Where This Meets That
Since its 1989 publication, Ken Follett’s historical epic The Pillars of the Earth has received no shortage of praise. A couple of years back, I tried to take the short cut and watch the Starz miniseries, but I couldn’t get through the first episode. Several individuals have since recommended the novel to me, so I finally took their advice and read the book.
At over 900 pages, Pillars is certainly an ambitious piece of historical fiction. It spans the heart of 12th century England, from the sinking of the White Ship in 1120 through the martyrdom of Thomas Becket 50 years later. Most of the novel is set during the period of lawless civil war known as The Anarchy and follows the interwoven lives of several conflicting characters. Sadly, its context is the novel’s high point.
The story itself revolves around conflicts both within the church, between the church and the crown, and between both the church and crown and their governed. Any of these alone are rich enough subjects to devote an epic book to, but here they come out thin. The vast sweep of the novel minimizes the magnitude of each of its many conflicts.
Despite its length, it comes across as a novel written to be a television series, laden with seemingly gravely challenging episodes, each of which are promptly vanquished before the hour is up. While some events do create continuities throughout the balance of the novel, most resolutions come too swiftly to be taken seriously by the novel’s end.
The characters are solid but not outstanding, and while there are wonderful little flashes of storytelling (Jack’s attempts to woo Aliena through, well, storytelling, for example), much of it suffers from emotional shallowness.
For example, character deaths are brushed aside with absurd frivolity. In one instance, a main character’s wife dies during childbirth in the middle of a forest. Within hours, the man recovers by enjoying a sexual romp with a random woman in the forest, who promptly replaces the role of the wife. In another case, a main character dies only for another main character to conveniently step into his role in the plot. Such wrinkles in plot cheat the reader and cheapen the overall work.
That I read the entire book does say something positive about it. The prose is very accessible. The depiction of the time in history is interesting. There is something in the passion that Prior Philip exudes in his faith and that builders Tom and Jack emit in their love of architecture that catches a little deeper, but by and large, Pillars of the Earth comes out remarkably flat.
The Pillars of the Earth score: 2.5 Falcone Rings