The Pillars of the Earth: A Brief, Literary, Interlude

They premiered the miniseries “The Pillars of the Earth” on Starz last night, based on the eponymous Ken Follett novel. Something kept tickling me in the back of my brain saying, “Didn’t I review that book?” And, in my living room bookshelves are the hardcover AND the galleys that I reviewed.

Yeah. I guess I did.

Galleys, for those who don’t know, are a sort of preview softcover, usually with a Table of Contents all marked with zeros and paginated poorly at best, with a warning, THIS IS AN UNCORRECTED PROOF, admonishing the reviewer to check the final copy for accuracy of their quotes.

Good luck on that. Usually, the hardcover comes in long after the review has run, and generally, in my experience, editors KEEP the hardcover, which, in this case, I can thank Steve Paul at the Kansas City Star for not doing, and sending along the hardcover when it finally appeared.

So, from September 11, 1989, here’s my Kansas City Star review of Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth (the book). We can always get back to the alleged Invasion of Texas later.

Follett’s folly

Medieval ‘Pillars of the Earth’ falls short of author’s spy novels
By Hart Williams ~ contributing reviewer
The Kansas City Star.
September 11, 1989
The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett
(975 pages; William Morrow; $22.95)

Ken Follett is the author of six “No.1 bestsellers,” one of those commercial writers upon whom the fortunes of publishing conglomerates are based.

Follett is usually known for spy thrillers, but now he appears with a historical novel, a massive tome that “sweeps through four decades of the 12th, century,” to quote the jacket. As a historical novel, and, particularly, a potential bestseller, The Pillars of the Earth is . . . well, it is not a bad novel. It does, however, have all the makings of a bestseller: prose as bland as tapioca; characters that are invariably clichés of a sort; a plot containing numerous twists and turns, triumphs and reversals; and the easily discernible opposition of the good and bad.

The period and place are England, during the civil war that raged between the reigns of Kings Henry I and II, pitting the cousins Stephen and Maud in a contest for the throne. The novel opens at the end of Henry I’s reign and concludes 40 years later, after the murder of Archbishop Thomas Beckett.

The first half of its nearly 1,000 pages is undeniably good reading. It tells the story of what eventually will be one interlinking family: Father Philip, an orphan raised in a monastery; Tom Builder, a master builder and mason who dreams of constructing a cathedral; Aliena, daughter of the Earl of Shiring; and Ellen and her son Jack, who have been living in the forest as outlaws. These are the “good guys.”

The “bad guys” are represented by a knight, Percy Hamleigh, and his increasingly malevolent son, William; a bishop, Waleran Bigod; and Tom Builder’s slow-witted, nasty son Alfred. Father Philip is given the task of restoring the Kingsbridge monastery and, after a fire, of rebuilding its cathedral. Tom Builder loses his first wife to childbirth, marries the outlaw Ellen and is appointed to take charge of the building of the new cathedral.

The Earl of Shiring makes the “mistake” of supporting Maud against the weak King Stephen, and Percy and William Hamleigh are able to capture the castle on the eve of battle and are given the earldom of Shiring as reward by King Stephen. Aliena had formerly spurned William in marriage. Now William has his revenge and rapes the teenager in her brother Richard’s presence before casting them into the cold. Meanwhile, Waleran Bigod has maneuvered himself into the bishopric of Kingsbridge and intends to divert the stone and wood of the cathedral to building his own castle. Alfred, Tom’s son, delights in sadistically bullying young Jack, Ellen’s son and Tom’s new stepson.

For the remainder of the novel, the characters will be at one another’s throats, as first Maud, then Stephen gains the upper hand in the civil war, and as everyone runs the gamut from starvation to plenty and back again several times.

The great problem is really this: For the first half of the novel, the book moves smoothly. Enjoyable enough that you don’t notice that the characters are little more than clichés, this is basically a novel of plot. But midway through the plot lurches off track, the pistons misfire and the reader’s credulity is stretched. A few reversals of fortune are expected, but here such reversals on all sides become so common as to seem monotonous. And perhaps the most charismatic character of the book is killed in the middle. From this point on, the story seems contrived. It doesn’t ring quite true.

Many interesting leads are shoved in the closet, while new plot devices are thrown in almost willy-nilly to keep it all moving. At one critical point, three-quarters of the way through, Follett seems to nearly lose control of the novel altogether. Critical years of characters’ lives are thrown out the window, and immediately thereafter, all loose ends are tied up, as the obligatory series of happy and unhappy endings arises. But the thrill isn’t there. The thread has been somehow lost.

Although The Pillars of the Earth still may become a “No.1 bestseller” on the strength of name and promotion, it is not the novel it could have been.

As for the book, Wikipedia notes:

The Pillars of the Earthbecame Follett’s best-selling work.

The book was listed at no. 33 on the BBC’s Big Read, a 2003 survey with the goal of finding the “nation’s best-loved book.” The book was also selected for Oprah’s Book Club in 2007.

A sequel, entitled World Without End, was released in October 2007.

Just goes to show what I know.

That was back in the days when the Kansas City Star still had a robust “Books” section, a remnant of a bygone, literate age.

1911 KC Star building is on the National Register of Historic Places

It was always interesting visiting the old Star building in downtown K.C. Every editor, it seems, claimed they had Hemingway’s desk (although no one actually knew which desk that was).

Ernest Hemingway’s 101st birthday was on July 21st: Happy birthday, Papa H, but I actually wrote for the Star a lot longer than he did.

Courage.

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About Hart Williams

Mr. Williams grew up in Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas and New Mexico. He lived in Hollywood, California for many years. He has been published in The Washington Post, The Kansas City Star, The Santa Fe Sun, The Los Angeles Free Press, Oui Magazine, New West, and many, many more. A published novelist and a filmed screenwriter, Mr. Williams eschews the decadence of Hollywood for the simple, wholesome goodness of the plain, honest people of the land. He enjoys Luis Buñuel documentaries immensely.
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2 Responses to The Pillars of the Earth: A Brief, Literary, Interlude

  1. I read “Pillars” a few years ago. Didn’t do much for me, although friends raved about it. I didn’t even know there was a miniseries… any good?

  2. Hart Williams says:

    The first episode pretty well followed the opening of the book. Well mounted and historically lush … but I don’t plan to continue watching it. Rereading my review (from 21 years ago) brought it back, and I don’t feel any real need to go through the endless reversals of fortune and plot twists again.