The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

The Pillars of the Earth (Kingsbridge #1) by Ken Follett 


4.29  ·  Rating details ·  506,883 Ratings  ·  26,741 Reviews
The Pillars of the Earth (Kingsbridge #1) by Ken Follett download or read it online for free
The Pillars of the Earth (Kingsbridge #1)
by Ken Follett
Ken Follett is known worldwide as the master of split-second suspense, but his most beloved and bestselling book tells the magnificent tale of a twelfth-century monk driven to do the seemingly impossible: build the greatest Gothic cathedral the world has ever known.

Everything readers expect from Follett is here: intrigue, fast-paced action, and passionate romance. But what makes The Pillars of the Earth extraordinary is the time the twelfth century; the place feudal England; and the subject the building of a glorious cathedral. Follett has re-created the crude, flamboyant England of the Middle Ages in every detail. The vast forests, the walled towns, the castles, and the monasteries become a familiar landscape. Against this richly imagined and intricately interwoven backdrop, filled with the ravages of war and the rhythms of daily life, the master storyteller draws the reader irresistibly into the intertwined lives of his characters into their dreams, their labors, and their loves: Tom, the master builder; Aliena, the ravishingly beautiful noblewoman; Philip, the prior of Kingsbridge; Jack, the artist in stone; and Ellen, the woman of the forest who casts a terrifying curse. From humble stonemason to imperious monarch, each character is brought vividly to life.

The building of the cathedral, with the almost eerie artistry of the unschooled stonemasons, is the center of the drama. Around the site of the construction, Follett weaves a story of betrayal, revenge, and love, which begins with the public hanging of an innocent man and ends with the humiliation of a king.

“Having faith in God did not mean sitting back and doing nothing. It meant believing you would find success if you did your best honestly and energetically.”

“The most expensive part of building is the mistakes.”





Reviews


I devour books. That is my euphemism for being so OCD that I can't put it down and live my life until I finish it. For shorter books, that's generally not a problem, but for the 974 page Pillars of the Earth...well, let's just say we ran out of food, my children clung to my legs asking for food, and the floors did not get vacuumed for a good five days while I whittled away at this book.

CLIFF HANGER: This book is not a cliff-hanger at the end of every chapter kind of book, which makes it easier to read it in multiple sittings. However, Follett does such a masterful job of character development, that I found myself wanting to know what was going to happen next whether the end of the chapter contained a cliffhanger ending or not.

CHARACTER DEV'T: Each character is so beautifully defined and fleshed out, that they become almost real. I felt that I knew them personally, that I could accurately predict how they would react in different situations. None of them were 100% good or bad, just like in real life. Some priests were holy, others evil; some were rich people with big hearts, others with small minds and evil intentions; some poor farmers were judgmental, w/narrow-minded attitudes, others opened their doors to strangers.

PLOT/PACE: Foreshadowing was a very powerful convention that Follett skillfully weaved in and out of every chapter. It gave subtle hints, but never so overt as to suggest that the reader may be an imbecile. Backstories meander and come to closure at such a nice pace, that it always feels like something is happening and things are being resolved, for better or for worse.

THEMES: My favorite theme was that natural consequences followed the actions of the characters. (I'm still a bit out of sorts after reading the deus ex machina riddled Breaking Dawn, where all the natural consequences of three books worth of actions were completely erased-ugh.) There was a natural ebb and flow of triumph and misfortunes in Pillars of the Earth. Good things happened to bad people and bad things happened to good people, just like in real life. Follett does not try to save his characters from themselves, or from each other, and I enjoyed that very much.

STRONG WOMEN: I absolutely adored the strong women in this book! What a joy to read about Aliena, carving out her own future after her world had been turned upside down! Life knocked her down plenty, but each time, she got up, made a plan, and triumphed eventually. Ellen, and Agnes in her own way, were also strong women.

OVERALL IMPRESSION: As strange as it sounds, with all of the despair and misery that took place, the overarching take home for me, was HOPE. In the face of overwhelming adversity, these characters triumphed. The road was hard and the journey was long, but they CHOSE hope. They CHOSE faith. And in the end, that was all that mattered.

Pillars of the Earth will be on my favorite books list for a very long time.
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     “The most expensive part of building is the mistakes.”


Look, it's difficult to explain exactly why I liked this book. Seriously, if you take a look at the blurb, note the 973 pages, and the fact it's a very long story about building a cathedral in Medieval England, you might think I've been smoking something. But for me - and I'm assuming for a large number of other readers - it was so damn compelling.

I'm going to get the crap out of the way first - if you are sensitive to scenes of rape, DO NOT READ THIS BOOK. Medieval England is a shitfest of misogyny, violence, accusations of witchcraft and, yes, rape. One of the scenes is especially disturbing and graphic; I actually had to take a break from the book after reading it.

I should say that it is not portrayed as a positive, or even a normal, thing. Scenes of rape and brutal violence in the book largely serve to make us despise William Hamleigh with a ferocious passion. It turns out that a deep, seething hatred can really keep you turning pages, waiting for that bastard to get what he rightly deserves.

Anyway, yes, the main plot is about the building of the fictional Kingsbridge cathedral. But, really, it is about all the characters that come into contact with Kingsbridge, its cathedral, and Prior Philip - their loves, desires, ambitions, conflicts and heartbreaks. I was pulled in from the very dramatic prologue when a young woman arrives at a hanging and curses the three men who guaranteed her beloved's execution.

There are love stories in here, as well as tales of ruthless ambition, and betrayal. Follett has created some incredible and unforgettable characters: Tom Builder, Philip, Ellen, Jack, Aliena, and Waleran Bigod. And, of course, that snivelling stain on humanity that is William Hamleigh.

I haven't read any of Follett's other work, but it is not surprising to hear he was a thriller writer before beginning The Pillars of the Earth. He has carried that with him into this story. Just when everything seems to be going right, some catastrophe happens to throw a spanner in the works. Just when it looks like Philip is going to succeed, some more shit happens. But it was an effective way to keep me looking over my shoulder.

It's a strange book because it's a bloody, heart-pounding page-turner wrapped up in a 900-page, serious-looking, cathedral-building package. Strange, and yet I find myself wanting more. I guess I'll have to read World Without End.
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This book was so completely fantastic that I almost forgot the outside world existed when I was reading it. I’ve never be so emotionally invested in a story, as I was with this. It’s a rare book that does this to me. I think it’s because it follows the characters through such a large proportion of their lives, resulting in a large amount of intimacy and investment with them. Indeed, this novel spans a massive period of forty years and has 1000+ pages; this is no light reading; it is deep, emotive and completely brilliant.

The intense story
So much happens within this novel. It’s impossible to lay it down in a brief summary; these characters, quite literally, go through hell. Such is the life of commoners in the period. They are good folk, and are just trying to erect a church for the betterment of their town. However, the corruptness of the local nobility, and the church hierarchy itself, almost prevents them from achieving their aim. Prior Phillip and Jack the Builder are forced to seek out the aid from their monarch, but because of the turmoil of the civil war, this monarch keeps changing. They have a choice of two royal courts to appeal to. Both are convinced they have the legitimate claim to England’s throne. Picking the wrong side would lead to the ultimate ruination of a folk that simply want to live in peace, and celebrate God’s glory on earth.

Well, this is the mere surface level of the plot. This book is so much beyond it. It is a story of betrayal and seduction; it is a story of love and hardship; it is a story of human nature and the all-encompassing morals that imposes. It is just fantastic in every sense. The characters are real, and their hardships are even realer. These are truly some of the most human characters I‘ve ever read about; these people could have existed.
This is no less true for the villains of the book, William Hamleigh in particular is characterised superbly. For all his ruthless aggression, and sense of entitlement, he’s still a coward at heart. He’d never admit it to anyone, but the reader knows of what he is; the reader can see his blackening yellow heart. He is a product of society, and his parent’s ruthless ambition. He doesn’t deserve sympathy because of this, but the reason why he is the man he is can be seen by looking at his origins. His parents ruined him; he has no restraint; he has nobody to tell him no. So, to his mind, he can get away with anything. He even has a Bishop who will gladly absolve all his sins. He’s actions have no consequences; he can murder and rape without feeling the consequences. This is an incredibly dangerous mind-set, and one that almost destroys the protagonists of the book. He's a nasty man.

The strength of the church

Follet also weighs the potential power of the church. I love the way he contrasts godly Prior Phillip with the twisted Bishop Waleran. It shows us two routes the church could take; it shows us two possibilities for God’s monument on Earth. Prior Phillip is everything the church should be; he is kind and forgiving; he is benevolent and just: he is a true believer of Christ’s teachings. He is in the church for the simple reason that he is a man of faith. Contrastingly, Bishop Waleran is a tyrannical despot. He represents evryhting the church shouldn’t be; he is the personification of its potential evil. The Bishop is vain, greedy and ambitious. In this his will is his own; he is completely self-serving. He abuses his power to meet his own ends and self-aggrandisement. So, he is slightly corrupt. He’s only in the church for its political power and rewards. In this, he is not a true believer of his own faith.

By contrasting these two characters Follet demonstrates how the church has the power to do great good and also great evil. This, for me, is quite a strong message to take from the book because it shows us the dividing nature of man, of life, of good and evil; it shows us that all things can be benevolent or terrible. It also hints at redemption. If something is this bad, it can be made into something good once more; it has the potential to be as it should be in the right hands. I do love this story. It shows that if people can come together, to achieve something greater than themselves then humanity is not lost despite the backdrop of war, corruptness and general chaos.
Jack begins the novel as a mute boy with little human socialisation. At the end of the novel he is a respected builder and farther of the town. He is the anchor of Follet’s story telling. Everything centres on Jack, and his family history. His narrative questions the restraints the common man lived under in the period; it highlights the injustice the legal system exerted in the time. He cannot marry his love without a written divorce from his horrible step-brother who’d sooner see him live in misery than have the happiness he couldn’t achieve. The church doctrine almost prevents him from being a farther to his child. But, he perseveres and overcomes the restrictions of the church, his awful step-brother and the corruptness of society itself. Jack’s story is one of human perseverance and fortitude; it is a story of a man who somehow managed to survive a system that was completely against him.

“Nevertheless, the book gave Jack a feeling he had never had before, that the past was like a story, in which one thing led to another, and the world was not a boundless mystery, but a finite thing that could be comprehended. ”

This is a phenomenal story, and though that I’ve got hundreds of books I want to read in my lifetime, and little enough time to read them in, this is a book I will definitely be reading again in the future; it’s a story that I simply have to revisit regardless of its vast length. This is a book I just have to read again.
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Confession time: This is not a book I would have picked out for myself. First of all, look at the size of this kitten squisher! Second of all, Amanda's hate-filled review of it is one of my favorite reviews on Goodreads. However, it's one of my girlfriend's favorite books and when she suggested I give it a read, I knew what was good for me. Lucky for me, I enjoyed it.

Pillars of the Earth is a multigenerational tale about the construction of a cathedral in a fictitious English town in the 1100s. Many threads are followed for it's nigh-1000 page girth. Tom Builder goes from being an expectant father to a widow to a master builder. Philip becomes a prior and the ruler of Kingsbridge. And lets not forget Jack, Aliena, Richard, Waleran, that bastard William Hamleigh, or any of the many other characters.

Ken Follett was primarily known as a thriller writer before Pillars and it shows. Every time things appear to be going right for the good guys and it looks like the cathedral is back on track, another monkey wrench is thrown into the works. For a book with very little in the way of action, I was enthralled. You can squeeze a lot of plot complications in nearly 1000 pages and Follett jammed in as many as he could. I have to admire the kind of planning it took to write something like this.

As I said before, I always found the size of this thing daunting but I probably shouldn't have. It's a best seller, and best sellers aren't known for being difficult reads. Since Follett is a thriller writer, he tended to keep things to the point for the most part, though I thought he was ignoring Elmore Leonard's rule about not writing the parts people skip a few times.

I don't really want to say much about the plot for fear of spoiling anything. It's a long read but the ending is worth the time it takes to get there.
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Ahem.
"Pillars of the Earth" is a very long book. It's got a lot of soap-opera-like twists and turns - no amnesia, but just about everything else, including mistaken identities, illicit marriages, illicit lack of marriage, illegitimate children, questionable parentage, love triangles, revenge, greed, power, a few murders, rape, witches, politics, knights, swords and horsies. OK, that last bit is not so soap-opera-like. There's also lots and lots of architecture. And it's a very long book.

Main story follows a single family of stone masons for (roughly) three generations, and the extended families associated with re-marrying, etc. Around this family revolves an aspiring monk/prior, a powerful but morally questionable bishop, a ruthless Earl (title, not name), and several kings. The thing is, even with all the re-marrying and such, there are so many evolving inter-relationships between these main characters as the struggle for political power unfolds, and of course everybody grows up, has children, etc - that EVERYTHING seems to happen to this small group of people. And just when you think things have settled down for a while, something else happens, or attempts to happen. And these things keep happening for approximately 980 pages.

Along the way, you learn a lot about medieval culture - particularly the role of religion, the political power of a monestary, priory, or diocese - how life is funded, and just how much it sucks to be a serf. There's also quite a bit of focus on the reason for, and the means to, building cathedrals - Follett muses in his Foreward that one of the things he never could understand is why people in such destitute times would have put so much energy into buildings of such scale, and this book addresses that. You also learn a lot about architecture and the evolution of cathedral-building. I can also now tell you the difference between a nave, chancel, transept, cloister, and clerestory. Oh, and probably 7 different words for "horse".

Really though, I very much enjoyed it, despite its very lengthy nature. Very full of words. Long. Not a day went by I didn't read at least 50 pages (note - at that rate, it will still take about 3 weeks to finish).
The building is a constant, its a reason to keep the central family of masons from wandering off and having more illicit marriages, and its a reason for the ongoing political power struggles. It's essential, but it's not distracting, and the cathedral is not the focus. The people are. They're engaging, you feel for them, you assign labels (good, evil) you change labels several times (he's pretty self-serving and conniving for a "good" guy), and you constantly wonder just what more can possibly happen to these people. There's also an underlying mystery that keeps you wondering... right up until 100 pages too soon.

My only complaint is this - the big climax occurs, the mystery is revealed, it all comes together - and there are still 100 pages to go. The last part of the wrap-up, the rise and fall, takes a while, has an interesting but probably unnecessary historically accurate reference to English church vs. king to give the whole novel an air of "this could have really happened in some obscure English medieval village somewhere, I wonder which cathedral this is supposed to be? Can I go see the real thing?" But it loses momentum right at the very end. Loose ends nicely tied up, but it wasn't the gripping page turner it had been in the first 900 pages. By that time, though, you've got so few pages in your right hand you just keep going because the end is in sight.
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How does one review a book that one cannot even describe?

So many times after gushing about how good Pillars was, people ask me, What’s it about?

And I, swirling in the happy aftermath of a mind so blown away that it’s still traveling near the speed of light, struggle to gather what’s left of analytical thinking and dumbly blurt, “Um, it’s about building this cathedral…”
Way to not to sell a book.

I still have trouble really describing Pillars in a way that satisfies. Because while it is about building a cathedral, it’s about so much more. It’s about love, hate, sacrifice, duty, honor, sorrow, ambition, dreams… It’s about cold, hard life in the Middle Ages during decades of civil unrest where both good and bad people, downtrodden and as hungry as they are, still dream and compete and seek a sense of accomplishment in their lives.

People like you and me, just some centuries and a culture apart.

And like life, not everything is pleasant.

There are many ups and downs in the novel, so many that you learn to brace yourself for the worst when someone emerges victorious because you know that there will be payback. The characters go through a lot of hardships, and it’s pretty darn painful to read. The devastation that Prior Phillip felt when some part of his cathedral project was foiled is just as heartbreaking as the physical violation of Aliena’s body.

On the flip side, when the characters felt joy, it was extremely acute. When Tom finally landed a job, I breathed a sigh of relief. When Aliena got revenge on the priest who was supposed to “take care” of her father’s money, I felt a ruthless surge of satisfaction. It’s like I’m with these characters, that they are real and I am next to them. Their life is not a bucket full of cotton candy. It’s bitter, vile, and hard; but it’s also sweet, gentle, and satisfying in turn.

Pillars does dramatize the lives of these characters by placing them in a zero sum system; when one gains, the other has to lose. What resulted was an intricate web between the characters, some more attached to one than the other. Each move that one character made had a profound effect on the other. While this may have been contrived for some, I found it fascinating to follow these lives and see how much they crisscross and tangle. The concept that every action has consequences is something that is definitely fleshed out in Pillars, which I think is a life lesson that not many people dwell on.

Despite their differences, what every character had in common was that the thread of their lives all intersect at the focal point of this one cathedral. Every significant action in the novel is somehow directly or indirectly connected to the construction of this cathedral.

And my, what a construction project it is to build a cathedral! Ken Follett really studied up on this subject and did a fantastic job depicting the grandeur and openness of cathedrals. Cathedrals really are complicated works of architecture. Even the darker, more foreboding ones of the early middle ages were incredibly expensive and a huge pain to build. The type of “open air” cathedral with flying buttresses and colored glass that so amazed Jack is really a sight to behold, even in modern standards, with their intricacy and careful architectural balancing. Some of Follett’s best writing emerges when he describes the smooth arches, the interior of the nave, the structure of the transepts, and the light streaming in through elongated windows that brightened darkened corners, an innovation thought to be structurally impossible in a stone building.

The book does have its faults. Follett’s writing was not all that consistent. It was jarring to read Follett’s grandiose descriptions of cathedrals and then, on the next page, read about William Hamleigh fantasizing about violating women. The violence was graphic, almost to the point of being gratuitous, but then again everything about Follett's writing was graphic. I personally take no issue with graphic violence, but people who do should take note that the prose of this novel is in-your-face blunt.

My overall impression of the novel is that it is a tour de force of storytelling; a story that weaves together the lives of enemies and friends who are not all completely evil or good, who have their own dreams and ambitions, and who are willing to do dirty yet necessary things to achieve their ends. Some are more good than others, some are almost saintly, and others are steaming piles of doo. But somehow, amazingly, they are all parties in the construction of this one cathedral, and the cathedral connects them in both death and life.

Faults aside, the sheer force of the story compelled me to give this five stars. It’s not a perfect novel, and the novel doesn't showcase perfect writing. But it’s a really good story, something so grand and epic that it can’t be adequately captured in just a few sentences.

FIVE SHINY GOLD STARS AND HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!
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There aren't many things left to say when it comes to Ken Follett's masterpiece. The Pillars of the Earth is one of the most beautiful, haunting, exquisitely well-written novels of all time. It is a ''showstopper'' book not only in the Historical Fiction genre, but in Literature in general. Still, for an obsessed reader of historical novels like yours trully, it can become the standard by which all other historical sagas are measured. I don't know whether this is just and right, but it does happen to me every so often.

It is a rare occassion when you have a multitude of characters and every single one of them has something to offer and attract the reader's interest. Not even A Song of Ice and Fire in all its glory has achieved this, in my opinion. However, here we have good characters with whom we agonize over their fates, evil characters whom we hate with passion, and characters that stand in a gray area, driving the story forward. Aliena is one of the best female protagonists in Literature, and Waleran with William Hamleigh fight for the title of the ''best villain'' in the genre. The TV-series adaptation was really good, with a plethora of excellent casting choices. Ian McShane, Matthew McFadyen, Rufus Sewell and David Oakes steal the show.

If you haven't read it yet, a) under which rock have you been hiding?, and b) read it as soon as you can. Thank me later;)
Source: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/5043.The_Pillars_of_the_Earth

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