The Pillars of the Earth

January 16th, 2005

So here we prove three points. The first, that my system of “read only what has been recommended to you” only works insofar as I have established some significant congruence between my tastes and he who does the recommending. The second, that I am not quite so compulsive as to complete a book when it is offering me no apparent reward in doing so. The third point is two-fold, if that’s not overly belaboring my already overloaded address, in that I am both not afraid to pan a book in this log and that not even not completing the book will prevent me from offering an assault upon it. This book is a sad waste of its setting and premise. Amongst the forests, fields, and fortresses deep in the Dark Ages of England, Follet paints a color-blind portrait of priests, peasants, and princesses whom no amount of alliteration could make interesting. Tom the Builder dreams only of constructing a cathedral someday, and makes not a single sensible decision that we the reader are exposed to in pursuit of this dream. His loved ones die and are driven away because he is too blind to see the circumstances that will lead to their loss. Ellen, the hyper-competent and over-educated yet-still-strikingly-beautiful witch woman of the forest should be highly motivated with the background ascribed to her, and yet she seems to be willing to let events carry her along, making rash decisions for no apparent reason and acting like an impulsive child. Aliena the Earl’s daughter is beautiful, independent-minded, and nearly as interesting as a colorful fungus growing on a fallen tree. Philip, prodigal young monk with a troubled childhood, is the only vaguely interesting character, yet he manages to spoil that with a truly unbelievable level of naivete, being nearly foiled at every turn by the simplest and most transparent of plots and maneuverings. Here we have a story set in interesting times, with at its center an interesting construction (the building of a new cathedral to replace one that has burnt down), and with a cast that should have interesting stories to tell, and yet 400 pages into it I find myself uttering the eight deadly words of fiction review: “I don’t care what happens to these characters.” The plotting is transparent, except where the heavy doses of Deus Ex Machina are administered, the characterization is miserable (we are treated to dark-haired villains with names like “Waleran Bigod”), there is an entirely too vivid rape scene, and I cannot muster a reason why I should continue reading this instead of re-reading Kay’s similar but much more interesting “Sarantine Mosaic.” So I recommend that instead.

24 Responses to “The Pillars of the Earth”

  1. Laughing says:

    Pfft. Y snd lk pssmst wth n nfrort cmplx.

    G hng yrslf. Lsr.

  2. Skwid says:

    Welcome to rule #12.

    Please come back when you have something useful to say.

  3. Skem says:

    Wow, I really love the book. Its one of my favorites. I think you did not look at the whole picture but mainly at the simple stories. Its more complex than you make it appear. The book is filled with mystery, regret, passion. It has all of the basic human emotions and makes you grasp the feel. I couldn’t put the book down and was sad when it ended.

  4. Skwid says:

    Clearly this is one of those books that either works for a person or does not, and it simply did not for me. Some of my favorites are the same…some of my friends just don’t click with George R.R. Martin, which is just incomprehensible to me, but as they say, TTDV.

    Thanks for posting!

  5. Rich says:



    I somehow happened upon your weblog, and am eagerly reading all your reviews.

    So far, I sense accord.
    This piqued my interested, though:

    "The first, that my system of "read only what has been recommended to you" only works insofar as I have established some significant congruence between my tastes and he who does the recommending."

    Do you recall who recommended *this* book to you?

  6. Skwid says:

    Hey, Rich. Welcome.

    Certainly! It was Rachelle, who occasionally does reviews on here…turns out our tastes in books are actually quite divergent, although we share several musical interests.

    Why? Was it one that you might have recommended?

    Glad you’re enjoying the site.

  7. Rich says:


    Actually, no. I loathed this book, and its never ending woes visited upon the heroine and her brother. The idea of the construction of a cathedral serving as a great backdrop was totally wasted, yadda yadda.

    I just thought that maybe you picked up the recommendation over in rasfwrj. I did, and still bear the recommendor a grudge.

  8. Skwid says:

    Ah…good to know I’m not alone on this one, thanks!

  9. Pat says:

    It’s hard to take someone seriously when they love Robert Jordan, (who is a complete hack)and someone who didnt like this book. You are a joke to the literary world Skwid.

  10. Skwid says:

    I address the duplicate of Pat’s comment in the Knife of Dreams thread.

  11. fancy-dancer says:

    Yo Skwid

    Great News!!!
    The sequel to Pillars is due out next year!!

    Can hardly wait

  12. JKING1881 says:

    skwid, did you even read the book? it sounds like you read the flap on the inside of the cover and decided to pretend like you actually invested some time into this book, which you probably didn’t. Your review of the book doesn’t do it justice, but like you said, we all have different opinions. Just some of them, like yours, are wrong. I thouroughly enjoyed Pillars as did my friend, who read it at the same time I did. I think reading this book was NOT a waste of time, although reading your review of it certainly was. You should stick to writing about what you know, which in your case is probably Lego blocks and barbie dolls.

  13. Skwid says:

    Riiight. Well, I’m glad you and your friend enjoyed the book. I’m sorry you didn’t care for the review, and I’m even more sorry you have nothing better to do than to insult those whose opinions differ from yours. Maybe next time you feel like making an ad hominem attack you could go read a book that was actually good instead.

    Just a suggestion. Thanks for dropping by.

  14. JKING1881 says:

    skwid you wouldn’t know a good book if it hit you in the face, which is something i’d pay to see. Maybe the 900+ pages was a little too daunting for you. i’d suggest you stick to books with less words and more pictures. Maybe you’ll get more than half way through them. I just don’t think you can give an accurate review of a book you never finished.

  15. Skwid says:

    I would say the idea of a single book over 900 pages being daunting to me should be obviously absurd, but criticizing someone for not clicking on the "Next Entry" link whilst they are criticizing me for not finishing something before I review it seems nearly as absurd.

    JKing, I hope someday you can understand that someone’s opinions can differ from your own without that being a personal assault on you. Perhaps when you’ve grown up.

  16. tej says:

    While this wasn’t the worst book I’ve ever read, I also have some problems with it. The characters were very superficial. As you said, Philip was the most interesting. I also liked Ellen. Everyone else was either wholly good or wholly bad. And, I definitely didn’t need the detailed description of the rape scenes. Even the scenes of consensual sex were a bit violent.

    If you like historical fiction in England during the Middle Ages, I strongly recommend Sharon Kay Penman. The history is very well researched, and the characters have more depth.

  17. Skwid says:

    Thanks muchly for the recommendation, tej. I’ll try and pick some of her stuff up sometime.

  18. Michael Devereaux says:

    Hmmm. I loved this book and have read it many times. I own a copy in Spanish and at one point I planned to use the two versions to learn that language – partly because Mr. Follett is not a complex, layered writer, and the translations would be quite straightforward. And therein lies the rub, I expect, for many people, including the author of this web site. Mr. Follett *is* in fact a very simplistic writer. I believe he does so on purpose. It works for me! If I want the effort of work required to read the labyrinthine complexity and intertwining mostly-hidden thematic profundities of Pynchon or Joyce, I’ll read Pynchon or Joyce.

    I thought the heroic characters were utterly charming and wonderful and the villians were quite usefully villianous. You can utterly root for the heroes and heroines and feel free to hiss the villians. And that again is another rub, for those who demand that all the characters they read about be layered, that the good have some bad and the bad have some good.

    I thought the historical context of “Pillars” to be wonderful. I thought the compression of historical movement to work well – the markets and the walled towns; the cathedral building and the nefarious schemings. The anachronistic presence of the modern business-woman Aliena (just note her name!).

    All in all, a fantastic light read with a great plot that rollicks along. Sharply moralistic in the best of senses. And quite likely you’ll learn some things about this part of the British Middle Ages as well.

    If you demand complex, deep literature that must be studied to be enjoyed; if you demand the anti-hero; if you demand complex characters that you cannot CHEER – try something else.

    For the rest of you – for some long summer days on the sand at the beach, there is no better book. Enjoy!

  19. Skwid says:

    Thank you for posting such an honest and straightforward description of this book, Michael. I think you capture well the difficulties and rewards this book might have to offer to its readers, and I appreciate your stopping by.

  20. celie says:

    If someone had given me several Ken Follett books and said which one is not a Ken Follett book, I would have chosen “Pillars of the Earth”. It is as if he lost his mind for however long the length of time it took to write it and as if his publisher also lost his mind as well. This is awful. And I mean awful. The people are as shallow as mud puddles in August and about as interesting. What happened?

  21. Skwid says:

    Obviously we agree, Celie, but just as obviously (from the comments above and elsewhere) it’s an opinion not shared by all!

    Thanks for singing in my choir, though!

  22. Judy Felder says:

    I’m doing my darnedest to slog through this overwritten book now, only because it’s the current selection of my book club. It’s way too violent for me; I find myself skipping over pages of text involving outright cruelty to animals and people. The characters are completely one-dimensional. I’m really tired of William and his mother and that bishop doing nothing constructive; they just sit around and think of ways to destroy other people. I think you hit the nail on the head when you talked about how some books just connect with you and some don’t.

  23. Marie Steacy says:

    What a yawner! My book club picked it and no, I don’t mind long books. I read the 1200-page version of The Counte of Monte Cristo last summer. This book reads like it was written by a 10th grader; very shallow, uninteresting characters, no evocative scene description. Just plot, plot, plot. My friend said reading it was like trying to cross a river with cement boots on!

  24. Sarah says:

    I just finished the book and really enjoyed it. It is a fast read for an 1100-page book, and I agree with one of the earlier posters that it is simplistic, but perhaps Mr. Follett did so wanting to reach a wider audience. I am extremely interested in the history of England and lay my hands on nearly any fiction that deals with pre-Victorian England. I disagree that the majority of characters were either ‘all good’ or ‘all bad’. I believe Richard, Aliena’s brother, was a mixture, and at the end of the book Waleran Bigod the ‘evil’ bishop showed regret and evoked pity from Jack. I also think Jack was a bit complex…the fact that he burned the building down and yet never seemed to have much regret over it struck me as interesting – and he never told anyone apart from Tom (who coincidentally died, which I didn’t like).

    I think Mr. Follett wanted to write a ‘love novel’ – something he enjoyed studying and researching but knew wouldn’t be his best work of all time. The fact that it has reached a wide variety of people’s hands proves that its simplicity has encouraged people to slog it through a very large novel, and I imagine most of the people that have read it haven’t read anything so lengthy before and were excited at the prospect of even finishing it. It is a nice romp – not a literary masterpiece, but a good diversion from some of the historical novels I’ve read (and I’ve read a LOT!) that are too focused on detail, as though you won’t believe them if they don’t include the precise date of the Earl of Lincoln’s birth of his second illegitimate son et. al. I also disliked the violence – I skipped the animal cruelties – the cock fight and the bear bait – and I felt myself bored when William Hamleigh/Bishop Waleran found yet ANOTHER plot to subvert Aliena/Philip…it seemed a bit repetitive.

    In any case – I wish you had finished the book before passing judgment, as I too put it down around page 400 for awhile. Its ending is a bit static and anticlimactic, almost hurried – as though he said ‘woops – this is getting a bit long…time to wrap things up’, but in the end, I liked it. 🙂

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