Wednesday, December 1, 2010
The Pillars of the Earth is roughly 970 pages long and, at times, it felt even longer. That isn't to say that it isn't a good story - it is - just that, occasionally, I wished the story would reach it's conclusion. That may be more a commentary on me and my impatience than it is on the book; I'm not sure.
The story is focused around the construction of a fictional cathedral in the small English village of Kingsbridge. It seems rare to me that a building is in fact one of the main characters of a story but Ken Follett not only selected an unusual protagonist he pulled it off quite well. The cathedral isn't the only protagonist, not by a long shot, but it is the focus of the actions all of the other main characters, both good and bad, take throughout the majority of the novel.
The story takes place in medieval England and, as such, it can be fairly graphic and violent in places; further, because the story takes place around the construction of the cathedral there is quite a bit of Christian dogma cited by various characters towards myriad ends. Of course, even without the cathedral the presence and power of the catholic church in Medieval England would have guaranteed some strong religious overtones in the weekly lives of the various characters.
Essentially there are four characters within the book who server as our protagonists. Prior Phillip, the leader of a conclave of monks who are the lords of Kingsbridge and who contract out the construction of the Cathedral. Tom Builder is the master builder who is tasked with constructing the cathedral. Jack Sharebourg, the step-son of Tom Builder and a fine stone carver, has a smaller role that builds to a more critical one as the story goes on. Last, but not least, is Aliena, the daughter of the local earl. Aliena is an unusual medeival woman in that, while she is treated, at times as less than human, she manages to do some amazing things that I doubt were wholly probably in the factual middle ages.
I, almost always, cheer for the good guys and find them to be the more interesting characters in a book. However, at times, a novel comes along with such sufficient insufferable bad guys that they steal the show. That was the case with all three of the antagonists in The Pillars of the Earth. The most powerful of the three, at least politically, is the snake like Bishop Waleran. He is a manipulative backstabbing and power-hungry bastard who, for the majority of the novel, goes out of his way to prevent the construction of the cathedral even though it is within his own Diocese.
Just slightly less powerful but significantly less intelligent and scheming is the ruthless William of Hamleigh. While William is a competent knight he is both vicious and full of spite; by mixing those two character flaws with a serious inferiority complex and a paranoid suspicion that everyone mocks his family William really does become the embodiment of evil throughout the story. I'm ashamed to share his name.
The final villain is Alfred; Tom Builders eldest child. Alfred is cunning and strong but also intellectually stunted. Further he is consumed by jealousy of Jack who is both more talented and smarter but much smaller and weaker. Their conflict is full of petty injustices spearheaded by Alfred's malicious desire to simply make Jack's life miserable. Alfred is a real ass who I kept hoping would get his due.
Overall all of the characters are believable, but, at times, their reactions to different events are not. For instance, Tom Builder's second wife, Ellen, is an anomaly who has a secret that keeps Bishop Waleran in fear. However, considering the power that the church had in the time period it is hard for me to believe she was allowed to remain alive; and, not just living, but thriving within the town of Kingsbridge as Tom's wife. Further, after she performed some sufficiently sacriligious acts I was amazed she wasn't captured and burned at the stake as a witch; especially considering the entire religious population of the region had denounced her as just that - a witch!
I suppose Follett had to take some artistic liberties to keep the story flowing and for that I am glad because it is a good tale full of both victories and defeats for "the good guys" which was refreshing considering how often the good guys just seem to easily come out on top in most tales. At times the story does get bogged down but, fortunately, it picks back up again before too long and you once again forget it is a 970 page book.
My youngest brother Chris gave me the book and a recontamination to read it and I'm glad I took his advice. I give it a 3.5 out of 5 star rating.