Pillars of the Earth was a bestselling novel by Ken Follett, published in 1989. I read it a few years ago, and it was a truly epic undertaking; probably close to a thousand pages. It bucked convention, killing main characters (before George R.R. Martin made it cool) and allowing horrible things to happen to good people. I was simultaneously infuriated and impressed, recognizing that the author was making a point about the lawlessness and injustice of medieval England.
I finished it just in time for the 2007 miniseries, which featured a few now-familiar faces: Hayley Atwell (Captain America), Eddie Redmayne (Les Miserables), and Rufus Sewell (Knight’s Tale). I had a hard time appreciating the adaptation as I’d just spent several weeks with these characters; in particular I remember my annoyance at our introduction to Atwell’s character, who comically brains her unwanted suitor with a candelabra (they’re missing the whole point of the character!!! Growth! Development! Transformation!! ARGGHH) BUT I digress.
The sequel, World Without End, was also published in 2007. I still have it sitting on my shelf; I just couldn’t bring myself to read it. I thoroughly enjoyed the first, but a tome of that weight requires a degree of dedication I just couldn’t (and still can’t) muster. And I must say I’m glad I never read it, because I can’t imagine I would have enjoyed the 2012 TV adaptation nearly as much if I had.
The 8-part miniseries spans a few decades in the lives of the inhabitants of Kingsbridge, a fictional medieval town in England whose lifeblood is a cathedral – the building of which was the central drama of Pillars of the Earth, set centuries before. The historical setting is provided by the civil war which toppled King Edward II, and left his treacherous wife Queen Isabella of France ruling for her son King Edward III. While England descends into war and the specter of the Black Death looms, the citizens of Kingsbridge struggle through personal, familial and political turmoil as exacerbated by the machinations of villainous lords and so-called holy men.
The sense of continuity with Pillars of the Earth was remarkable; I felt like I was instantly re-immersed in the same world I’d left years before. And I can say one thing with relative certainty: Unlike the mannerly courtships of the 19th century or the sonnets of the 16th, this story will not inspire anyone to pine for a 14th century romance (scruffy young builders notwithstanding).
I found myself thinking throughout the entire 8-part series that Ken Follett must have been something of an inspiration for Stieg Larsson, author of “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (or as it’s aptly titled in Swedish, “Men Who Hate Women”). This world is utterly miserable for women. I was often annoyed by the gratuitous and near-constant threat of sexual violence against women, and found myself wondering if it was simply a shock tactic or a means to create cheap drama (or more revoltingly, titillation). And maybe it was. Or maybe it was a highly effective way of showcasing the horrifying futility of this landscape, where sociopathic, narcissistic, and/or pathologically insecure men (along with the occasional woman!) are able to seize power from compliant masses and do whatever they please. The tragedy of the herd mentality and mass inaction strikes home often in this story – all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.
Another similarity between Follett and Larsson is their interpretation of strong women. Like Lisbeth Salander, many of the women in World Without End suffer unspeakable acts, but maintain their strength and spirit in spite of it. Some of them later achieve great success, happiness and in some cases (supposedly) satisfying revenge. This was also the pattern in Pillars of the Earth, and just as with the original I found that revenge just wasn’t enough. I don’t care if the villain dies, or is humiliated, or brought down low — he triumphed for YEARS. Vengeance doesn’t wipe the slate clean, or give you back the time you’ve lost. Why do you let them do these horrible things Follett, WHY??
But whatever my visceral reaction to the events onscreen, I admit without hesitation that the story completely drew me in. I cared about these peoples’ lives, and I cared about the world they lived in. My previous knowledge of the era was mostly limited to Doomsday Book
(AWESOME book about a historian from the future who time travels to medieval England to study the Black Death OMG READ IT #nerdalert) which led me to wikiwalk
across the 14th century, the genealogy of the Kings Edward, the epidemiology of the Black Plague (anyone know of a great book on that? Like The Great Influenza
for bubos?), etc.
Overall, World Without End is an incredibly engrossing and highly satisfying 8 hours of Netflixing, particularly if you’ve just finished House of Cards and are looking for a little more political intrigue. The final episode in particular left me shocked, inspired and emotionally spent. I may actually be motivated to pick up that book now…