During tumultuous times, when faith, religion and man’s constant rift with family comes together, a unique dynamism is created. This is the rawest essence of Ken Follet’s 1st book in the Kingsbridge series.
The books are in the following order:
- The Pillars of the Earth- 1989
- World Without End- 2007
- A Column of Fire- 2017
- The Evening and the Morning- 2020
The Pillars of the Earth is about the building of a cathedral in a fictional town in England called Kingsbridge in the 12th century. Follet brings to life characters such as Jack, the stone artist; Tom, the master-builder; Philip, the Prior; Aliena, the town’s noblewoman; Ellen, the forester alongside the antagonists who are Bishop Waleran Bigod; the Hamleighs. All the characters in the book give the reader a whiff of the middle ages, their circumstances and vulnerability. These very circumstances that shape the backdrop of the story with romance, action and political turmoil act as key drivers that take the story ahead.
The book has adopted a fictional tale around the history of the Norman Kings, starting with the fall of the ‘White Ship’ where the heir to the throne loses his life at sea while sailing from France to England. King Henry, I had lost his only and direct heir chooses his daughter as his successor. This shift in power attracts opposition from Stephen who is the king’s Nephew who eventually ascends the throne through malicious means. This royal powerhouse acts as primary gear shifters throughout the story.
The story has been divided into 6 parts from 1123-1174 AD. In a span of fifty-odd years, there is a progression in the evolution of the characters from their aggressive youth to their wiser years. This also goes hand in glove with the construction of the cathedral. From experimenting with new structural forms to exploring new artistic revelations. Each character brings value to every scene in the book. The story of Tom, the Builder and his struggling family starts with the dream of building a cathedral, for which they seek every opportunity. These kicks start a dynamo, where there is death, sacrifice and compromise by the entire family. The death of Tom builder’s wife, abandoning of his newborn and then a possibility to reconstruct a cathedral in a priory close to where his son is being brought up by Philip, the Prior.
This is the perspective of struggle from a layman’s point of view, where helplessness gives in to a spark of faith and hope. A similar chain of events is observed by Lord Bartholomew and his family. By supporting the rebellion with Queen Maud against King Stephen, he is charged guilty of treason, putting his daughter Aliena and son Richard on the streets to fend for themselves. The shift of reality for each character is very spontaneous as one would imagine in the 10th century (Medieval Period).
But in every story, there are catalysts that add the right amount of thrill and curiosity in a story. Enter, Ellen and her son Jack. They are a breath of fresh air to the sad and miserable life of Tom and his family. With Ellen’s undying support for Tom and Jack’s artistic workmanship, the blueprint of the cathedral is chalked out. But, as every person has their own share of liability, so do Ellen and Jack. Ellen was a wanted witch by the church and Jack is the bastard son of the Frenchman who was not supposed to survive the ‘White Ship’ incident. Jack is an important character who is seen evolving throughout the story, first as a quite young apprentice into a master builder who eventually completes building the cathedral.
The real antagonists or the evil characters are King Stephan, father Waleran Bigod, The Ramleighs (Percy, William and Regan) and Remigius. Although their intention to stay in power remains constant, their loyalties waver based on the winds of change or rather a favour. Annexing the throne, fighting battles and capturing land was the tip of the ice. The entire storyline revolved around the latent power of the church and fear of God. In a time with no scientific or logical approach to matters was considered rational. Hence, the fear of curses, witches and priests prevails throughout the story.
“To someone standing in the nave, looking down the length of the church toward the east, the round window would seem like a huge sun exploding into innumerable shards of gorgeous colour.”
― Ken Follett, The Pillars of the Earth
Amongst this, the construction of the church was the physical manifestation of what was happening in the surroundings. Before Prior Philip took over the Priory at Kingsbridge the church was in a dilapidated state that needed new construction. Jack’s desperation to start work led him to blaze the church, leading him to work as an apprentice under Tom, the Builder. A similar chain of events led Prior Philip to get the quarry under his sleeve, for the construction of the cathedral from the King and the Ramleighs. Tom’s vision for the church was grand.
Like most medieval styles of architecture, there is a strong influence on the Normandy style of building churches. William I- the conqueror, was the first to have brought up the construction of churches on a magnificent scale. Using huge arches, stained glass, pointed spires, broad naves and an altar, oddly brings together the faith and hope people have on religion together in one spot. The sculpture and lighting within the church are carefully crafted keeping in mind the direction and proportion of the windows placed inside the church. Every stone is understood, heard and given form. Mortar that is used to bind the building blocks of the church has been reinforced with faith and hard work by the people of Kingsbridge.
In all truth, this amalgamation of fiction and history during ‘The Anarchy’ in England is a time of change and exclusivity. People are in favour of trying new things and exploring new ideas whilst holding complete power over people through religion.
The book ‘The Pillars of the Earth’ makes us realise the importance of being real in a world that is not perfect. Everything comes at a cost and life is not fair. How one builds from that throughout their lifetime stays imprinted in the thoughts and physical structures around them. The cathedral for instance has seen its ups and downs throughout its crafting period, only to stand tall and magnificent in the eyes of the beholder.
1Follett, K. (2018). The Pillars of the Earth. Pan Books Ltd.
read, S.L. min (2020). Review: The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. [online] The Nerd Daily. Available at: https://thenerddaily.com/review-the-pillars-of-the-earth-by-ken-follett/
Johnson, B. (2017). Kings and Queens of England & Britain – Historic UK. [online] Historic UK. Available at: https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/KingsQueensofBritain/.
historylearning.com. (n.d.). Medieval Church Architecture. [online] Available at: https://historylearning.com/medieval-england/medieval-church-architecture/.