For the first time in about three months I'm commuting to work without Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth audiobook. Listening to 32 compact discs takes a long time in the first place at about an hour a day 5 days a week but compound that with several events that meant no daily commute and I ended up listening to this book for a longer elapsed time than any I can remember.
I liked it. I know I liked it because the first several days afterwards I found myself missing the characters and their stories. I wanted to know what happened to them next. But I didn't like it enough to immediately borrow from the library the sequel, World Without End.
Let me explain.
I'll admit to several blindspots one of which is world history. As ignorant as it sounds, when I think of the 12th century I visualize everyone running around like extras from Monty Python and the Holy Grail - covered head to toe with shit and dumb as a post. Obviously one only need look at the great body of advancements in science and the arts, including the great cathedrals which bring together both science and art, during that period to realize the utter foolishness of my preconception.
Follett, writer of thriller novels, decided to turn his interest in cathedrals into a book and turn the construction of a great cathedral in the fictional 12th century English town of Kingsbridge into his next novel. In doing so he created a vibrant world of richly-featured characters. There's Tom, master builder and stone mason, a craftsman who sets his sights on creating something truly lasting. There's Prior Philip, a pious yet ambitious monk, who leads the local monastery and desires something more for his flock. And there's Lady Aliena, disgraced daughter of a dethroned Earl, who struggles to rebuild her life and her family's honor. Of course, no story would be complete without villains and Follett gives us two: Bishop Waleran, Philip's boss and scheming politico, and Sir William Hamleigh, the cruel, and not-too-bright son of the man who ousted Aliena's father.
If you think this sounds like a TV mini-series you're not alone. I didn't know that the book had been turned into an 8-hour TV event when I started it and I don't know whether finding that out influenced my opinion. But the plot screams "mini-series." The delineations between good and bad are crystal clear; you know who the good guys and bad guys are within minutes of them being introduced and they don't change for the most part.
Getting the mini-series vibe isn't necessarily a good thing. Maybe it felt a little too slick, a little too neat, a little too packaged. One thing that really bothered me was the unceasing litany of pain and suffering inflicted upon the good guys by the bad guys. I recall at one point thinking "Oh, c'mon. not again." This aspect of the plot made some events predictable.
Perhaps things were like that in the 12th century. Perhaps the powerful simply ran roughshod over the weak, meak, pious, and poor. How much of the portrayal is historically accurate? I don't know although I suspect it's somewhat accurate from what I've read about Follett's interest in the subject. Follett did set The Pillars of the Earth in a historical context between the rule of the two King Henrys and culminating with the murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury (which apparently was the beginning of the end of the concept of royal infallibility).
The Pillars of the Earth has turned out to be Follett's most successful book and appears on some list of England's favorite books of all time. The keys for me were the characters who are as vivid and likable as any in fiction. When I finished the book it struck me that Prior Philip has been dead for over 800 years yet it seems like he spoke to me only yesterday.