I am a medievalist in the process of completing a PhD (involving medieval medicine). I travel as much as possible at home (UK) and abroad. I'm always ready for new experiences!
Published January 26th 2013
Positive and negative elements of The Pillars of the Earth
Overall, The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett has proved to be a popular sell almost since its first release in 1989. It was adapted into a TV miniseries in 2010 and the sequel, World Without End, was adapted for TV in 2012. The novel follows the life stories of a large cast of characters, but the central theme is the struggle to construct a cathedral amidst the political and social turmoil of early medieval England.
Photo by Ken Follett.com
The book has many positive elements working in its favour: well-developed and interesting characters, original plot line, thorough research, and clever use of language. However, regardless of its many positive elements and ability to appeal to a wide range of historical fiction fans, due to some particularly negative elements, it's difficult to fully recommend the book. The following points will consider the positive and negative elements of the book.
Treatment of the Subject
It is obvious that the author is well-versed in medieval history. The author's knowledge particularly shines in discussions of medieval building methods, medieval occupations and social arrangement, and philosophical thought. According to the author's own words, the book is a personal passion of his that took over 3 years to write. As a subject expert in medieval English, I didn't find any glaring errors or omissions and was impressed with such a thorough treatment of an often caricatured and foreign period of time. These points are certainly encouraging for those who cannot tolerate anachronistic work.
Use of Language
With any historical fiction book, language, dialect, and accents are the most challenging problems. If done correctly, the reader takes no notice and can enjoy the story without hindrance; however, if done incorrectly, the text will appear unrealistic or, even worse, the characters become grating annoyances. Books set in the medieval time period are particularly challenged by the aspect of language. Here, the author has cleverly dealt with the language issue by limiting his character's dialogue and padding out the text with omniscient narration and descriptions about action, settings, thought processes, and details of cathedral building. This is so seamlessly done that it's an easy task to suspend reality and enter into the dynamics of the story.
This is more of a neutral element, but could be negative depending on personal taste. As admitted by the author in his prologue, this book was written to satisfy his own interest in cathedral building and, thus, at its heart, the book is about architecture and medieval building methods. These elements have the potential to appeal only to a specialist audience. I am not that fascinated by medieval building philosophies or construction science. I found myself skimming through the descriptions of how to build a level wall, which occurs more than once, as well as the plans, calculations, and drawings described in the book and performed by the book's master architects. However, the continued popularity of the book, decades after its first publication, demonstrates that the other positive story elements are enough to overcome any boredom incurred from lengthy descriptions of building walls and quarrying stone.
Explicit Sexual Content
In order to portray the completely degraded nature of one character, William Hamleigh, as well as perhaps to signify the lawlessness, ruthlessness, and visceral nature so associated with medieval times, the author includes several sexual encounters, visits to brothels, and violent rape scenes. Each of these scenes is overly explicit and lengthy in detail to the point of being revolting, which perhaps was the author's intent, particularly with the wicked William Hamleigh.
For character development and narrative progress, such scenes are sometimes necessary and at times inevitable; however, the author over-does it. One or two such scenes would have served the purpose of revealing the evil in William Hamleigh or the strong connection between the master architect and his wife, but it seems that sexual encounters and thoughts fill the pages of the book. Unfortunately, this is the fly in the ointment that destroys an otherwise intriguing, well-researched, and thoughtful book.