Pillars of the Earth begins with a brief description of a young pregnant woman who curses a knight, a priest, and a monk at the execution of a foreigner by decapitating a rooster and throwing it at the three men. The scene then shifts to the story of Tom and his family. Tom is a mason who is building a house for son of the local lord and his soon to be bride. Quite unexpectedly, the lord’s son, William rides by, angrily saying that work is to be stopped and curtly dismissing the men. Tom, at some risk to himself, stands up for his men and demands that they be paid through the end of the week. Tom finds temporary work through the summer, then he looks for work, preferably on a cathedral, with his family. Their summer savings, in the form of a pig, is quickly stolen, leaving the family practically destitute. As work continues to be unavailable, they grow poorer, and finally, with nothing to eat, Tom’s wife gives birth to their son. She dies during childbirth. Tom buries her, and puts the baby on her grave to die, as he has nothing to feed it.

An hour down the road, he regrets his action and rushes back to get the child, but the child is no longer there. He does happen across Ellen, a single woman with a quiet child of about 10. He had met her a month or so before and immediately lusted after her, but now that he is (recently) unmarried, he and Ellen get it on in the first of many graphic sex scenes. She had taken his child to the monastery, so they walk by the monastery and see one of the monks feeding it goat’s milk. Regretfully, Tom says nothing, since abandoning a baby is tantamount to murder and for the very practical reason that he still has nothing to give it and the monks seem to be doing fine. Ellen and her son leave their home in the forest, joining Tom’s family and hunt for work.

We now journey a year or two in the past to join a monk, Philip, was recently appointed prior of the small monastery where Tom’s child ends up. A man devoted to God and His glory, Philip is horrified at the irreverent and perfunctory way that the Benedictine services to God were being conducted and immediately begins reforms. Within a year the monks are hard working, reverent, and the small monastery is self-sufficient and even exporting supplies to the mother abbey at Kingsbridge. Philip, who had become a monk after his mother and father were brutally killed in a sack of their village, receives a visit from his brother who had become a clerk to a local baron. His brother says that his lord and another local lord are conspiring against the newly crowned King Stephen, and that their choice of king will not be friendly to the Church. Philip leaves to deliver this news, which might cost his life, to the bishop, but not before he appoints Peter of Warehem, a newly arrived, quite pharisaical monk to the post of almoner in hopes that the dispensing of charity would teach him grace.

The bishop’s palace is a half-day from Kingsbridge, itself a day’s journey from Philip’s monastic cell. Along the way, he meets Tom’s family, gives them some bread and his cell’s increasingly famous cheese. The bishop is away, but he delivers his message to his enigmatic archdeacon Waleran, who seems thoughtful at the news. Philip continues to the Kingsbridge Priory, which, as expected, is in slovenly disrepair, along with its cathedral. He is profoundly upset at the way the priory and the decrepit cathedral are representing God’s greatness, but cannot do anything about it due to the abbey’s indolent prior.  The abbey is at service, which as it so happens, is for the recently deceased prior. Philip reprimands one of the novices (since the monk in charge of discipline was sleeping), raising the ire of some of the monks who thought he overstepped his bounds. Over the next several days Philip discovers that many of the monks would elect him prior, and slowly discovers that he would like the job (God permitting). Through politics and a deal with Waleran, it transpires that Philip is elected prior and Waleran becomes bishop.

The story now moves to William of Hamleigh’s perspective. We discover that the earl of Shiring’s daughter had refused to marry William in no uncertain terms, and his family (his mother in particular) felt greatly embarrassed by it. After the Epiphany service, Archdeacon Waleran obliquely suggests that the earl of Shiring might be planning a rebellion against the king. William and his father, who we discover are not astute thinkers, fail to see the relevance of Waleran’s comments, but William’s mother immediately sees Waleran’s point and sends William to scout the earl’s castle to see if there are preparations for war. He goes under the guise trying to change the earl’s daughter, Aliena’s, mind. She rejects him loudly, coherently, and embarrassingly, but there do seem to be preparations for war. He waylays and tortures a messenger, who confirms the suspicions. The Hamleighs plot to arrest the earl. William and his trusty companion Walter enter the castle early Sunday morning. They slay the two guards quietly, cut the rope to the drawbridge, and open the bridge to the keep. With the castle defenseless, William’s father enters with his men and arrests the earl.

Tom, who had found work with the earl repairing his castle, is out of work again. His family continues searching for work and begs a meal and an evening at the Kingsbridge monastery. Philip cannot afford to hire Tom, although he would like to repair the church, but Ellen’s son Jack notices that the church is in disrepair. After some internal struggle, sets fire to the church in order to give Tom a job (and food for himself); he narrowly escapes being trapped in the flames. Philip is devastated at having his house of worship and part of his abbey destroyed, but Tom assures him that he would be able to clear the monastery of rubble in a week and clear the church enough to have services in the crypt in two weeks. Philip gratefully hires Tom. Shortly afterwards Brother Remigius, a monk opposed to Philip, springs the news on Philip that Tom and Ellen are fornicating (living together but not married) in the presence of now-Bishop Waleran. The Bishop, whom we learn was apparently at the hanging and apparently terrified of Ellen, pronounces a penance of living apart for a year. Ellen leaves Tom, not without great sadness on both sides, because Tom’s son Alfred bullies Jack and because she is not willing to wander with Tom again, which would be the only way they could be together.

Tom, who has been dreaming of building the most beautiful cathedral for years, presents a plan of his cathedral to Philip, who is enthusiastic about it, but has no money. He meets with Bishop Waleran, who suggests that they go to the king together to get rights to use timber and stone from the now-deposed earl’s land. They go to the capital, and while there, Mrs. Hamleigh shows Philip that Waleran is planning to double-cross him to get stone to build his castle. They make their own agreement whereby the abbey would get the lands of timber and stone and the Hamleighs would get the earlship and the farmland. The next day, the Hamleighs present this to the king, but change the deal slightly so that they retain ownership but the priory has rights to use the timber and stone. Philip agrees before Waleran can object, the king approves of the idea, and Waleran is livid. He swears that Philip will not build his cathedral.

Now that the Hamleighs have the earlship, William scouts out the castle. He discovers Aliena living in the tower with her brother and the steward, deluding herself that she is still nobility. He kills the steward, cuts off her brother’s ear, rapes her (quite unnecessarily X-rated), and turns them out into the night. They seek lodging at the abbey for a night, then go to the capital city to visit their father. Aliena discovers that the jailer requires a bribe of a penny to see prisoners, but they have nothing. After unsuccessfully looking for work, they meet a wool merchant whose husband is in jail. She gives them lodging for the evening and a penny when she visits her husband the next day. It becomes clear to Aliena that her father is dying and that she will somehow have to live on her own. Her father does tell her that he gave a stache of money to a priest nearby, but the priest denies it. Having been mistreated and one meal away from starving for several days she loses it and bullies the priest into giving her the money (minus that which he already spent). After Aliena’s relatives refuse to take her in, the only way she can think of to make money is to do like the wool merchant’s wife: buy wool from the nearby farmers and sell it in the city for a bit more. She spends all of her money buying a cartload of wool and then discovers that the wool merchants will only pay half price to a woman if she is not backed by a man. Fortunately, Philip is selling the abbey’s wool at the same time and tricks the merchant into selling Aliena’s to him at the regular price, whereupon he gives her the money.

After a year Philip has the money to hire men to quarry stone. Upon reaching the quarry, however, they discover that William’s men are guarding and refuse to let them in (contrary to the king’s agreement). Tom tries to persuade to men to defy the guards, but they are not willing to risk their lives. So Philip leads a his monks and the laborers to the quarry one night. As the day dawns, the monks surround the laborers and light candles and chant while the workers quarry the stone. The two guards decide not to attack them, and leave, allowing Philip to continue quarrying stone. A short time later, William visits Waleran to persuade him to convince the king to formally give his family the earlship of Shiring. Waleran agrees, suggesting that the cathedral be moved to Shiring (which would take most of the priory’s lands and income with it, as they were given for the purpose of building the cathedral). Waleran suggests that Archbishop Henry, who can move the cathedral, visit Kingsbridge and observe the lack of progress. Philip hears about the plan and organizes the people of the parish to help dig the foundation on the Whitsunday when the archbishop comes to perform the service. About a thousand people show up, and the archbishop is impressed with the activity, the skill of Tom Builder, and the management of Prior Philip.

William’s father died and he discovered that the family had no money. Rents from the land were down, income from the markets were down. So he went around the countryside hurting, killing, and raping people on accusations of not paying him what they owed. Then he discovers that Philip has started a market at Kingsbridge, with all the people that come on Sunday to help build the cathedral, and is using the profits to fund the cathedral. He tries to argue with Philip that the market is unlicensed, but Philip shouts at him about how he needs to repent of his behavior or risk the fires of Hell. But William is right, so Philip goes to get a license from King Stephen. The king is still fighting Empress Maud, and is besieging a castle in Lincoln. He is not interested in interested in talking to Philip and tries to push him away by suggesting they change clothes and walk out in front of the castle while he inspects the defenses. This is a great risk for Philip, but he takes the chance. The king seems amenable to the idea, until they return and William shows up with 250 men just when the king discovers that Maud’s forces are close to attacking. Stephen’s army loses and Philip is captured. However, his brother is now working for Empress Maud, and rescues him. He presents his case to Maud at the same time that William, who switched to Maud’s side as the battle turned, presents his case for the earlship. Maud is a little impatient and gives Philip the license for a market and William the earlship and orders that they each pay the expensive price of 100 pounds.

Aliena has been prospering as a merchant. She is one of the top wool dealers, and she stumbles across the idea of paying the women in the village to spin the wool into cloth, which she buys from them and then resells. She is a prominent member of the village and is now selling her wool directly to the Flemish merchants that come every year. Philip needs more money for the cathedral, and the idea is floated to have a fleece fair since Maud’s license gives Philip the same rights that Shiring has. At the Shiring fleece fair Philip announces that next year Kingsbridge will hold a fleece fair as well.

During that year Jack continues learning about building cathedrals and develops into an excellent stone carver. He also begins pursuing Aliena and every Saturday they walk in the woods and Jack tells her stories that Ellen has told him (his father was a jongleur). Slowly she discovers that she loves Jack and a romance begins. Aliena had sub-contracted the women of the village to spin cloth for her, but she discovered that people only wanted to buy felted cloth, which required a lot of back-breaking work. Jack invented a way to make a watermill convert circular motion into the up-and-down motion required to pound cloth into felt. He shows it to her, she is excited, and we seem well on our way to another graphic sex scene when Alfred walks in on them. Alfred had proposed to her recently, and she had turned him down quite decisively, and she is embarrassed to be seen like this and hates Jack for exposing her to this shame. Jack is naturally quite confused. Alfred, who has never learned to like Jack, chases him around the cathedral, a bunch of work is destroyed, Philip is quite upset, and Jack is banned from working on the cathedral. Philip does suggest that he could help organize materials, providing he become a monk. Jack, who has never seemed to believe in God, accepts so that he can remain in Kingsbridge. He learns a lot about cathedral building over the next year.

The fleece fair starts with great promise. The day is lovely, and the reader is treated to a bear-vs-dogs fight. Merchants from everywhere have arrived (partly because the Shiring fair was exorbitantly priced) and it looks like much business will be transacted. Aliena had borrowed money to buy more wool than usual, and is underway with preliminary negotiations with the Flemish. About midday William rides up with his men and burns the fair—particularly easy because of the flammability of dry wool—and the town. About 100 people die in the raid, including Tom, whose head was crushed by William’s war horse. Since Aliena’s entire money was tied up in the wool, she is ruined. To make matters worse, her brother Richard, a constant and well-regarded knight by King Stephen’s side, is funded by her wool profits. She feels bound to keep her promise to her father that she would devote her life to the downfall of the Hamleighs, so when Alfred promises to provide her brother with funds, she reluctantly agrees to marry him.

When it dawns on Jack that she really is going to marry Alfred, despite the fact that she will be miserable, he attempts to leave the monastery to talk her out of it, but is arrested and confined for monastic discipline. (Since he is a monk and was disobeying orders.)  His mother, Ellen, swims underneath the cell and enters via a loose stone, having done it many times when Jack’s father was imprisoned there, as we find out. We learn that the foreigner hung at the beginning of the book did not steal the jeweled cup, as was asserted, but was given it, released, then arrested and hung. Ellen shows Jack the way out, and he leaves. He goes to Aliena’s house, they have another graphic sex scene, but Aliena is still set on marrying Alfred. Jack leaves England to go to France to find out who his father was.

At the end of the wedding, Ellen curses the marriage and it turns out that Alfred is never able to make love with Aliena, and makes her sleep on the floor in a spare room. After a few months she discovers that she is pregnant, obviously from her night with Jack, but is able to hide it from Alfred. Meanwhile, building has continued on the church. Alfred suggests that the roof should be of stone, despite some misgivings by older masons, and Philip agrees to it. The church is finished, and during the dedication mass, Aliena ends up giving birth and the roof of the church falls in. Shortly afterward, Ellen urges her to go to France in search of Jack. Somewhat reluctantly, Aliena agrees.

Jack has traveled from France to Spain in search of information about who his father was, without much success. Along the way he works on several cathedrals for a bit, but ends up moving on. He also discovers new architectures, and in Spain, learns about the Arabic mathematicians. He is befriended by a wealthy Christian Arab merchant, Raschid, and has many discussions with him about mathematics. Raschid has a beautiful daughter, too, and subtlely encourages the two of them. At one point he suggests that he could set him up as a house builder. Jack is taken by her, but he would have to give up Aliena and his dream of building a cathedral, and he decides to move on, going to Paris. Aliena, who has been retracing Jack’s steps, ends up at Raschid’s house but gets a cool reception by the mother. The daughter, however, realizes that Jack loves Aliena and secretly tells her that he went to Paris. She goes back to Paris, and while Jack is admiring the new cathedral being built in a light and airy style, he sees her and they are re-united.

Jack works on the cathedral until it is completed. At the dedication ceremonies, the crowd outside is huge and begins turning into a riot. Raschid had given Jack a wooden statue of a woman who weeps. She had stopped weeping when Jack left Spain, but to allow himself and Aliena to escape the crowd, Jack holds her up and says “revere the blessed mother.” The people quickly do, and as he walks into the shadow of the cathedral, the statue begins to weep, which the people take as a miracle, showering him with money. He quickly says that she is on her way to Kingsbridge to build the cathedral there, and the monastery provides a couple monks to accompany him and help raise money along the way.

As he is leaving France, a woman in the town of Cherbourg mistakes him for Jacques Cherbourg, thinking he is a ghost. She is eventually convinced that he is his son, and Jake discovers where his father lived and meets some of his relatives.

At Kingsbridge, Philip accuses Jack of faking the miracles, but when a woman of the village who had been dumb after her husband had died in the collapse of the church, spoke because she felt the statue understood her pain, Philip considered it a miracle despite Jack (who was quite astonished at the miracle). At the discussions to make Jack Master Builder of the cathedral in the new style of France, Brother Remigius, always opposed to Philip, brings up the point that Jack was committing adultery with Aliena, since technically she was married to his brother Alfred (even though the marriage was never consummated). The monks cannot have that, and Jack has to stop living with Aliena if he wants to be Master Builder. Philip compassionately suggests that they can request the annulment of the marriage to the archbishop (asking Bishop Waleran would not be wise), so they would not need to live apart for long.

Jack visits his mother in the forest where she had returned, to find out why the three men had hanged his father. She did not know, but she did say that the three men were the previous prior of Kingsbridge (dead), William Hamleigh’s father (also dead), and Waleran Bigod. Jack travels to the bishops palace to ask him why he hanged his father at the same time that William Hamleigh was petitioning Waleran to attack Kingsbridge again (and kill Jack and Aliena, since he still had not gotten over the insult of not being able to marry Aliena). We learn that Waleran did, indeed, lie about Jacques Cherbourg stealing the cup, and since he desires to get rid of Jack, he acquiesces to William’s plan.

Aliena’s brother Richard finds out about the attack, and Jack and Philip organize a hurried building of a wall around Kingsbridge using the material stockpiled for the cathedral. The wall is completed, although the mortar has not set and it is not very strong. Richard, who cannot earn a living, but is a great military man, organizes the villagers for the fight. The attackers were expecting an easy attack, and even though the wall is not strong, the attackers are quickly rebuffed by the villagers and end up fighting among themselves. After the attack, William still wants his revenge on Jack, and requests Bishop Waleran to oppose the annulment of Aliena’s marriage. Which he does, year after year.

We skip forward seven years. The cathedral is coming along well, except there are cracks in the mortar at the roof because the winds are stronger at the higher elevation. Jack has no solution. More practically, there have been several years of bad harvests and the people are in desperate straits—a young man attempts to rob Philip as he travels protected by another monk and by the knight Richard. During a storm Aliena takes shelter in a local stone church and meets William’s new wife. Quite unsurprisingly, she hates him, but she also is not respected by the servants (being all of fourteen). Aliena teaches her how to manage the servants, for which she is grateful. The storm, unfortunately, devastated the village and there would be no crop this year, either. Prices are rising due to the scarcity, and the masons demand a raise from the priory. While the negotiations are happening, it has transpired that William’s mother died, but he did not realized it and had not understood her request for a priest, so she had died without her sins forgiven and would spend time in purgatory. Waleran suggests that the time could be shortened if William would build a cathedral in Shiring. His plan is to build a cathedral and then ask the archdeacon, Peter of Warehem (who did not learn grace from Philip’s appointment and who hates him) to move the center of the diocese from Kingsbridge to Shiring. But that’s fine with William, who would profit from the cathedral being in Shiring. (We also find out that the peasants are so terrified that they gave him their grain in rent, even though they are living on acorns, and many have died, but William does not care because the higher prices for wheat compensate for the lack of it.)  Alfred, who still hates Jack, suggests that he can bring masons if they are payed more. He quietly informs the lodge of Williams offer, who, quite surprisingly demand double-pay in the meeting with Philip. Jack discovers that they are leaving to work for Alfred and William and feels quite betrayed.

A band of outlaws attacks Kingsbridge and in the aftermath, Aliena suggests that Richard organize them into an arm and attack William’s lands, to help fulfill their vow to their father. Richard succeeds expertly, even stealing the grain from the mill in which William was visiting to collect the rents from the miller! William is outraged. Brother Remigius happens to overhear the information that the outlaws are at Sally’s quarry and he sells it to William for the price of a monastery of his own. William takes his men to the quarry and finds ... only Ellen who delivers the news that Maud’s brother, Henry, has invaded. If Henry wins, William may go down with Stephen.

Henry does win, and they reach a compromise that lands given by the usurper (Stephen) will be restored to their rightful owners when Stephen dies. Aliena, who has been heartbroken over the way that William is mismanaging the estate, does not want to wait that long. She realizes that William’s wife owes her a favor, and doesn’t like William, anyway. She convinces her to surrender the castle (it will rid her of William, whom she hates), and hatches a plan for Richard to enter the castle while William’s wife is delivering the news about Henry early in the morning—a raid that is similar to how her father lost the castle to William’s father. The plan succeeds, barely.

Remigius is left destitute, because William was no longer earl and will not give him land for a monastery. Eventually he is found by Philip searching through garbage. He offers to bring him back to the monastery in a picture of Jesus’ command to love your enemies, although he would never hold an office. The sheriff of Shiring dies and Waleran suggests that William buy the position of sheriff, which would cost him probably about 100 pounds (a large amount of money). While Jack is inventing flying buttresses to fix the problem of cracks due to the winds, Alfred attempts to rape Aliena, but Richard comes into the house and kills Alfred. William, as sheriff, wants to hang Richard, but Philip suggests that perhaps he should atone for them in the Holy Land, where there is currently a Christian state. This he does gladly, fighting there for many years until he eventually dies. Now that he is the earl, Aliena is to rule in his place, which she does expertly. Since she is now a widow, she and Jack are finally able to get married.

After another five years or so the cathedral is progressing very impressively. Jack’s daughter has become a stained glass artist and the windows are widely admired. Tom Builder’s abandoned baby, named Jonathan, has been taken care of by Philip and the priory. He has grown up into a skillful administrator, and Philip appointed him as sub-prior. Waleran accuses Prior Philip of fornication and nepotism before an ecclesiastical court asserting that Philip had a mistress in his first appointment (the cell in the middle of nowhere). Given Philip’s obvious complete lack of interest in women, the charge is obviously ridiculous. However, Archdeacon Peter of Warehem, still hates Philip, so it is unlikely that he will get off. Jack takes Jonathan to find Ellen in the forest again and persuades her to explain what happened when she found the baby. She agrees to come to the hearing for Jonathan, despite her dislike for Prior Philip. Ellen testifies that Jonathan is Tom Builder’s son, much to the astonishment of everyone. Waleran insists he does not believe her, since there are no corroborating witnesses. Ellen gets really mad, and accuses Waleran of perjury, explaining that he lied about Jacques Sharebourg stole a jeweled cup, which she knows because he was the father of Jack. (This revelation is also greeted with shock.)  Archdeacon Peter asks why a priest (Waleran was just an ambitious priest then), a monk, and a minor noble would do this. Brother Remigius says that the former prior of Kingsbridge did it to gain land in an attempt to shore up finances. This corroborates Ellen’s testimony, and convicts Waleran; court is closed unceremoniously. Later we find out that Jacques Sharebourg was murdered because he was the only survivor of the ship with the first King Henry’s son on it, but the ship was sunk on purpose. Waleran became archdeacon and jump-started his career, William Hamleigh’s father received a lot of land, and the Kingsbridge Priory got some useful land as well.

Waleran schemes to get himself moved to bishop of Lincoln to be near the king and away from the scandal, and to get Archdeacon Peter appointed bishop of Kingsbridge. This would be terrible for the people, since Peter is a cold pharisee. The only way to combat it is for Philip to persuade Thomas Becket to return from exile, because he had been appointed Archbishop of Canterbury and would have the authority to prevent Peter’s appointment. Thomas is persuaded to return, but William hears the king express frustration with Thomas, since Thomas is opposing the king’s attempts to control the church. William and his conspirators murder Thomas, but Philip, who happens to be with the Archbishop, starts a populist outrage which culminates in the conspirators being hanged and the king being ceremonially whipped by church officials.


There are quite a number of excellent elements about The Pillars of the Earth. The three separate story lines that seemingly accidentally converge is intruiging and very well done. As the stories progress the reader periodically gains insight into the complete situation, the untold context in which the stories are set. In fact, the plot is the best piece of the book. The three initial story lines continue to weave in and out: the story of Prior Philip (the church), the story of Tom Builder (the commoners), and the the story of Aliena (the nobles). Against these are set two antagonists: the Hamleigh family and Bishop Waleran. The characters influence each other and are necessary for the prosperity of the others in their plot-group. Without Prior Philip’s management, wisdom, and resources, Tom’s family cannot prosper, nor can Aliena become self-sufficient. Without Tom’s (and later Jack’s) skill in building, the cathedral would not exist that gives Philip his influence. The Aliena plot line is mostly to show the gross evil of the Hamleighs, although she does help Philip, and as Jack’s love interest, she merges Tom and her plot lines after Tom dies. Likewise, Waleran and the Hamleighs need each other—Waleran needs William’s knights to influence the warring rulers, and William needs Waleran’s ability to scheme. Over all of this lies the overarching mystery raised in the first short prologue: who was hanged, who were the priest, the noble, and the monk, and why was he hanged? The novel weaves these plots and subplots and subplots of subplots together expertly.

At times, however, the plot does become a little predictable. Basically there is a period of oppression, from which the characters rise through wisdom, hard work, skill, and (in the case of Philip) God. This is followed by a period of prosperity, at which point you can be sure that William Hamleigh, usually instigated by Waleran, is about to mess something up again. After a few hundred pages this gets a little old and you start wondering why Ken Follett is going through the effort to tell this. Sure, the characters’ lives are interesting and intruiging, but what is the point? Why have these characters been singled out? Fortunately, the story is worth reading without answers to these questions, because Follett gives no guidance until 95% of the way through, at which point you suspect that perhaps the point is the struggle between the powerful and the powerless. At the very end, when the church, with no physical power, triumphs over the King, and when the inherent evil of William Hamleigh and Waleran Bigod finally destroys them, we finally see that the story is about the triumph of Good. A worthy theme, but a few more sign-posts along the way would be helpful.

I was impressed at the treatment of the Church, which showed an understanding of how true Christians think. Like true Christians, Philip seeks God’s glory over his own, and trusts God to provide (which He does). He also struggles with God and adversity when the fleece fair is burned and the cathedral collapses, attributes the misfortune to outrunning God with his personal ambition—a very biblical notion and one which was probably true in this case. I was particularly impressed with Philip’s grace toward Remigius who betrayed him, an excellent illustration of not only loving your enemies, but of Christ, who redeemed his enemies through the Cross. From the flavor of the other characters I suspect that Follett himself does not follow God, so his understanding of Christians is even more impressive, since the popular view of Christian thought reflects little understanding of the principles taught in the Bible.

However, the rest of the characters seemed to have a very modern viewpoint. Aliena is the competent modern woman. Ellen and Jack view God as outdated (much like modern society). Ellen and Tom see the marriage as a mere ritual of the church. While I’m sure that these things did exist, it seems unlikely that in a society where everyone was steeped in Heaven and Hell, and in the necessity of the rituals of the church to arrive there,1 that people would regard the church is irrelevant. The major characters view Philip’s religion as something for him, but not useful for them; this strikes me as a very modern view, and it is very jarring. In contrast, the Brother Cadfael mysteries had a consistent reverence for God throughout the novels. Whether or not you actually choose to revere God yourself, if you are writing a book set in a time where everyone does revere God, your book should reflect that.

The worst feature of the novel is the X-rated sex scenes. They are completely unnecessary and the plot would have been much more elegantly expressed with a discreet overview. Furthermore, it seems like Follett’s way of expressing that two people love each other is that they have lots of (graphic) sex. So you’re supposed to infer that Ellen and Tom truly love each other because, even though his wife just died and Ellen knows nothing about him, she throws herself on him and they have passionate sex within a couple hours of meeting each other. Uh huh. A fine description of lust, but hardly a picture of committed love. The fact that Ellen gives up her comfortable life in the forest, where she is able to provide for herself, to travel with Tom who has little history of providing for his family is far more an act of love, yet no mention is made of her emotions; it is just sort of mentioned as the state of things.

The Pillars of the Earth has excellent plot, well-developed characters, and an intruiging storyline. Unfortunately it is marred by confusion about the purpose of the book, a jarring injection of modern thought into the main characters, and graphic scenes that would make an R-rating seem tame if this were a movie. The fortunately, if you skip over the sex scenes, the book is still entertaining and engrossing. Although it has been a strong seller for the past 20 years, it is not a 100-year book in my opinion, because the strengths are offset by some serious shortcomings. However, if a friend buys a copy for you (thanks Darryl!), accept it with pleasure and enjoy the plot, which is excellently done.
Review: 7
The plot is well done and is about a 10. The modern viewpoint is really jarring, although Prior Philip was done very well, especially for an author who does not appear to espouse the Christian faith himself. That unrelenting modern viewpoint is the major thing that drops the book out of the 100-year category, although the sex scenes help with that, too.

Literary thoughts

  • The interleaving of plots was well-planned. The characters also met in those chance occurrences that are how the lives of real people interleave. The plot is a great example of the use of subplots.
  • The theme of love requiring pursuit was well-done in the case of Aliena and Jack, although classically it is the man who pursues the woman, not the other way around (as modern movies seem to do it). The angst of unattainable love was well-written.
  • Sometimes it seemed like Follett told us exactly what the character was thinking, instead of letting the reader come to that conclusion by observing their actions. Of course, many times it is necessary. And sometimes a character’s thoughts revealed other characters, as in this quotation from William Hamleigh: “Hope rose in his breast, but he suppressed it fiercely: where Waleran was involved, high hopes often ended in frustration and disappointment.” (p. 878)  In general, it seems like less is more. Don’t say what the character is thinking, show it.
  • Mysteries were resolved at a good pace. There were short-range, medium-range, and long-range mysteries, all revealed at an even pace.
  • The reader should understand the general purpose of the book early on—why is this story important?—although the specific purpose may be gradually revealed. Short stories can get away with the reader being confused (in fact, it’s even attractive in short doses, like a short story), but you can’t leave the reader wondering what the purpose is for 950 pages.


Tom BuilderMuscular, conscientious man, and a good builder. Tactful. Stands up for what he believes. Worked on a cathedral once and aspires to build a beautiful cathedral himself; his design is well-received. Tries hard to provide for his family. Loves his first wife, but has more of a connection with Ellen.
Agnes [Builder]Plain woman, but part of Tom’s life. Dies in childbirth early in the book.
Alfred BuilderTom and Agnes’ first child. Not particularly intelligent, and is not a great builder, although competent at simple stuff. Hates Jack, apparently out of spite, and does everything he can to get at him, including marrying Aliena.
JonathanTom and Agnes’ son. Tom abandons him, then regrets it, but in that time Ellen has found him and taken him to the monastic cell. He is raised by the monks. Skilled administrator, like Philip. Tom know that he is his son and discreetly spends a lot of time with him.
EllenBeautiful, resourceful, independent woman. Tends to live by herself in the woods. Well-educated, and teaches Jack French and French ballads she learned from Jacques. Leaves Tom for a year because Tom refused to see that Alfred bullied Jack.
JackEllen and Jacques’ son. Slightly resents his mother’s relationship with Tom at the beginning, because she is less available for him. He is constantly bullied by Alfred. He is excellent at carving stone. Also aspires to build cathedrals, not because of the glory of God but because they are beautiful. Intelligent. Consistently loves Aliena. Gives up a promising relationship because of Aliena and because he wants to seek his passion of building cathedrals. Is skillful at manipulating events.
AlienaDaughter of an earl. Beautiful, willful, independent, resourceful. Very good at business. Raped by William Hamleigh. Learns to love Jack, but when Alfred walks in on an intimate moment with Jack she feels shamed and blames Jack (without telling him). Spends much of her life trying to fulfill a vow to her father to take vengeance on the Hamleighs and ends up marrying Alfred to provide money for Richard to help fulfill the vow. Ends up realizing she loves Jack and seeks him out, but almost leaves him out of frustration she cannot have her marriage annulled. They have two children, and do end up happily married.
RichardAliena’s younger brother. Good at fighting and organizing fighting, but not at making a living.
PhilipOrphaned when two knights kill his parents but a monk saves him and his brother. Loves God, lives for the glory of God. Tends to be on the strict side, but does know how to show grace and mercy. Wise and resourceful, and is very good at organizing affairs—turns around Kingsbridge Priory’s miserable financial conditions in only a year. Aspires to build a cathedral because it glorifies God.
Brother RemigiusMonk at Kingsbridge Priory who aspired to be Prior when the previous prior died, and has held a grudge against Philip ever since, constantly opposing him and subtly undermining him. Ends up overhearing the location of Richard’s men who are raiding William, and betrays Kingsbridge, to his demise. Is accepted back into the monastery, and has a true change of heart, remaining a humble monk with gratitude. His testimony aids Philip in his trial.
William HamleighThe main antagonist. He is rejected as a suitor by Aliena in no uncertain terms and ever after hates her, yet lusts after her, which drives much of what he does. He is also constantly thinking that his honor has been slighted, and he uses force to show the peasants that he is in charge. Seems to like hurting people, but fears going to Hell. Not particularly brave—switches sides in the battle between King Stephen and Empress Maud when it looks like Stephen is losing. Also not very smart; generally does not see the purpose of Waleran’s oblique suggestions until it is specifically pointed out. Ends up being hanged because of his part in killing Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket.
Regan HamleighWilliam’s mother. Consistently described as very ugly, but she is sharp-minded, unlike her husband and son. Generally grasps Waleran’s points before he is finished and often suggests improvements. Will double-cross people, including Waleran, if it serves her purposes. Dies without having her sins confessed because William didn’t realize what she was saying, and because he was afraid of her.
WaleranAspires to personal greatness. As a priest, he aspires to the Archbishopric of Canterbury. He is conniving and plays the political game very well. Generally offers something as incentives for someone’s cooperation, but neglects to mention things that will render the incentives useless. Uses his ability to forgive William’s heinous crimes, 2 to manipulate William. Also uses his ability to move William and his knights to shift his loyalties for his own personal gain. Hates Philip for double-crossing him and is opposed to Philip’s plans.

1  According to the Bible, we need only to repent of our sins, trust in Christ’s death as payment for our sins, and follow God. The rituals of the church are not necessary, but that was the popular understanding in medieval times.
2  One thing that bothered me was that Waleran would give William absolution whenever it suited him, yet the book did not show that this is in complete contradiction to the Biblical view in James and 1 John that one cannot continue sinning and expect to go to Heaven. (On the other hand, Prior Philip makes it clear what the sins are, and does not give absolution without repentance.)