As merely a starting point of reference, Ken Follett’s massive tome, The Pillars of the Earth, is framed loosely around the building of a cathedral in a (fictional) small medieval town of Kingsbridge, England. Tom Builder, an impoverished stonemason, struggles to support his family after his wife dies from childbirth in the beginning of the story. He and his two remaining children, Alfred and Martha, leave the new baby in the care of a priory they find in the woods, where the child, Jonathan, is raised by the monks, particularly brought up under the caring wing of Prior Phillip, whom he eventually succeeds.
Tom resettles with Ellen, a single mother and her son Jack, whom Tom meets in the woods. They go to Kingsbridge and convince Prior Phillip to commission Tom for the building of a new cathedral, a job that would provide a lifetime of work.
What is fascinating about the story is that it is so much more than any one linear tale. The bare plot above described is only the starting place to what Follett creates as a fully realized microcosm of a medieval existence. The story follows so many characters’ lives, townspeople, monks, royalty, commoners, clergy, and lay people all struggling in their day-to-day lives, as well as all fully drawn out on the pages, with ambitions, desires, pains, flaws, strengths, weaknesses, etc.
Follett does not cut corners. As he moves from plot to plot, taking on new characters and stories from chapter to chapter, while still telling the ones he has established early on, readers are drawn more fully into the mid-twelfth century English realm he has re-created.
There is a love triangle between Jack and a beautiful woman, Aliena, and the selfish, cruel Alfred (who somehow inherited none of his father’s goodhearted nature). Meanwhile, there’s Aliena’s devotion to her dying father’s wish to take care of her brother, Richard of Kingsbridge, in his pursuit to regain his earldom. Then there is the evil William Hamleigh, whom Aliena was supposed to marry, but rejected, and thus suffered greatly at his hand, causing worry to enter readers’ hearts whenever his presence appears on the pages.
There is the struggle of religion, and the deep-rooted nature of its presence in the hearts and minds of all the characters, whether they each accept or reject it. How it feeds the powerful and the weak. How it shapes and influences the good and bad characters, and how they each use it to his or her advantage or how they are inspired to live better lives because of it. Varying ends of the spectrum include the dedicated Prior Phillip and the corrupt Bishop Waleran Bigod, whose influence never seems to falter no matter how many years pass in the story.
Perhaps influenced in thought by a few words that come in the beginning of the book’s introduction, where Follett acknowledges that he himself does not believe in God, as a reader, I could not overlook how this outlook would have shaped a writer of a tale that deals predominantly with characters who, for the most part, are influenced, shaped by, and surrounded every second of every day by their God and how and in what way He leads their lives—whether in each instance they accept or reject Him.
Brilliantly, Follett crafts his story, and as already stated, he has not merely told a story about a particular few people in medieval England, but rather, gone all the way into fleshing out a fully-fledged re-creation of that world, so as to give the reader a bird’s eye view as well as an internalized view of a large spectrum of characters in the period between the sinking of the White Ship and the murder of Saint Thomas Becket.
However, in the knowledge of Follett’s own personal atheism, the reader cannot help but make note of the manner in which he will phrase certain situations, thoughts, or feelings of certain individuals in his story. It is not as though he will state things in a derogatory manner outright, thinly veiling criticisim of “silly religious folk”—Follett is simply too good of a writer for that; even merely as an onlooker, he has a vast understanding of religion, Christian fervor, and religious persons—rather, it is just simply that there is a sense overall, not by any one particular moment, but in the thorough reading of the story in its entirety, that this story, this telling of these moments in these peoples’ lives, is done by one who is other than in their mindset.
That is not to say that it is not well done or that he is not grappling with a firm understanding of their lives and times. But simply to say that one who is himself living in the 1100s is assuredly not the one telling it. As obvious as that statement may seem, it is something to consider when reading the story nonetheless. Reading it from a New Criticism point of view, for instance, seems to be impossible, perhaps (albeit simplistically) because of that exact admission in the book’s introduction.
So perhaps it’s best to say: never read a book’s introduction before reading the book itself!
Nevertheless, The Pillars of the Earth is among the finest examples of a fully realized medieval reality, and anyone interested in the daily life of kings, peasants, monks, bishops, thieves, honest men, brave women, evil princes, sinners, saints, and so much more ought to do themselves a favor and pick up Follett’s modern masterpiece today. They certainly will not regret it.