Why 'The Pillars of the Earth' enthralls readers, sustains its popularity

by John Monk

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

5 December 2007


In 2000, I was in the small gift shop next to London’s Westminster Abbey, in a corner of the store that held a few shelves of books for sale. Picking up a paperback, I noticed the author was Ken Follett, the guy who writes spy novels such as “Eye of the Needle.”

The title of the book—it weighed a pound or so and was almost 1,000 pages—was “The Pillars of the Earth.”

“Weird,” I thought, that a spy novelist’s books should be on sale amid religious artifacts in one of the great cathedrals of the world.

I read the first sentence:

The small boys came early to the hanging.

“Wow,” I thought.

A great book usually begins with a great first sentence.

You know: Call me Ishmael. Or: Old Marley was dead as a door nail. Or: I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong hills.

Mediocre books usually have mediocre first sentences. But nearly all great books have great first sentences. By great book, I mean a “whopping good read.” It might be a classic—a lot of classics are good reads—but it might not.

You might be tone-deaf to first sentences. But I’ve never been disappointed with a book that had a great first sentence. It usually says something very simple, yet manages to be full of you-are-there-and-hang-on drama. It says: dear reader, we’re in the middle of an adventure. You come, too.

The small boys came early to the hanging.


I bought “Pillars,” which was published 11 years earlier, wondering why I’d never heard of it. After all, I have prowled libraries and bookstores since boyhood. I’d missed this one.

And it was a great read, with an unusual history.

Turns out, Follett years ago became obsessed with cathedrals and wanted to write a historical novel where the building of a cathedral was the “spine” of the story. His publishers, however, thought a cathedral book would bomb. They wanted him to behave himself and keep on writing money-making spy novels.

But what do publishers know? A writer has to follow his or her heart. That’s another sign of a great book: A writer writes it because he or she must, no matter what others say.

Since its publication in 1989, “The Pillars of the Earth” has sold millions of copies around the world. It has been translated into dozens of languages. It makes a lot of money.

I’ve read it two or three times. Here’s why:

  • It’s riveting storytelling. Sure it’s about the Middle Ages and the building of a cathedral. But Follett, after all, is a spy novelist. There is all the intrigue, murder, sex, love, double- and triple-dealing you could ever want. It depicts struggles between art and ignorance, justice and evil, men and women, religion and spirituality.
  • It is the mother of all sagas. The main characters include kings, nobles, monks, common folk, bandits and members of different families, their sons and daughters and relations, of different generations, all loving and hating and interacting with each other.
  • It’s time travel. Follett is one of these writers who has the ability to set you down in an imaginary world so real you think you are there. Say hello to the 12th century, a world without plumbing, only the rudest notions of democracy, and without a host of things we take for granted. But it’s a world where marvels such as the building of the great cathedrals of France and England were taking place.
  • It’s entertainment mixed with education. When Follett writes about the kings of England and how the church held power over government and culture, or how cathedrals came to be built, you can’t help but marvel at how far we—the descendants of this primitive and stratified early British society—have come. If you have ever seen wondrous Westminster Abbey or Chartres, this book will give you a peek—without making it seem like teaching—into how these miraculous structures came to be created.
  • It has great villains. Get set to meet the cruel noble William, a rapist, murderer and felon par excellence, and the sly Archdeacon Peter, the “worst kind of Christian,” who insisted on strict punishment for anyone he thinks is a sinner yet ignored the compassion of Christianity, “denied its mercy, flagrantly disobeyed its ethic of love and openly flouted the gentle laws of Jesus.”
  • It has wonderful heroes and heroines, including the beautiful and intelligent Aliena, who struggles through obstacles to take her rightful place, and Jack the Builder, who figures out how to do the architectural feats necessary to erect a vast cathedral.

Enough said.

It’s such a good, truthful book that I’m surprised the book banners haven’t crawled out of their holes and started burning it. After all, it does contain a few sex scenes.

The book banners have time. “The Pillars” will be around a long while.

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