“…In both cases, weakness and scruples had defeated strength and ruthlessness. William felt he would never understand it.” (p.908, The Pillars of the Earth)
Brutal. It’s the only word for the actions of some of the powerful, arrogant, ambitious characters in Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth. There were scenes that were devastating to read—Aliena’s rape; the death of the miller as the knights pulled down his mill, bringing, inexorably, the heavy millstone down upon the miller. The death scene of Thomas Becket.
Oh, my God; people can be so evil.
Yet the story takes place in the framework of a cathedral, literally—the beginning of Follett’s work leads directly to the beginning of the Kingsbridge building project. As the foundation is laid, the relationships are forged—loyalties, enmities, uneasy alliances—that will shape the story.
What a savage time, in many ways—the 1100’s—and yet it brought us beauty, the incredible architectural breakthroughs of the soaring cathedrals of Europe.
As hopeless and degrading as life is for many of the characters in Pillars, there’s always sunlight breaking through a tiny crack. Some men treat women in bestial ways; but some women rise above the times to become successful. The Church condones unforgiveable acts; but some of its own lead lives of such integrity and goodness that I can see what the Church is meant to be.
At my own church this week, we are talking about forgiveness. We struggle to understand why a loving God allows acts of unspeakable cruelty to happen—especially to children, the disabled, the defenseless. We talk about free will. I think what Pastor Steve is leading us to see is this: a just God does not condone or preordain human acts of aggression and brutality. But God creates the possibility of learning, healing, and redemption when the hard things happen.
Redemption happens in The Pillars of the Earth. So many people—Aliena, Jack, Phillip, Martha—are forever changed by the things that they have endured—conscious abuses of power that hurt them irrevocably. But they do not give in to the desperate need for revenge; instead, they work to create.
And so an earldom is restored to a just ruler, who leads the people dependent upon him (her) to prosperity. The priory, once lackluster and spiritless, becomes a place of grace and sanctity. Inconsequential Knightsbridge becomes the Bishop’s seat. And from the literal ashes of a burned wooden church rises a phenomenal cathedral.
The Pillars of the Earth, just shy of 1,000 pages is a sweeping read, but worth the investment of time and the endurance of difficult scenes. This is truly a triumphant book.
Please see http://www.ken-follett.com for more about this book (which has been made into a mini-series) and its author.