The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

pillarsNovel Facts:

  • Published: 1989
  • Publisher: Macmillan
  • Genres: Historical Fiction
  • Followed by: World Without End
  • Pages in Paperback: 983 (literally a brick of a book)
  • Favorite quote (in this case a quote that can summarize the heart of the novel): In both cases, weakness and scruples had defeated strength and ruthlessness.
  • Goodreads
  • Amazon/Barnes and Noble/Book Depository
  • threeandahalf


As a new age dawns in England’s twelfth century, the building of a mighty Gothic cathedral sets the stage for a story of intrigue and power, revenge and betrayal. It is in this rich tapestry, where kings and queens are corrupt, that the common man shows eternal promise– and one majestic creation will bond them forever…

That is one of the most vague plot descriptions ever and I want you to get a sense of the novel so I’ll go into a bit more detail. The novel revolves around the building of a cathedral (don’t click away just yet I promise its more interesting than it sounds). The novel follows several protagonists, some good and others bad. Set behind the backdrop of medieval England an epic adventure takes place, a tale that contains true love, mortal enemies and the good guys conquering the bad guys. (Okay so my plot description wasn’t much better but give me points for trying).

Review on the Characters:

Tom Builder- First I have to say of Ken Follett that his character development is unmatched; no character is 100% bad or good. So when the reader starts with Tom Builder we see a real man, good but with short comings. He dreams of building a cathedral and risked the starvation of his family for that dream. The reader can’t help but admire him as he is a sensible man (except for his stubbornness) who is always thinking of what his actions will cost him. The infuriating part of this character was his blind spot for his son Alfred. Alfred grew into a monster and Tom either didn’t see it or chose not too but it was beyond frustrating the way he indulged his son at the cost to others.

Prior Philip– On the surface there is certainly nothing to complain about Philip. He is the character that unites all the others always saving the day with his practical minded ways. However, I found that I was often frustrated with Philip as he constantly had to re-explain his reasons to the reader even though they were always obvious. Literally, someone would ask him a question and in his mind he would go over all the ways he could respond and the possible outcomes; I don’t how the other characters didn’t get frustrated with his slow responses (oh yeah, because their fictional characters).

William Hamleigh- This might be the one character that Follet forgot to include any good qualities. He was very insecure (I think due to how he was brought up by his awful mother) which caused him to constantly try to prove himself. He was not extremely clever and but was made dangerous by his ally Bishop Waleran who was clever. Even though William was an ugly character (did truly awful things) you couldn’t help but watch with fascination the way his brain worked. His whole life revolved around his obsession with Aliena- every choice he made somehow had a connection, however little, with Aliena. So again, I applaud Follett for his character development, even though William didn’t have any good qualities he still held your attention.

Jack Jackson- If you read this book there is no doubt you will fall for Jack. He is the little guy who had to make up what he lacked in strength with brains. Jack follows the pattern Follett has laid out among the other characters: Prior Philip, Aliena and (somewhat) Tom Builder in the sense that it is always better to be smarter than bigger. Before I said that Prior Philip brings about the union of all the other characters but it could be said that it is in fact Jack who is responsible for the union. Another note about Follett’s characters, every decision one makes always affects the rest. (It’s like Six Degrees). The reason most girls will fall for Jack is his love for Aliena. When he sees her for the first time as an 11-year-old boy, he falls in love right on the spot. While Aliena, 5 years older, takes some time before she realizes that he is indeed the one. Jack is often described as the hero of the story but I wouldn’t say that. There are too many protagonists who all, I believe, contribute equally to the storyline.

Aliena- She truly is a marvel to read. Her whole life is turned upside down in the beginning of the book and then an event that will change her forever takes place, hardening her character. If you want an example of girl power, look no further. For medieval times Aliena sure has a handle on things as she makes a new life for her and her brother Richard. Whats amazing about Aliena is her spirit. She can walk into an unfamiliar household and immediately take control, a natural-born leader. Also, she is constantly kicked down by the obsessive William Hamleigh (stalker) but she always bounces back stronger than before. I was only infuriated about one thing with Aliena and its a decision she made about Jack towards the end of the novel, a decision that just didn’t match her strong-willed character; but I won’t give it away as most of you know, I hate spoilers!

Review on the story:

The story was literally (do I say that too often?) an epic adventure. It covers the span of 50-60 years and Follett does a great job. The story just surrounds you because of Folletts historical research. You delve into medieval culture: most people only owned what they could carry on their back and the servants and workers of lords and earls usually all slept in a big hall together (and were not afraid to, ahem, get freaky). However, with that said the story did get frustrating. Every single time the good guys seemed to be winning the bad guys would do something to frustrate their efforts. I understand that everything can’t be resolved in the middle of a book but its like watching someone build a sandcastle 30 times and every time before they can finish someone knocks it down, it’s not fun to watch.

Review on the writing:

This is one of the reasons why this novel is not for everyone. Follett’s writing is good but it makes for a slow read. I believe books are divided into two different types of writing: a thin style and a thick style. The thin style is generally a fast read, you can practically inhale the novel, and is usually found in the young adult genre. A thick writing style is generally a slower read, you have to almost tread through the words. Both are fine types of writing and I wouldn’t say one is better than the other but a thick style of writing is definitely not for everybody and is one of the things you should consider before picking up this book.


There is a reason that this book is a best-seller, there is a reason that they made it into a mini series: because it is an incredible tale. Generally, when you see the novel is about the building of a cathedral the novel doesn’t sound appealing but it truly draws you in from the beginning. Filled with so many (too many) twists and turns it will keep you wondering even 20 pages from the ending how will things be resolved?

However, as I said before, this novel is not for everyone. I believe you need to be mildly interested in the time period and you must have the patience to tread through the 900 page book. If both are applicable to you, then you should pick up this book today and read the story of a life time!


Overall Rating:


P.S.- My next read is Marked by P. C. Cast and Kristin Cast (I promise to get through it fast this time)!

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6 thoughts on “The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

  1. I read this after the recommendation of a coworker. I *never* thought I’d really get into a book set in this time period revolving around the building of a cathedral. I loved loved loved this book and recommend it to non-believers as often as possible.

    Loved your review. Well thought out and true to the book. Nice job!

    • Totally agree, when my mom recommended it to me I wondered what could be good about a 900 page book revolving around the building of a cathedral, and it turns out there are many many good things. Thanks for reading!

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