The Pillars of the Earth
Ken Follett, 1989
Penguin Group USA
Ken Follett's most beloved and bestselling book tells the magnificent tale of a 12th-century monk driven to do the seemingly impossible: build the greatest Gothic cathedral the world has ever known.
But what makes The Pillars of the Earth extraordinary is the time—the 12th century; the place—feudal England; and the subject—the building of a glorious cathedral. Follett has re-created the crude, flamboyant England of the Middle Ages in every detail. The vast forests, the walled towns, the castles, and the monasteries become a familiar landscape. Against this richly imagined and intricately interwoven backdrop, filled with the ravages of war and the rhythms of daily life, the master storyteller draws the reader irresistibly into the intertwined lives of his characters—into their dreams, their labors, and their loves: Tom, the master builder; Aliena, the ravishingly beautiful noblewoman; Philip, the prior of Kingsbridge; Jack, the artist in stone; and Ellen, the woman of the forest who casts a terrifying curse. From humble stonemason to imperious monarch, each character is brought vividly to life.
The building of the cathedral, with the almost eerie artistry of the unschooled stonemasons, is the center of the drama. Around the site of the construction, Follett weaves a story of betrayal, revenge, and love, which begins with the public hanging of an innocent man and ends with the humiliation of a king.
At once a sensuous and endearing love story andan epic that shines with the fierce spirit of a passionate age, The Pillars of the Earth is without a doubt Ken Follett's masterpiece. (From the publisher.)
• Birth—June 5, 1949
• Where—Cardiff, Wales, UK
• Education—B.A., University College, London
• Awards—Edgar Award (1978)
• Currently—lives in Hertfordshire, England
As a young boy growing up in Cardiff, Wales, Ken Follett's love for all things literary began early on. The son of devoutly religious parents who didn't allow their children to watch television or even listen to the radio, Follett found himself drawn to the library. It soon became his favorite place -- its shelves full of stories providing his escape, and ultimately, his inspiration.
Follett's more formal education took place years later at London's University College, where he studied philosophy—a choice that, as he explains on his official Web site, he believes guided his career as an author. "There is a real connection between philosophy and fiction," Follet explains. "In philosophy you deal with questions like: ‘We're sitting at this table, but is the table real?' A daft question, but in studying philosophy, you need to take that sort of thing seriously and have an off-the-wall imagination. Writing fiction is the same."
After graduating in 1970, a journalism class touched off Follett's career as a writer. He started out covering beats for the South Wales Echo, and later wrote a column for London's Evening News. Becoming more and more interested in writing fiction on evenings and weekends, however, Follett soon realized that books were his true business, and in 1974 he went to work for Everest Books, a humble London publishing house.
After releasing a few of his own novels to less than thunderous acclaim—including The Shakeout (1975) and Paper Money (1977—Follett finally hit it big with 1978's Eye of the Needle. The taut, edgy thriller with more than a dash of sex appeal flew off the shelves, winning the Edgar award and allowing Follett to quit his job and get to work on his next book, Triple. Showing no signs of a sophomore slump, Triple went on to spark a string of bestselling spy thrillers, including The Key to Rebecca (1980), The Man from St. Petersburg (1982), and Lie Down with Lions (1986). 1983's On Wings of Eagles was an interesting departure—a nonfiction account of how two of Ross Perot's employees were rescued from Iran during in 1979.
Follett changed direction even more sharply in 1989, surprising fans with The Pillars of the Earth—a novel set in the Middle Ages many critics considered his crowning achievement. "A novel of majesty and power," said the Chicago Sun-Times of Follett's epic story. "It will hold you, fascinate you, surround you."
Follett's next three books were a trio considered to be more suspenseful than thrill-filled—Night Over Water (1991), A Dangerous Fortune (1993) and A Place Called Freedom (1995), but The Third Twin (1996) and The Hammer of Eden (1998) marked a return to Follett's trademark capers. The wartime novels Code to Zero (2000) and Jackdaws (2001) showcased Follett's "unique ability to tell stories of international conflict and tell them well," according to Larry King in USA Today.
Follett "hits the mark again" (Publishers Weekly) with his latest story of international intrigue, Hornet Flight (2002)—the WWII story of a young couple trying to escape occupied Denmark in a rebuilt Hornet Moth biplane who become unwitting carriers of top-secret information.
In a way, Follett's smash-hit success has allowed him to give back to the library of Cardiff, Wales—by filling its shelves with his own transporting tales.
• Eye of the Needle was made into a major motion picture, and four of Follett's books have been made into television mini-series: The Key to Rebecca, Lie Down with Lions, On Wings of Eagles, The Third Twin and The Pillars of the Earth.
• A very civic-minded soul, Follett is quite involved in his Hertfordshire community, serving as President of the Dyslexia Institute, Council Member of the National Literacy Trust, Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Chair of Governors of the Roebuck Primary School & Nursery, Patron of Stevenage Home-Start, director of the Stevenage Leisure Ltd. and Vice-President of the Stevenage Borough Football club. (Author bio from Barnes & Noble.)
For roughly 500 pages, half the book, cathedrals and rapine are enough. Mr. Follett's male characters are chess pieces, clearly labeled Good Guy and Bad Guy. There is a saintly churchman and a bad one; the saint plays politics just as much as the sinner, but we know which one is the villain because he wears black. Mr. Follett's female characters are virtually indistinguishable from one another, plucky types whom men must nonetheless rescue from any real danger.... Like a cathedral built too high, Mr. Follett's story develops cracks, and chunks of it fall into the crypt. The plot, which theoretically centers on the building of a cathedral, spills off into too many different directions, including a whirlwind tour of Europe and a completely obvious mystery. The characters never grow, and without some deepening emotional discovery, the world of the novel becomes trite, the incidentsThe vigor and intensity of the first half of the book may bring The Pillars of the Earth popular success. But half a book isn't good enough, especially at these prices. Repetitious.
Cecilla Holland - New York Times
With this book, Follett risks all and comes out a clear winner, escaping the narrow genre of suspense thrillers to take credit for a historical novel of gripping readability, authentic atmosphere and detail and memorable characterization. Set in 12th-century England, the narrative concerns the building of a cathedral in the fictional town of Kingsbridge. The ambitions of three men merge, conflict and collide through four decades during which social and political upheaval and the internal politics of the church affect the progress of the cathedral and the fortunes of the protagonists. The insightful portrayals of an idealistic master builder, a pious, dogmatic but compassionate prior and an unscrupulous, ruthless bishop are balanced by those of a trio of independent, resourceful women (one of them quite loathesome) who can stand on their own as memorable characters in any genre. Beginning with a mystery that casts its shadow on ensuing events, the narrative is a seesaw of tension in which circumstances change with shocking but true-to-life unpredictability. Follett's impeccable pacing builds suspense in a balanced narrative that offers action, intrigue, violence and passion as well as the step-by-step description of an edifice rising in slow stages, its progress tied to the vicissitudes of fortune and the permutations of evolving architectural style. Follett's depiction of the precarious balance of power between monarchy and religion in the Middle Ages, and of the effects of social upheavals and the forces of nature (storms, famines) on political events; his ability to convey the fine points of architecture so that the cathedral becomes clearly visualized in the reader's mind; and above all, his portrayals of the enduring human emotions of ambition, greed, bravery, dedication, revenge and love, result in a highly engrossing narrative. Manipulating a complex plot in which the characters interact against a broad canvas of medieval life, Follett has written a novel that entertains, instructs and satisfies on a grand scale.
A radical departure from Follett's novels of international suspense and intrigue, this chronicles the vicissitudes of a prior, his master builder, and their community as they struggle to build a cathedral and protect themselves during the tumultuous 12th century, when the empress Maud and Stephen are fighting for the crown of England after the death of Henry I. The plot is less tightly controlled than those in Follett's contemporary works, and despite the wealth of historical detail, especially concerning architecture and construction, much of the language as well as the psychology of the characters and their relationships remains firmly rooted in the 20th century. This will appeal more to lovers of exciting adventure stories than true devotees of historical fiction. Literary Guild dual main selection. —Cynthia Johnson Whealler, Cary Memorial Lib., Lexington, Mass.
1. How does the building of the cathedral satisfy the ambitions of the main characters—Tom Builder, Prior Philip, Aliena and Jack? How does it affect the lives of other important characters in the story?
2. Read the first scene in Chapter 10 and think about the prose style. Why do you think the author writes this way? Compare the last scene of the same chapter.
3. The number of words of one syllable; the length of sentences; the length of paragraphs; the adjectives used. What is different about the author’s purpose in these two scenes?
4. Although The Pillars of the Earth is fiction, it includes some real-life characters and incidents from history, such as King Stephen at the battle of Lincoln, and the murder of Thomas Becket. Why does the author mix fact and fiction like this?
5. Are the factual scenes told from the point of view of the real-life characters, or the fictional ones? Are the fictional characters major or minor players in the big historical events of the time?
6. Women were second-class citizens in medieval society and the church. Is this accurately reflected in The Pillars of the Earth?
7. What attitudes to women are shown by Prior Philip and William Hamleigh? How do Agnes, Ellen and Aliena respond to society’s expectations?
8. Some readers have said that they look at medieval churches with new eyes after reading The Pillars of the Earth. Do you think you will do the same?
9. In the book, churches are usually viewed through the eyes of a builder. How does this affect your understanding of the architecture?
10. Ken Follett has said: “I’m not a very spiritual person. I’m more interested in the material problems of building a cathedral.” Is The Pillars of the Earth a spiritual book?
11. What motivates Prior Philip? What does Tom say at the beginning of Chapter 5, when Philip asks him why he wants to be master builder? In Chapter 16, why does Philip ask Remigius to come back to the priory?
12. Ken Follett has said: “When I started to look at cathedrals, I wondered: Who built them, and why? The book is my answer to that question.” Why do you think the great medieval cathedrals were built?
(Questions from Penguin Publishers.)
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