The last time I enjoyed a book this big this much, I was in school and reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy for the very first time.
The Pillars of the Earth set in 12th century England, at a time when the country was caught in the throes of a civil war is the story of the building of a magnificent Cathedral in a little place called Kingsbridge. Tom Builder, a mason, has dreamed forever of building a cathedral. To build a place of worship of his own design. I suppose, in spite of the
many subplots, this is really Tom's story. And how he finally gets his dream. Kingsbridge becomes the epicenter for this story. There is Philip, the idealistic young prior, there is mysterious Ellen, Tom's second wife, there is Ellen's son Jack in love with the lovely Aliena, daughter of the deposed Earl of Shiring, Barthelomew. There is the slimy Bishop Waleran of Kingsbridge and the power hungry Hamleighs. Topping all this off, there is the civil war between King Stephen and Empress Maud, contesting for the throne of a country that is left without a clear successor after the death of the heir of old king Henry I, out at sea on a vessel called The White Ship.
The building of this cathedral touches each one of these lives and they all have their own designs for it, good or otherwise. There really is nothing more to say about the plot. This is above all else, a human story. Its plot, the triumph or pillage of human emotions. If I were to root for any one character from the book it would have to be Jack, Ellen's son. There was a quality about Jack that drew me in right from the start. With his carrot top hair and piercing blue eyes, Jack captures your heart more than any other. He is straight up and no nonsense but not quite so out of control as his mother Ellen and his love for Aliena was so beautiful to behold, especially for a romantic like me.
The strength of this book lies in the fact that there is no one hero, no one protagonist. It is the life of a village and of a county. While Prior Philip is not my favourite I could not help liking him. Philip worships God beautifully and shows us how. The growth of Kingsbridge, the prosperity of its people and this cathedral to serve as a means of further economy and prosperity for Kingsbridge is his way of serving God and you cheer Philip as he overcomes set back after set back.
Through this book, Ken Follett has thrown into stark relief the distinctions between a Man of God who seeks to serve Him and His people and a Man of God who is ruthless, ambitious and sees his piety as a means to power. Bishop Waleran of Kingsbridge along with the Hamleighs tries his best to sabotage every effort of Philip. The cathedral should not be built and Kingsbridge should be destroyed. I detested William Hamleigh from the bottom of my heart. At the same time, I pitied him as I would a disgusting creature that has lost the fight rather badly. William Hamleigh would spend his whole life bewitched by Aliena, the girl he was once to have married.
So what happens? Does Tom Builder finally get his dream? That is of course for the reader to find out. In this epic on 12th century England, there is one man who has in someway, something to do with the fate of England, and that is Prior Philip. He shares his dream with Tom. His triumph is Tom's; his defeat is also Tom's. Read The Pillars of the Earth and live every word of it. In this blog, I cannot do enough justice to this mammoth 1076 page book but I have tried my best. This is not a review; it is an earnest effort to try and convince anyone who happens to read this post to give this book a shot and be as awed as I was.
I am reminded of the lovely Christopher Morley quote you can find in my blog and that I will quote here: "Lord! when you sell a man a book you don't sell just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue - you sell him a whole new life. Love and friendship and humour and ships at sea by night - there's all heaven and earth in a book, a real book." This is one such book.
Note: I have included images sourced from Ken Follett's website. The sketches are present in the book and as you can see, they depict various stages of the building of the cathedral. I have included a picture of Ken Follett too. I was somewhat surprised. I didn't expect him to be so genial looking. Does that ever happen to you? Do you read a book, form an image of the author and then find out that in reality he/she is entirely different?