You wouldn’t think a book about building a cathedral would pull you in and refuse to let you go. The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett did exactly that. The novel follows a large cast of characters though 12th-century England as they struggle with war, famine, corrupt rulers, rape. accusations of witchcraft, death, poverty, and ultimately the decades-long task of of building a stunning cathedral.
This is a very difficult book to sum up because it is extremely long – over 900 pages – and spans the lifetime of several characters, whose difficulties and growth I would hate to give away. I will say all the characters are beautifully written and exquisitely human, each with talents and flaws, and who make decisions that make the reader love and hate them equally. There is a character for everyone – the feminist who overcomes severe adversity to make a name for herself without the help of a man, the strong independent woman accused of witchcraft who lives in the forest, the religious monk who constantly finds himself between what his religion teaches and what society demands, the corrupt bishop who manipulates all those around him for his own gain, the father who struggles to raise his children on his own, the child who must choose whether to follow his parent’s footsteps or strike out on his own. Finally, there is a spectacular villain, you spend the entire novel gleefully hating and waiting for karma to catch up to him.
In addition to a fabulous cast of characters, the novel presents a detailed account of life in 12th-century England, in which travelers would die on the road if they came across bandits, families starved if they couldn’t find work, earls were free to do as they pleased to those in their power with no oversight, religion and royalty fought to determine who was really in charge. And the idea of these uneducated (even then, and certainly by our current standards) peasants building a magnificent cathedral without any of the machinery we are familiar with today was particularly impressive.
On his website ken-follett.com, author Ken Follett notes that the cathedral in his novel is fiction, but he drew inspiration from two real-like cathedrals in his writing, the Wells Cathedral and the Salisbury Cathedral, pictured here to give an idea of what these amazing people were capable of before electricity.
My only, albeit very small, gripe with this novel was that as fascinating as it was learning the minutiae of building a cathedral, I just wasn’t that interested in it, and I occasionally skimmed through some details about building plans. The novel did feel a bit long at points, but on the other hand was so enthralling that when it was over I wanted more, so ultimately no complaints about the length.
I give this book a rare 5 out 5 stars, and recommend it to anyone interested in historical fiction. Truthfully, I recommend it to everyone. There is something in this novel for every reader to enjoy, and I like Follett’s writing style enough that I now plan to seek out some of his other works.
PS – There’s a sequel! It’s called World Without End and apparently occurs in the same location two centuries later, during the Black Death. I will be reading it ASAP.