The Pillars of the Earth

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The newest tale from the inventive mind of Ken Follett contains all the devious intrigue and rich characterization that readers have come to expect from the author of EYE OF THE NEEDLE and THE KEY TO REBECCA. This time, however, Follett has left the complexities of the twentieth century behind, and locates his tale of evil, revenge, and the ultimate triumph of justice in the England of the twelfth century.

Tom Builder wishes to build a cathedral and Prior Philip of Kingsbridge needs a new church to replace that which was destroyed by fire. For Tom it is a labor of necessity and devotion--without employment he and his family will starve. Prior Philip, on the other hand, must have a venue whereby the monks of Kingsbridge can exercise their primary function--praying for the souls of the faithful.

Matters are far from simple, however, in this elaborate saga of medieval England in the decades which followed the death of Henry I and the succession to the throne of Henry II. Philip’s dream conflicts with the machinations of Bishop Waleran and his cohort in crime, the thoroughly immoral William Hamleigh, Earl of Shiring. Further complicating the situation are Tom’s second wife Ellen, his stepson Jack, and the onetime Lady Aliena, daughter of Earl Bartholomew. Ellen has an old score to settle with Bishop Waleran, Aliena has vowed to restore her brother to his rightful place as Earl of Shiring as well as to revenge her rape at the hands of William Hamleigh, and Jack must not only complete his stepfather’s work but also solve the mystery behind his father’s mysterious death for a crime he did not commit. All of this is played out alongside the struggle to determine who will rule England after the death of Henry I without a male heir.

Follett performs a valuable service in translating the difficult and tedious construction of a Gothic cathedral into language and images accessible to the ordinary reader. Moreover, he weaves a powerful and compelling narrative of life in medieval England. Admittedly, he falls prey to the propagandists of the Protestant Reformation by giving credence to the ancient lie concerning the jus primae noctus (law of the first night), but he may be forgiven that single lapse amid the hurtling action, deadly suspense, and haunting romance which make THE PILLARS OF THE EARTH such a superb thriller.