A historical epic of greed, deception, romance, politics and religion wraps itself around one issue in Ken Follett’s “Pillars of the Earth”: the building of a cathedral. Tom Builder has spent his entire life hoping to construct a cathedral, and he finds the opportunity in Kingsbridge, England. In a small town, everyone’s life influences another’s, and the residents of Kingsbridge find themselves entangled in national politics where making the wrong enemy could result in the destruction of a town and the destruction of a kingdom.
While national stakes are at a high, personal desires reign in this character-driven novel. From the sadist, William Hamleigh, to the young lovers, Jack and Aleina, a variety of characters present a variety of desires: revenge, promotion, survival, truth, service and love. Nothing will stop the characters from achieving their goals. It is only a matter of who will foil the other’s plans.
Just as the characters are entangled in each other’s stories, I became entangled in their stories. Since the novel is character driven, characters’ desires, struggles and personalities move the story along. This was wonderful, since I felt connected to the many characters in the book, which caused me to read 250 pages in one day when I planned to read 30. The connection allowed me to root for the young lovers, Jack and Aleina, and for Prior Philip, an honest clergyman, but it also made me loathe William Hamleigh, an antagonist created so well that I occasionally put down the book to avoid reading about him.
Because “Pillars of the Earth” has so many characters, each with distinct goals, the narrative follows five main characters to intertwine them: Prior Philip, a pious clergyman; Tom, a master builder; Jack, an outlaw turned master builder; Aleina, the former Earl of Shriring’s daughter; and William Hamleigh, a sexual sadist. Each character is well developed and interesting, most notably William Hamleigh, who is ironically terrified of hell. The characters are what makes “Pillars of the Earth” wonderful; otherwise, the writing is nothing special, except for when it comes to descriptions.
Follet spent a significant amount of time meticulously describing cathedrals and building plans. Since “Pillars of the Earth” revolves around the building of a cathedral, the amount of description is appropriate, though unnecessary. I was invested in the characters, not what the cathedral looked like. Besides my interest, I did not understand the technical terms Follett used to describe the cathedral, so I skimmed those descriptions, as they did not enhance the story.
Another fault of the book, which might deter some from reading it, is the length. “Pillars of the Earth” totals roughly 400,000 words, or about 1,000 pages depending on the edition. It had to be lengthy to cover the span of time it took to build a cathedral in 12-century England — at least 30 years. To ensure the story lasted this long, Follett employed numerous plot twists. Something always went wrong, which became annoying after so many twists. That being said, the story moved quickly, despite its length. Only about halfway through the novel, when I was reading extensively about William Hamleigh, did I tire of the plot. I let the book rest for a day, and when I returned to reading, a more agreeable character soon drove the story.
The characters of “Pillars of the Earth” were my greatest source of joy and woe, as they can be for any reader, due to the wide variety of characters. The characters are tangible, just as their world is, allowing for multiple perspectives and events. “Pillars of the Earth” offers something for everybody: politics, history, architecture, religion and romance. It is an epic of the ages.