Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 611
A Column of Fire is a 2017 historical fiction novel written by British author Ken Follett. It is the third installment in his Kingsbridge saga, coming after the critically acclaimed The Pillars of the Earth (1989) and World Without End (2007). As its predecessors, A Column of Fire tells the love story of Ned Willard and Margery Fitzgerald from the fictional city of Kingsbridge, who must fight for their romance in a time of great religious conflicts.
While the novel is often praised for being historically accurate, it is also criticized for focusing more on the historical events rather than the fictional Kingsbridge and its central importance. This is why many of Follett’s readers argue that the book is more of a standalone story than a sequel. It also gained a bit of mixed reviews on the author’s repetitive use of modern slang and language.
The novel mainly depicts the clash between Catholicism and Protestantism, which took place all over Western Europe in the sixteenth century. It opens after the death of Queen Mary I in 1558, when Queen Elizabeth Tudor has taken over the throne (much to the displeasure of several other monarchs, such as Queen Mary Stewart, the Queen of Scots). Having witnessed the amount of injustice, greed, and corruption that has been hiding behind the mask of religion and afraid of losing her power, Queen Elizabeth decides to form a spy network of brave, intelligent agents who will vow to protect her and her newly established tolerance strategy.
In this network, a young Protestant by the name of Ned Wallard is determined to do anything to stop the greedy and power-hungry fake believers. He is the main protagonist of the story and in his lifetime he falls in love with two women. One of them is Margery Fitzgerald—a true Catholic who’s willing to sacrifice anything in order to protect the faith and love for God. As her polar opposite (as far as faith is concerned) stands Sylvie Palot—a French Protestant who is willing to sacrifice anything in order to help the Protestant Reformation. Her motives, however, are very impure and nonreligious and she joins forces with the Catholics in France, resulting with several bloody conflicts between Catholics and Protestants. At the center of those conflicts is Rollo Fitzgerald—the main antagonist of the story. He is the brother of Margery and he and Ned have known (and disliked) each-other since they were children. While Ned vowed to protect the Queen's power and reign, Rollo's main goal as an anti-protestant is to dethrone her.
Despite their religious differences and unsupportive families, Ned eventually settles with Margery. In the end, he outlives both Sylvie and Margery, retires from his duty and service to the Queen,and spends his remaining days with his children and grandchildren. One of his grandsons, James, says that he will go on a journey across the ocean to the New World. Many fans of the Kingsbridge saga take this as a hint for a new, fourth installment in the series, which would take place in America.
Essentially, A Column of Fire showcases the never-ending battle between tolerance and religious extremism, where nobles and wealthy individuals use religion as an excuse to pillage and plunder in order to get to a more powerful position in society and obtain a higher place on the socioeconomic scale. It gives us insight into the corrupted world of the powerful elites who wish to control the ill-informed and often illiterate common folk. But, most importantly, it tells us how religion’s true ideals are often distorted when they are used to spread hate and injustice instead of love and acceptance.
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