The Pillars of Earth is a historical novel written by Ken Follett and published in 1989. The main plot follows the construction of a magnificent cathedral in the fictional city of Kingsbridge and the other stories that surround it, such as family disputes and the civil war .
Summary and Synopsis
Tom Builder, having lost a commission to build a house for Percy Hamleigh’s son, wanders around southern England in search of work. After losing his wife in childbirth and meeting the dark and empowered Ellen who lives in a forest cave with her son, Jack, Tom settles in Kingsbridge under the auspices of Prior Philip, who aspires to expand his priory by rebuilding a Cathedral.
In search of construction funds, Philip appeals to King Stephen and is given land and the right to take stone from the quarry. The quarry itself, however, is awarded to Percy Hamleigh as part of Shiring County.
In addition to winning the king’s favor, Hamleigh has reason to overthrow Bartholomew, as his daughter, Aliena, rejected Hamleigh’s son, William. William finds Aliena and her brother Richard living in the castle and in revenge, rapes and mutilates Richard. Homeless and helpless, Aliena and Richard travel to petition the king, and instead find their dying father in prison.
Both swear that Richard will take back the county. Aliena works to help Richard become King Stephen’s knight, fighting in the civil war against Maud. William also fights for the king, but Richard wins his favor when he defends him at the Battle of Lincoln.
Meanwhile, Tom has been building the cathedral and living with his children, Alfred and Martha, his lover Ellen, and his son Jack. Alfred despises and harasses Jack, and a fight reveals that Ellen and Tom are not married, accusing them of fornication. Outraged and hating clergy, Ellen urinates on a holy book and returns to the woods with Jack.
Tom befriends Prior Philip and when Ellen returns, he persuades Philip to forgive her and allow them to marry. Now both bricklayers Jack and Alfred fight again. Jack is expelled from the cathedral building and is forced to become a rookie monk to stay in Kingsbridge.
Following Sir Percy’s death, William and Richard compete for the county, but Kingsbridge’s prosperity has bankrupted him at Shiring’s expense. Trying to restore his fortune, William burns Kingsbridge and kills many people, including Tom Builder. Aliena loses her fortune again. However, Jack and Aliena spend the night before their wedding together, but Aliena marries Alfred independently and Ellen curses the wedding, leaving Alfred helpless.
Discouraged, Jack goes to France and hones his skills as a sculptor and bricklayer, unaware that Aliena is pregnant. At Kingsbridge, Alfred convinces Philip to replace the wooden ceiling with a stone vault.
The building collapses during a service, killing many people but revealing that Aliena has given birth to a redheaded son, causing Alfred to disown her because he is not the father. Jack cleans up the mess after Aliena takes him home, but Philip forbids the union until his marriage is annulled – an act that requires Waleran Bigod’s approval.
Meanwhile, Richard has joined the forces of Maud’s son, Henry, Earl of Anjou. When Henry invades, Stephen agrees to an agreement whereby Henry succeeds Stephen and all properties return to those who owned them before Stephen’s reign. Frustrated that the county will not go to Richard until Stephen’s death, Aliena takes action and convinces William’s wife, Elizabeth, to turn over the castle to them. This forces William to return to Hamleigh’s village.
After Alfred, in an attempt to rape Aliena, is killed by Richard in a cruel fight, both she and Jack can get married, which they do, to the delight of the village and Philip. However, Richard’s “murder” of Alfred catches the attention of William, who after losing the Earl has become a Sheriff and attempts to capture Richard, but the latter escapes and, at Philip’s suggestion, goes to Crusade in the Holy Land to repent of their sins. leaving the county in Aliena’s care. In his eventual death, 20 years later, his nephew Thomas inherits the titles.
After many years, Kingsbridge Cathedral is completed, thanks to Jack’s ingenious problem solving. The conflict continues as Waleran accuses Prior Philip of lack of chastity and fornication by claiming that the monk, Jonathan, is Philip’s son.
Ellen swears that Jonathan is the son of Tom Builder, but Waleran accuses her of perjury, so she exposes her complicity in a conspiracy to sink the White Ship that transports William Adelin, heir to King Henry I. Ruined by this, Bigod lives his days as a humble monk.
Meanwhile, William Hamleigh has led the life of a profligate and is finally involved in the plot to assassinate Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Convicted of this sacrilege, William is hanged. The Pope compels King Henry’s public repentance by demonstrating the symbolic subjugation of the crown to the church.
Genre: Historical fiction
The story of The Pillars of Earth is conveyed through a third-person narrative style, however the point of view is completely limited to the characters in the book. Despite the fact that the novel is a piece of the historical fiction period, there is no historical narrator.
The reader views all events from the point of view of the present moment of the main characters. This is an interesting choice on the part of the author and helps to keep the reader personally involved with the characters, as, by necessity, the views of the characters cannot go beyond their own immediate experience.
- Philip: Abbot of Kingsbridge Cathedral and Monastery.
- Francis: priest and brother of Felipe.
- Tom the Builder: First Master Builder of Kingsbridge Cathedral.
- Agnes: Tom’s first wife.
- Alfred: the son of Tom and Agnes.
- Martha: the daughter of Tom and Agnes.
- Jonathan: the youngest son of Tom and Agnes.
- Ellen: Tom’s second wife.
- Jack: Ellen’s son with his lover, Jack Shareburg.
- Jack Shareburg: a Frenchman hung at the beginning of the story.
- Earl Bartholomew – Earl de Shiring: Richarda Aliena’s father.
- Aliena: daughter of Earl Bartholomew, wife of Alfred, wife of Jack.
- Tommy: son of Aliena and Jack.
- Sally: daughter of Aliena and Jack.
- Richard: son of Earl Bartholomew.
- Regan Hamleigh: Percy’s wife.
- Richard Hamleigh: Percy’s son.
- Waleran Bigo: Bishop of Shiring and Kingsbridge.
- King Stephan: monarch at the beginning of the novel.
- Empress Maud: legitimate heir to the throne.
- Henry II: son of Empress Maud and ruler of England.
This novel has violence, faith, survival and above all, love as its main themes. There are many different aspects of love represented in The Pillars of Earth. There is Philip’s love for God, for example, that makes Philip strive to purify himself of the humble emotions of anger and greed to earn himself the love of God. His love for God also opens his heart to humanity as he constantly tries to love those around him, whether that person is a beggar or a thief or an unscrupulous bishop.
Philip also has a great love for the orphan boy Jonathan, whom he sees as a son. Above all, it is Philip’s love that drives him to improve his environment, whether that means disciplining his monks, making sure his monastery flourishes, or overseeing the construction of his beloved cathedral.