Towering achievements

When the BBC did their Big Read survey in 2003, most of the books were rather what you would have expected. They were mainly either books you'd probably had to read in school, or books that were currently of the moment (there was LOTS of Harry Potter!). Many were long-standing members of bestseller lists, but one book caught everyone by surprise. At number 33 was Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth. Follett is best known as a thriller writer, and this novel came rather out of left-field. A novel about medieval England and the building of a cathedral; it had been reasonably popular, but hadn't bothered the upper echelons of the best-seller lists for that long. It was also an extremely long book - nearly 1100 pages - what was going on?

St. Denis - the inspiration for "Kingsbridge" cathedral
As Ken Follett explains in a touching introduction to my edition, it was a book that he had wanted to write for ages. He was brought up within a small Christian sect, who didn't approve of cathedrals. Breaking away and entering into journalism when he was an adult, gave him the chance to travel and to see for the first time these amazing structures. The book was eventually published, it did reasonably well in America, did VERY well in Germany, but it just flowed along elsewhere. Follett was as bemused as the BBC by the poll results, but then he looked more closely at the returns from his publishers; and finally realised that Pillars of the Earth wasn't a one-off best-seller, but it continued to sell long after other best-sellers had been forgotten - in fact over time it was one of his best-selling books selling purely on the recommendation of its readers. To this date it is probably his most loved book prompting the most affection from his readers.

I've never read any Ken Follett before, although I've always enjoyed his interviews, and have also enjoyed several films based on his books. Pillars of the earth has been sat on my TBR shelf for a long time, but with the publication of the third novel in the series (A column of fire), and a fresh interview with Follett, I thought it was about time to read it. I wouldn't say it's the best book I've ever read, but I can quite understand why it is held in such affection.

The story opens in a war-torn England. Henry I has died without leaving a definite heir, and the possible heirs - Stephen and the Empress Maud - are slogging it out. Meanwhile the country groans as famine and an economic slump hit the land. Tom Builder's family are caught up in this, and after an unpromising start end up in Kingsbridge, a town with a failing monastery and a tumbledown church. With the advent of a new Prior though, who is a genuinely good man, Kingsbridge is about to reinvent itself as a town with a cathedral.

Tom has a vision for how this cathedral should be built and soon has the backing of Prior Philip, whose vision is every bit as grand as Tom's. The novel follows Tom's extended family, the monastery, and the town itself as it struggles to emerge from this desperate period; it also follows the politics that drove the period, and had an effect on so many lives.

Lincoln - an uneasy centre of power during Stephen's reign
(and a recent winner of the very wonderful Twitter Cathedrals' World Cup)
Part romance, part history, part pure inspiration, it's a wonderful romping read. Some of the characterization is of the caricature nature - the villains are every bit as black as Alan Rickman's Sheriff of Nottingham; but where Follett scores is in the characterization of the good guys. If his villains are story-board cut-outs, likeable and dedicated Prior Philip, the dreamers with the technological know-how, Tom and Jack, and the women who managed to survive despite the restrictions and sometimes brutality of the period, such as Aliena, come vividly to life. Follett may have taken us back to medieval times, but these are very real people, that you can easily identify with, and in their search for love and work, education and security for their family, they are surprisingly modern.

Where his great skill lies is not in making them feel an anachronistic part of modernity, instead you can see quite clearly how little difference there really is between the generations, most of all in their aspirations for the future, and their dreams for a better life. On one level it is indeed a romping read, but actually this book is rather better than that. It is a magical insight into what it must have been like to live in another time and place, that in many ways is not that different from our own. It's a compelling read, and I'm not at all surprised that it has won such a loyal audience. Now on to book two...


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