Sunday, September 9, 2007

Ken Follett: The Pillars of the Earth

I had read numerous thrillers from Ken Follett, and then came across the book, 'The Pillars of the Earth'. This seemed a bit boring, after all this was a novel about the goings-on in the 12the century, and seemed to do with the fights between the claimants to the throne, as well as the trials and tribulations of some other people involved. But then I decided to start reading the book, and was left spell-bound. Once I finished reading the book, it seemed like an epic, integrating the lives of various claimants to power, a common but intelligent prior, penniless children of a dispossessed former earl, the current earl who is a cruel and ruthless person, and some members of the church who are as political as anybody else. Throw in the closing fight between the king and the Archbishop of Canterbury, and you have a novel set over a period of 60 years, and very gripping. The novel also covers the change in architectural styles, with the tall, sweeping, big-windowed Gothic style churches coming into prominence.
It has a number of characters, many of them with many strong characteristics, and yet none of them are perfect. All of them have their own weaknesses, and even the historical character of Thomas Becket has his own political game to play in his fight for political supremacy over the King. This is a fight that goes onto this day, where the clergy fights for political supremacy over the people's representatives, with the most profound example being Iran where a theocratic council (representing God) have supremacy over the elected people.
The novel is about a period called The Anarchy in England's history where there was a contest for the throne between Empress Maud and King Stephen, being supported by their own sets of Earls and other noblemen (all due to the sinking of the White Ship which carried the Crown Prince and other noblemen in an attempt to kill the crown prince). The sinking left a survivor, who is one of the subtle points of this movie, since a plot to get him executed for theft suborned a high Church official, a prior and an earl, a story revealed much later in a trial.
The novel starts with the story of a stonemason and builder, Tom Builder who is now without a job due to the breakup of the engagement between the Lady Aliena and the cruel and cold William Hamleigh (whom Lady Aliena turned down). Tom wanders around the forest with his son Alfred and daughter Martha. and his pregnant wife. His wife dies after giving birth, but since he cannot bring up the child, he leaves the child on his wife's grave (where the child is found by the main hero of the book, the prior Philip and brought up as Jonathan). He later meets and accepts Ellen along with her son, the red-haired Jack and settles down in Kingsbridge where Philips wants to build a cathedral. Now building a cathedral takes a large sum of money, and has a side effect of attracting a market which in turn generates revenue for the whole area, but the building of a cathedral also needs permission.
And now comes bad times for Lady Aliena and her brother Richard. They have supported Empress Maud and are considered disloyal to King Stephen, and William Hamleigh attacks the castle, arrests the earl, and rapes Aliena by threatening Richard. They are penniless, but Aliena over a period of time shows business instincts by starting to buy and sell wool, and teams up with Prior Philip to set up a market, and also falls in love with the odd Jack.
When things were starting to look up, William again turns criminal, burning the wool market, and the poor-again Aliena agrees to marry Alfred. The marriage however could not succeed, since Ellen turns up and curses the marriage. Philip's plans for the cathedral collapse when Alfred puts a stone roof instead of a wooden roof and the building collapses. Also, Aliena gives birth to a red-haired son, obviously Jack's son; and obviously Alfred turns her out. When Ellen gets to hear of this, she seeks Aliena out and tells her to go look for Jack in Europe.
Jack is in the continent, and learns how to build the wide, sweeping churches of the new style, and this is where Aliena meets him with her son. Unfortunately, Philip cannot marry them since she is still married to Alfred. After a period of time, things again change when the Philip-hater and extremely ambitious Bishop Waleran Bigod teams up with the Hamleighs to cause the downfall of the Kingsbridge market so that they can build the dream cathedral of the Hamleighs at Shiring that they had to stop because of lack of money. Aliena had taken the help of William's wife to take the castle for Richard from within. Alfred tries to rape Aliena, but is killed by Richard; however, since legally Alfred was married to Aliena, this is treated as a murder, and Richard is only safe with Philip (Richard is being chased by Willian Hamleigh who had been appointed as the sheriff). In a compromise, Richard agrees to go for the crusade, and going for a holy war will absolve him of the murder.
Things go on, while Jack has built an extremely fabulous cathedral in the new style, new to England that seems light and airy. And then one of the most important historical sequences happens, where King Henry, tired of his never-ending struggle for ultimate supremacy England instigates his knights to get rid of Becket. William joins them, and in a pretty accurate portrayal, Thomas is killed. Philips seizes the moment, and converts the confused crowd into a crowd obsessed with the 'martyring' of Becket, and into a mass movement that the king cannot even think of controlling. In one of the most important moments (closing moments), Henry atones for his crime of having contributed to the death of Thomas Becket by getting a ritual caning from the monks - an ultimate supremacy of the spiritual over the royalty.

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