeable characters in The Pillars of the Earth whose fates I would like to know, and I liked the historical detail about life in the twelfth century, about cathedral building and about how monks structured their day and how a 12th century priory was run. All that stuff was great.
The plot is engaging–I wasn’t bored at all, and in a thousand-page book, that’s remarkable. But there was so much graphic, sadistic violence, and if I had to say what this novel’s central themes are, I would say they are treachery and cruelty. So yeah, no. Hard no.
This book was a huge bestseller in its day and I don’t understand why. Maybe someone can explain it to me in the comments?