By Chet Yarbrough
By: Ken Follett
Narrated by: John Lee
Ken Follett, in “Pillars of the Earth” reminds one of Alexander Dumas; in part because of John Lee’s narration (who is the speaking actor of “The Three Musketeers” and “The Count of Monte Christo”) but, more particularly, because of the thrilling adventure of his story. Ken Follett successfully captures the balance point of life where life turns either up toward constructive fulfillment or down through despair.
One can easily fall in love with a Dumas’ adventure but Follett surpasses Dumas because he reaches beyond adventure to civilization-building with a credible story of how cities form, expand, prosper, and die. Follett creates a brutal world of an imagined 12th century town in England, called Kingsbridge. The heart of the town is a church and monastery.
A part of this epic story is the crucial role cathedrals play in the formation of towns and markets that become cities. Follett describes the dramatic shift of civilization from an agrarian town to an urban center of merchant capitalism.
After reading “The Pillars of the Earth”, one realizes that religion is a crucial ingredient in the beginnings of civilization. Follett captures and fully forms the economic transformation of civilization by explaining how Cathedral building and ecumenicalism become forces of modernization in the world. The rise of city commerce is simplified in Follett’s story but its beginnings could certainly have been from towns that attracted laborers for the construction of cathedrals.
Follett offers readers a spectacular adventure with romance, intrigue, murder, mayhem, love, and hate that vivify how living-life may have been in the past and how the past becomes the future.
Follett acknowledges in the preface to his book that he is an atheist but “The Pillars of the Earth” is not a refutation of God but an affirmation of the good and evil that exist in all human beings. Lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride work in the minds of the clergy as well as the laity. Follett reaches into the minds of readers in telling a story of civilization; not with perfect vision of a past but with an imagination that bells the truth of history in fiction. In the course of Follett’s story, one recognizes both the trustworthiness and perfidy of religion because Follett shows religion to be a construct of man; not the supernatural.
There are heroes, and heroines, demons, and witches in the clergy and laity that a listener loves and hates because Follett crystallizes human nature in the actions of his characters. With the introduction of Tom Builder, Follett introduces a character that believes in God and practices, to the best of his ability, the Christian ideals of a good life. But Tom is not perfect; i.e. he is flawed like all human beings.
Father Phillip, an orphaned child, exemplifies the strength and weakness of religion by becoming a monk that rises to the level of Bishop in the Catholic Church. One sees the strength of morality offered by religion to civilization but at the same time sees the rigidity of liturgical beliefs and how rigidity may unjustly destroy happiness.
There are villains in Follett’s book that shock the senses. Their bestiality and brutality are made believable by Follett when placed in the context of other books written of that era. One of the villains (an Earl and later Sheriff of the Shire), William Hamleigh, terrorizes the poor and dispossessed in ways that remind one of modern despots like Idi Amin, Charles Taylor, and Muammar Gaddafi. Follett adds religious villains that belong to the church but covet power and prestige, at any price; i.e. a Bishop and rival monk of the Kingsbridge monastery lie, conspire, and shift allegiance without conscience or scruple but, as they fall from grace, they repent and return to the idyllic beliefs of their religion.
Follett ties every characters’ story into an ending that touches history in a satisfying denouement that pleases one’s sense of justice; i.e. each of Follett’s characters bare the consequence of life’s joys and sorrows with an end and balance point that only comes with death.