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Literature / The Pillars of the Earth

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An epic novel, published in 1989 and set in 12th century England, The Pillars of the Earth is the chronicle of a man, his family, their enemies and the extraordinary dream that consumes them all. It is by far the most popular story Ken Follett, mainly an author of thrillers and various spy novels, has ever written.

Tom Builder is a poor stonemason who dreams of building something that will be his legacy and which will sustain his family for the rest of their lives. Philip, the Prior of Kingsbridge, fights to build a cathedral there, against the wishes of his Bishop, his Lord and all manner of political enemies.

The Gothic Cathedral at Kingsbridge, it turns out, becomes more important than anyone imagines. Woven throughout this deeply personal drama are the civil wars between King Stephen and Queen Maud, and later the machinations of King Henry II and the priest Thomas Becket.


He followed it up with two sequels and one prequel many years later: World Without End, which picks up with the characters' descendants in the same village in 1327, A Column Of Fire, beginning in 1558, and The Evening And The Morning, set in the tenth century. Also adapted, along with World Without End, into a popular Euro Board Game, and a Video Game developed by Daedalic Entertainment and were released in 3 parts.

A miniseries starring Ian McShane, Rufus Sewell, Matthew Macfadyen, David Oakes, Eddie Redmayne as Jack and Hayley Atwell as Aliena ran on the Starz network in July and August 2010.


The original novel contains examples of:

  • Annoying Younger Sibling: Richard has the tendency to be a ball and chain to his big sis Aliena. He gets better as he gets older.
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: William is a depraved, war-mongering monster.
  • Arranged Marriage: William and Aliena would have become this (it ended very badly), but it was to be William and Elizabeth twenty years later.
  • Asexuality: Word of God has it that Philip was deliberately created to be a "cheerfully celibate" character, as Follett was sick of the outwardly-chaste but inwardly-smouldering-with-lust monk trope. Philip mentions his time as a younger man wracked with burning lust. He's grateful that age has cooled his sexual cravings to almost nothing.
  • The Atoner:
    • Brother Johnny, a former outlaw who became a monk after rescuing Jonathan when he was a baby.
    • Later Brother Remigius.
  • Author Avatar: In-universe example — Jack makes up an epic story to tell his love interest, Aliena. The story's protagonist is a young squire who is not strong in battle but is courageous and determined all the same, using cunning or luck to barely escape from dangerous situations, and is madly in love with the beautiful princess.
  • Ax-Crazy: William, to put it mildly.
  • Backstory:
    • Jack's parentage.
    • Philip's story about how he became a monk.
  • Been There, Shaped History: William was one of the assassins who killed Thomas Becket, and it was Philip's idea to make a saint of him.
  • Berserk Button
    • Don't ever laugh at William. He'll murder you.
    • King Henry II does not like his underlings' cheap talk.
    • Philip does not take kindly to people faking miracles.
  • Big Bad Duumvirate: Waleran Bigod and the Hamleighs, particularly William. Their schemes are the main source of problems that the people of Kingsbridge have to contend with.
  • Big Bad Wannabe: Alfred Builder and Brother Remigius loathe protagonists Jack Jackson and Prior Philip, devoting their entire lives to ruining them. Though they do their part, they're but small pieces in the schemes of the story's true villains, Waleran Bigod and William Hamleigh. Ultimately, their efforts amount to little and they are both dismissed when they are of no further use. Later, Alfred is killed unceremoniously by Richard when the former tries to rape Aliena while Remigius pulls a Heel–Face Turn and later saves Philip from disgrace.
  • Bookends: The executions in the first scene and the last. The scenes even have the same opening sentence.
  • Break the Cutie:
    • From a modern perspective, young Aliena is a feisty and fetching noblewoman who wisely rejects the advances of a creep. She suffers very, very horribly for it.
    • Played straight with Elizabeth, quite literally on her wedding night, when William sates his violent lusts on her.
  • Break the Haughty:
  • Bring My Brown Pants: William wets himself on the way to the gallows.
  • Bury Your Gays: The effeminate Matthew is killed by William quite early in the story.
  • Butt-Monkey:
  • Celibate Hero: Prior Philip is not sexually deviant in any way. In the novel, he talks about his sexual lusts mercifully fading away over time.
  • Character Witness: Remigius, whose gossiping gets Ellen banished from the village. Later on, after he is disgraced and Philip decides to give him a second chance, he and Ellen save Philip from being accused of fathering Jonathan out of wedlock and confirm Ellen's tale that the previous Prior James and Waleran had condemned an innocent man for political benefit.
  • The Chessmaster: Bishop Waleran Bigod.
  • Christianity Is Catholic: Justified, not surprisingly, as the Reformation was still centuries away.
  • Civil War: The Anarchy.
  • Corrupt Church: Played straight with Ministers like Waleran who are raised to the top of the hierarchy; averted with Philip, Jonathan and other monks who strive to be Good Shepherd and dislike corrupt ministers.
  • Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: Waleran Bigod, William Hamleigh, and Bishop Henry all have severe cases of this.
  • Come to Gawk: Remigius asks this to Philip when he's wandering the streets as a beggar. Philip, being the pious man he is, offers to take him back as a novice instead. This would save him a lot of problems later.
  • Cruel Mercy: Jack decides that forgiving Waleran and pitying him is the worst kind of punishment he can bring on the priest for engineering his father's execution.
  • Dan Browned:
    • Ken Follett claimed he did a lot of research for this book, but he appears to think medieval labor was capitalist (it was guild-based) and never to have heard about how various religious orders ran orphanages, and taking in neighbor's children was routine (hint: extended families and/or godparents), so there'd be lots of options for that baby one can't care for, apart from leaving it on its mother's grave. He also repeats the very old, long-discredited idea that Beckett's canonization was a political maneuver. He doesn't understand medieval manorialism (he seems to think rents were owed individually rather than by the village collectively, reading the Post-Reformation landlord system back into the 12th century). Maybe we should amend his claim to, "I researched the architecture."
    • World Without End is a Surprisingly Improved Sequel in this regard, with the guild and feudal manor systems in particular playing a prominent role.
  • Damsel out of Distress: Aliena is often in danger, but she's still quite intelligent and resourceful.
  • Dead Guy Junior: Tommy, the son of Jack and Aliena. Named after the deceased Tom Builder, whom William killed and had tormented in life. Fittingly, after he becomes the new earl, he dispatches William for killing Bishop Beckett on charges of sacrilege and sentences him to the gallows.
  • Death by Childbirth: Agnes, Tom's first wife.
  • Decoy Protagonist: Tom Builder, who dies about halfway through the book. Swapping protagonists in some fashion was probably unavoidable, since building churches was a generational undertaking, but Tom dies fairly young and suddenly.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance:
  • Defrosting Ice Queen: Aliena.
  • Didn't Think This Through: King Henry unintentionally sending William as an assassin for Thomas Beckett, a well-loved Archbishop who's remained in good standing with the Catholic Church. The backlash following this leaves Henry at the mercy of the Church and God, and William at the gallows on the charges of sacrilege.
  • Dirty Coward: Alfred Builder, who torments Jack mercilessly since childhood, then comes crawling back for a job, only to use it to backstab Jack.
  • The Dog Bites Back: When William's abused wife helps Richard and his army to infiltrate and take over his castle and depose him as earl. Lampshaded by Waleran in the miniseries, saying, "If you kick a dog, it may someday bite you."
  • Domestic Abuse: Alfred beats Aliena because he is impotent. And then there's William's brutal treatment of any female he's even mildly attracted to...
  • Doorstopper: 973 pages.
  • Dumbass Has a Point: For such a clod-headed oaf, William is quite cunning on a number of occasions.
  • Dumb Muscle: Richard is a good soldier, but is not really good at anything else. It becomes especially obvious when he becomes the Earl.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Phillip, Aliena, Jack.
  • Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas: William's one good act is to build a church in his mother's memory, to rescue her soul from Hell, and he's even offended when Waleran takes advantage of it for his own plans. Granted, it's strongly indicated this is more over his fear for his own soul than love for his mother, given he had pretty much no love for her previously and had watched her die.
  • Evil Matriarch: Lady Regan Hamleigh.
  • Explicit Content: Per usual for Follett, the sex scenes are detailed, and lovingly so for the Official Couple.
  • Fallen Princess: Aliena.
  • Feudal Overlord: William embodies this trope, especially after becoming Earl of Shiring.
  • Five-Man Band:
  • God Save Us from the Queen!: The main reason Maud does not succeed Henry I despite previously being named Henry's heir.
  • Good People Have Good Sex: Jack and Aliena. Tom and Ellen.
  • Good Shepherd: Prior Philip and Archbishop Thomas Becket. When Henry II has William murder Becket, the entire country is outraged.
  • Have You Come to Gloat?: Remigius asks this to Philip when he finds him begging. Instead of that, Philip invites him back to Kingsbridge.
  • The Heavy: Waleran Bigod's position and intellect technically make him the Big Bad, but it is William who remains the most immediate threat to the people of Kingsbridge. While Waleran schemes from the shadows, William is the one who is always active on the scene. His actions are what effectively drive the story.
  • Heel–Face Turn: The monk Remigius.
  • Henpecked Husband: Lord Percy Hamleigh.
  • Heroic Bastard: Jack.
  • Historical Fiction/Historical Domain Character: Queen Maud, Kings Henry II and Stephen, and Thomas Becket play significant roles in the book. The Battle of Lincoln is a key plot point. King Henry I appears in the television miniseries. Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester, also appears in the book, and Robert, Earl of Gloucester, drives much of the early plot by his actions.
  • Holier Than Thou:
    • Waleran Bigod.
    • Peter of Wareham.
  • Honor Before Reason:
    • Aliena's father in the novel, much to Aliena's dismay. In the book, she resents her father for making her swear to restore the family's lordship. Averted in the miniseries, where she's the one with the idea.
    • Philip is this most of the time, even if he is considered a very practical man for a monk.
  • Hope Springs Eternal: However the villains try to stop the construction of the cathedral, they fail. Even burning the whole town down doesn't help. There is one point in the story when Philip gives up all hope, but it only lasts until Jack returns from France and decides to build the cathedral in Gothic style.
  • Hopeless Suitor: William. Aliena suffers awfully for this.
  • Humiliation Conga: Waleran Bigod is put through this at the end of the book. He ends up a powerless monk.
  • Identical Grandson: Jack looks so similar to the father he never knew that he is mistaken for him by several people.
  • Impoverished Patrician: Aliena and her brother Richard.
  • I Have You Now, My Pretty: William v. Aliena
  • Ineffectual Sympathetic Villain: William appears to be one at first, but we soon learn otherwise.
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: When Jack works in Toledo, his employer's daughter Aisa falls in love with him, and her father also wants to marry her to Jack. After he leaves, Aliena arrives, and Aisa is the only one who is nice with her and tells her to go after him because she realized that Aliena loves him.
  • Jerkass: Alfred, Tom's son.
  • Karmic Death: William receives one courtesy of Tommy, Jack and Aliena's son, the new Earl of Shiring. William got Jack's stepfather unemployed twice, killed him in a raid on Kingsbridge, and has been tormenting his family, including Aliena. As the earl, Tommy exercises the right to arrest William on charges of sacrilege after the latter assassinates Thomas Beckett in a church.
  • Karma Houdini:
    • William spends years getting away with murder, rape, pillaging, and sabotage because Waleran is the only priest who will absolve him.
    • Waleran's role in framing Jack's father doesn't do a thing to his reputation in the Kingsbridge priory, apart from disproving his accusations. He merely walks away when Jack demands answers from him. It takes a political scandal which involves King Henry, William, and Philip to deliver the punishment of humility.
  • Kick the Dog: William does everything except kicking an actual dog to remind you that yes, he is the villain.
  • The Lad-ette: Ellen.
  • Love at First Sight: Jack and Aliena, at least for Jack.
  • Mama Bear: Ellen leaves Tom when he won't do a thing about Alfred bullying Jack, in addition to being forced to stay away for a year.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Every curse of Ellen's comes true. Scary, isn't it?
  • Mission from God: Philip considers his work to raise a cathedral to be this.
  • The Mole: Remigius is a secret spy to Waleran.
  • Moses in the Bulrushes: Tom Builder's son, Jonathan. He was abandoned as a newborn and left to die. He was found by monks and raised as Philip's son.
  • Murderers Are Rapists: William. He was a murderer, many times over. He also raped Aliena.
  • My Secret Pregnancy: Aliena hides her pregnancy until the day of birth. Not surprising since she never had sex with her husband.
  • Naughty Nuns: Ellen had shades of this when she was a novice, justified by the fact she was forced by her father to join the nunnery and she hadn't any religious vocation. After having met Jack's father, she leaves the monastery with him.
  • Noble Tongue: Norman French is often spoken by members of the nobility and clergy in England; at one point, when a senior clergyman speaks Norman French with an odd intonation, someone else realizes that he's a non-native speaker and one of the relative handful of English-speaking clergy to have risen through the ranks of the Norman-dominated church.
  • Off with His Head!: Robert gets his head taken off cleanly. For Archbishop Beckett, it doesn't happen so cleanly.
  • Parental Abandonment: Played heavily throughout the book. Tom abandoning his baby son so he could provide for his other two kids instead just shows how hard people had it during these times.
  • Parental Favoritism: Tom to Alfred.
  • Plucky Girl: Aliena, who goes from spoiled noblewoman to resourceful wool merchant in order to avenge her family. Ellen also counts.
  • Punch-Clock Villain: Walter. He's never shown to share William's sadism. He simply follows the orders of his lord without complaint.
  • Put on a Bus: After he joins the Crusade, we hear talking about Richard again only when he dies without heirs.
  • Rags to Riches: Aliena goes from being homeless to one of the wealthiest wool traders in England.
  • Rape as Drama: Happens to almost every woman in William's path.
  • Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: William and Alfred.
  • Redemption Equals Death: Averted. Both Remigius and Waleran end their time with the book as humble monks rather than die.
  • Red Right Hand: Lady Regan has boils covering her face.
  • Replacement Goldfish: Aliena is freaked out noticing how William's young wife Elizabeth looks like her.
  • Riches to Rags: Happens to Aliena twice. She first goes from pampered noblewoman to being homeless. She then becomes a wealthy wool trader but loses everything in a fire thanks to William, falling from a position of wealth and social prominence to needing financial support (including an Arranged Marriage to Alfred) to survive.
  • Romancing the Widow: Ellen was doing this to Tom, although they had met when his wife still lived.
  • Royals Who Actually Do Something: Both King Stephen and Prince Henry (the future Henry II) lead men in battle. See also Warrior Prince.
  • Royal "We": Maud. "We are betrayed!"
  • Sacrificial Lamb: In-universe example in the story Jack tells Aliena (see the Author Avatar entry above) — the story initially focuses on the traditional brave, strong, virtuous knight, but he is abruptly killed off very early in the story, revealing the squire as its actual protagonist.
  • Sadistic Choice: William gives Aliena a choice between lying still as he rapes her and watching her brother's ear get cut off.
  • Second Love: Ellen and Tom are this to each other.
  • Serial Rapist: William, by far the vilest of the characters of the book, is sexually impotent with willing women, and can only get aroused through sexual brutality, either by beating up prostitutes first or by raping people.
  • Shown Their Work: Ken Follett wants you to know all about cathedral architecture.
  • Sinister Minister: Waleran Bigod.
  • Stalker with a Crush: After William Hamleigh seizes the Shiring Earldom, he is aware that Aliena, Richard, and their servant Matthew are still living in the castle. He stalks and watches over Aliena with freakish fascination, still obsessed with her even after she disgustedly rejected him twice. As soon as he gets the chance, he rapes her.
  • Standard Female Grab Area: Used against Aliena during Alfred's attempted rape. Also attempted by William when he raped Aliena, but it fails there; instead, William threatens her brother to force compliance.
  • Storming the Castle:
    • Averted when Aliena wants to attack William in Shiring Castle, but Richard patiently explains that storming a castle never works.
    • The Hamleighs seize Bartholemew's fortress home through a clever infiltration strategy.
  • Succession Crisis: Truth in Television!
  • Supernatural Gold Eyes: Ellen, who may or may not be a witch.
  • Switching P.O.V.: The story is told from the POV of 5 characters.
  • Tell Me About My Father: One sideplot revolves around Jack wanting to know who his father was, who killed him, and why.
  • Time Skip: Happens between every part.
  • Thanatos Gambit: Thomas Becket doesn't run from his attackers, but lets himself be killed (in a church no less) to become a martyr. This results in exactly the opposite effect from what the antagonists expected.
  • The High Middle Ages: The novel is set in this era.
  • Took a Level in Badass: Richard. Goes from being little more than a puppet for Aliena to being a fairly kickass knight.
  • Took a Level in Dumbass: Don't expect Richard to be competent at anything that doesn't involve hitting someone with a sharpened stick. He's better off fighting and dying in the Crusades than being Earl of Shiring.
  • Turbulent Priest: Thomas Becket, the Trope Namer himself, of course.
  • Unwitting Instigator of Doom: Philip telling Waleran about Bartholomew of Shiring's plans to overthrow King Stephen, in an attempt to protect the Church and bestow the responsibility on someone higher in Church standing, starts a chain of events that leads to William's father becoming the new earl, William raping Bartholomew's daughter Aliena as revenge for her declining his proposal and insulting him, and Tom the Builder losing his first income in ages as well as his life in good time. Philip seems to realize this, since he buys Aliena's wool when no other merchant will buy from a woman and she needs the money.
  • The Upper Crass: William Hamleigh is a noble, yet interested in little other than sex, hunting, and fighting. This is why Aliena rejects William's marriage proposal.
  • Villainous Crush: William has a very creepy obsession with Aliena.
  • Villains Never Lie: Generally Waleran can't be trusted, and the only thing that can be is his promise to make sure the Kingsbridge Cathedral is never built. By the end of the book, Prior Jonathan and a reluctant Jack believe that he has truly been broken by the Beckett scandal and thus can be trusted to live at the monastery as a humble monk.
  • Wedding Deadline: Jack tries to stop the wedding between Aliena and Alfred, but for this, he needs to escape the monastery. He ultimately fails, and while his mother actually goes there and curses the marriage, she doesn't stop it.
  • Wham Episode: William and his gang of soldiers attack Kingsbridge, nearly burning it to the ground and killing hundreds, including Tom Builder.
  • Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?: For all that he fails to act like it most of the time, the very mention of Hell is usually enough to make William shake with fear.
  • Woman Scorned: Ellen is an unusual example.
  • The Woman Wearing the Queenly Mask: Queen Matilda.
  • Worthy Opponent: Minor example, but Richard and Robert of Gloucester have a degree of respect for each other.


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