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Carpe Librum

Bookish conversation with author Samantha Wilcoxson.


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Historical Novel Society

Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

The Pillars of the Earth - Ken Follett

This book served as my introduction to the Plantagenet dynasty when I first read it, and I fell in love. I had no idea at the time of how accurate the details were. I just knew that the story captivated me more than any other had up to that point. The people. The cathedral. The hopelessness of attempting to thrive during the anarchy, when those who enjoyed serving their darker nature had the freedom to set it free.


Seeing that Ken Follett is soon releasing a third novel in the Kingsbridge series, I decided to listen to this again to refresh my memory before reading the new installment, which will take place during the reign of Elizabeth I. My expectations were lowered, because I knew that I have grown much more critical of historical writing that takes place during this era. I was ready to be disappointed and wonder how I could have loved it so much the first time and roll my eyes at my younger self.


I still love it.


Alright, I will admit that I noticed that Aliena's hair is always down in a rather non-12th century sort of way, and Follett's women are always more of the modern feminist in any period he is writing. But I didn't care. When it comes down to it, Follett writes stories of intrigue, and even though I've read it before I found myself surprised by little twists. I felt nervous waiting for the outcome of events and devastated when the 'good guys' were once again unjustly crushed by their enemies.


The way the author ties together multiple families, plots, and mysteries over the course of decades is masterful. Yet it doesn't all come together at the end as an implausible happily ever after. Despite some missteps in historical details, one can almost imagine this crazy story actually happening. It makes my heart hurt for the common people who had no say in who was king but could be punished on a whim depending upon who was in charge. I love reading about royalty, but this book makes you think about how hard it was for everyone else to simply live as Stephen, Maude, and eventually Henry fought for the throne.


If there is one thing that I dislike about this book it is the multiple rape scenes perpetrated by the book's undisputed villain, William Hamleigh. There is no good in him, which makes some readers call him one-dimensional. I'm not sure if that's true, but his dimensions are certainly all evil. Follett tends to write sex scenes that are far too frequent and detailed for me and these rape scenes are no exception. Maybe I could have understood the inclusion of one, but other readers likely feel that even that is too much. The amount of rape and attempted rape in this book demonstrates how vulnerable women were at this time, but it is still used too much for my taste.


What I love more than anything else in this book is Prior Philip. Follett admits that he is not a religious man, but he manages to write a man who is sincerely dedicated to God as if he perfectly understands his heart. Of course, the book is full of the sort of deceptive clergymen we have been trained to expect in historical fiction, but Prior Philip is the kind of man that I would like to believe there were far more of in the 12th century. He is tough and demanding, but also generous and forgiving. His cleverness is used to benefit the greater good, while everyone else is scheming to benefit themselves. He is the reason I love this book.


The other characters, at least in my mind, simply create the background of the tapestry that is centered on Philip and his cathedral. They love, they lose, they struggle, and they are sometimes victorious. Like real people, they make the reader love them but also frustrate you when they make poor decisions.


I don't agree with all the writing decisions made in this book, but reading would be rather boring if everything was written the way I would write it. When it comes down to it, this is a captivating story regardless of any squabbles over details. It is not for the weak of heart, but violence, hunger, and struggle was the harsh reality for those living through the anarchy. I am happy to say that the book that led me to the dynasty that I now dedicate much of my time to studying was as enjoyable now as it was the first time I read it.