As everyone knows, PILLARS OF THE EARTH is a huge novel that takes place in England over a 50-year period from about 1121 to 1172. The novel begins and ends in violence: It begins with the hanging of a mysterious young man who sings a chanson before they string him up. It ends with the hanging of a thoroughly evil and despicable character, as if the author is telling us that this hanging atones for the first one. At the end, as a coda, one of the main characters punishes the King of England for his part in the murder of Thomas à Becket.
Ken Follett is a masterly writer, and the way he introduces each of the main characters makes the reader want to know more. ELLEN is the woman with striking eyes who curses the people responsible for the hanging of the young man in the prologue. PRIOR PHILIP is shown neatly outmaneuvering an opponent. TOM BUILDER carefully builds a house, and stands up for his rights when challenged by his lord and master. WILLIAM HAMLEIGH arrogantly rides his enormous warhorse into a building site, and nearly kills a seven-year-old girl. Sixteen-year-old ALIENA impetuously informs her suitor that she will never marry him, because all he does is talk about “his dogs, his horses and himself”.
I wasn’t expecting to find so much violence in the novel, so much murdering, pillaging, and raping. But it didn’t seem gratuitous. Anyone who has a feel for the history of the time, knows that the 1100s in England was a very stormy time, when the country was foundering in a civil war that went on for nineteen years. Needless to say, law and order broke down completely.
But you should not let the violence put you off. Follett has written a masterpiece, with vivid characters, and plot twists and turns that will make you stay up late into the night, (or nurse your insomnia at 5 am), and keep you entertained until the end. Five stars.