The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

Toby Frost

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The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett tells the story of the building of a cathedral in the fictional English town of Kingsbridge during the 12th century, while two nobles, Stephen and Maud, were feuding for the crown. The story covers a range of characters, from the godly but ambitious prior of the cathedral’s monastery to the family of masons who design and assemble it. It’s a big book, with nearly 1,000 pages, and covers several decades. As such, it makes for an interesting comparison with epic fantasy novels.

This book was, apparently, a labour of love for Follett, who was better known as a writer of thrillers. His prose style is simple and accurate, and he feels in complete control of his massive plot: events from near the beginning come round to affect the characters towards the end. Follett skilfully adds real-world events to the story, including the martyrdom of St Thomas a Becket, and is good at showing how the wider conflicts affect the local people and their struggle to build the cathedral.

Follett makes his medieval citizens strange and sympathetic: they’re comprehensible, but deeply pious and superstitious. Even the arch-villain, a raping, murdering lowlife, is terrified of Hell. On that subject, some readers might find there to be a bit too much rape and pillage in The Pillars of the Earth (it was published thirty years ago), so be warned, but it’s never especially gratuitous. I don’t know if Follett is religious (he says in the foreword that he was brought up in a Puritan sect that disapproved of cathedrals) but he treats the characters and their piety with respect. Anyone who is used to the cartoony hellfire of Warhammer and the like will be surprised at the sophistication of Follett’s characters.

Sometimes, the language feels a little too simple. Follett breaches the “show not tell” rule fairly regularly, but I don’t mind that, and it works. Years are skipped, and months fly past as the work on the cathedral continues (or goes horribly wrong). People die – there’s no plot armour – and others take their place.

If I had to compare it to a fantasy novel, I’d choose A Game of Thrones (except that The Pillars of the Earth has a clear ending). It’s of a similar level of violence and complexity to that, and told about as well (perhaps better). Perhaps Pillars could have been 50 pages shorter, but Follett tells his epic story effectively and quite swiftly. As a matter of fact, I felt that one character’s plotline was wrapped up a bit too quickly, but this is a small complaint. I would recommend this book, especially to fans of epic fantasy.
 

BAYLOR

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I recently saw the tv series based off it and was great impressed with it. I might just check out the book too .:cool:
 

Ian Fortytwo

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The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett tells the story of the building of a cathedral in the fictional English town of Kingsbridge during the 12th century, while two nobles, Stephen and Maud, were feuding for the crown. The story covers a range of characters, from the godly but ambitious prior of the cathedral’s monastery to the family of masons who design and assemble it. It’s a big book, with nearly 1,000 pages, and covers several decades. As such, it makes for an interesting comparison with epic fantasy novels.

This book was, apparently, a labour of love for Follett, who was better known as a writer of thrillers. His prose style is simple and accurate, and he feels in complete control of his massive plot: events from near the beginning come round to affect the characters towards the end. Follett skilfully adds real-world events to the story, including the martyrdom of St Thomas a Becket, and is good at showing how the wider conflicts affect the local people and their struggle to build the cathedral.

Follett makes his medieval citizens strange and sympathetic: they’re comprehensible, but deeply pious and superstitious. Even the arch-villain, a raping, murdering lowlife, is terrified of Hell. On that subject, some readers might find there to be a bit too much rape and pillage in The Pillars of the Earth (it was published thirty years ago), so be warned, but it’s never especially gratuitous. I don’t know if Follett is religious (he says in the foreword that he was brought up in a Puritan sect that disapproved of cathedrals) but he treats the characters and their piety with respect. Anyone who is used to the cartoony hellfire of Warhammer and the like will be surprised at the sophistication of Follett’s characters.

Sometimes, the language feels a little too simple. Follett breaches the “show not tell” rule fairly regularly, but I don’t mind that, and it works. Years are skipped, and months fly past as the work on the cathedral continues (or goes horribly wrong). People die – there’s no plot armour – and others take their place.

If I had to compare it to a fantasy novel, I’d choose A Game of Thrones (except that The Pillars of the Earth has a clear ending). It’s of a similar level of violence and complexity to that, and told about as well (perhaps better). Perhaps Pillars could have been 50 pages shorter, but Follett tells his epic story effectively and quite swiftly. As a matter of fact, I felt that one character’s plotline was wrapped up a bit too quickly, but this is a small complaint. I would recommend this book, especially to fans of epic fantasy.

I slogged my way through this epic story, only to be put off by the sheer length and too many characters. Did not bother with the sequels, nor the prequel.
 

Brian G Turner

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I found it a very enjoyable book, but that the sequels offered diminishing returns. Even still, there's a prequel set at the end of the Anglo-Saxon period coming out soon. I might take a look at that - even though Column of Fire (the third in the series) I felt was weak in its writing, and lacked both the depth and detail of the first book.
 

svalbard

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A brilliant read if at times a bit melodramatic and soapy.

Standouts for myself were the villains Hamleigh and his henchman. Despicable but well written characters.
 

Steve Harrison

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It's one of my favourite novels and I've read it a couple of times, though not in recent years. I also thought the TV mini-series was pretty good.

Around the same time I first read the book, I also read Edward Rutherfurd's excellent Sarum, which I found equally enjoyable and which covered the building of Salisbury cathedral. It's not so much a single story, but an episodic account of several families over a few thousand years, a little similar to the old James Michener epic novels.
 

Toby Frost

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Just as an addendum, it also contains one of the most satisfying villain deaths of all time:

After a lifetime of robbery, rape and murder, the foul William Hamleigh is finally hanged. Except that first, he wets himself with terror, has to be dragged screaming to the scaffold, doesn't break his neck properly when he falls, and is then stared out by his arch-enemy as he slowly suffocates to death. And small children laugh at his corpse. I kid you not.
 

Phyrebrat

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Hi,

I bought this on a recommendation from Brian T here as a helpful example of how the period has been written about. And thus started two years of solid research (and an entire story arc deleted from my wip :) ).

Anyway, on paper it's the kind of genre I really dislike but it'sso well written - the characters so well-drawn - I read over 500 pages. One day I'll get it on Kindle and re-read it.
 

Werthead

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I found it to be somewhat overrated. The stuff about the building of cathedrals is awe-inspiring and makes you want to read up the real story of how they were built - and wince at their absolutely insane cost at a time when the standard of living for most people was utterly horrific - but almost everything else about the book is heavily flawed. The characters are archetypal, which isn't too bad in the case of the protagonists but the villains are laughably cartoonish, cardboard cut-outs (Ian McShane redeems one of them in the TV version, though). The prose is far too modern, evoking little of the time or place, and pretty expository, with little poetry or sparkle.

There are a few things I liked: women are treated a bit better than they are in many historical novels, at least in the sense that the book correctly presents the view that widows and the sole female inheritors of estate were capable of living independent lives, that women could undertake roles like merchants and investors and so forth. Unfortunately, female characters are also menaced and threatened with rape on a near-chapterly basis which gets incredibly old incredibly quickly. The basic story has the potential to be interesting, but the execution is heavily flawed.

It reads and feels like a passable airport potboiler at best.
 

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