Ken Follett wrote mostly thrillers until the publication of The Pillars of the Earth in 1989. This huge book focused on the construction of a cathedral in medieval England and was something of a risk for his published. A risk that paid off, it became one of his best selling novels. Recently it got a lot of attention when Oprah Winfrey selected it for her book club. In 2007 the equally large tome World Without End was published. I read the Dutch translation, Brug naar de Hemel, which is just over 1100 pages (hardcover format). It is set in the same town in medieval England but roughly two centuries later. It covers the live of some of the descendants of the characters of Pillars of the Earth but can be read independently.
World Without End is set in the town of Kingsbridge. There is a Kingsbridge in Devon but the town Follett describes appears to be fictional. The novel covers events in the town in the years 1327-1361, a turbulent period in English history. In January 1327 King Edward II is disposed after a long running conflict with his nobles and a conspiracy lead by his wife Isabella of France and Roger Mortimer. Later that year he dies under suspicious circumstances in captivity. Various theories about his death have surfaced since but the truth is we don’t know for sure. Hints about the death of Edward II can be found throughout the book. Edward II is succeeded by his son Edward III who would reign England for the next 50 years. During his reign the Black Death struck England. Edward III also claimed that, after the death of Charles IV of France, he was the legitimate heir to the French throne. A claim that would result in the conflict known as the Hundred Years’ War. Both the Hundred Years’ War and the black death have a major impact on the lives of our main characters.
Although there are more points of view in the book there are four main characters brought together by an incident in 1327. All of them are between 8 and 10 years old by then and they witness a fight between two King’s men and a man named Thomas of Langley who would later enter into the Kingsbridge monastery. Gwenda is the daughter of a landless peasant, her family lives in poverty and has to resort to stealing to make a living. Caris is the daughter of a rich wool merchant. Methin and Ralph are the sons of a knight who has lost his lands to the monetary after he failed to pay a debt he owed them.
Gwenda fights for the man she loves and to escape the poverty of a landless peasant. Caris wants to become a doctor, one that does research instead of blindly following traditions and the works of Galenus. Methin sees his hopes of becoming a knight vanish as his younger and physically more imposing brother Ralph is sent to the count of Shiring to train for war. As Ralph starts his quest to regain his family’s nobility, Methin is sent to a local carpenter to learn his trade. During the course of their lives and careers they frequently clash with each other and the prior of the monastery, father Godwyn. Their lives illustrate a number of conflicts in medieval society as well as changes taking place in society, trade and government in their time.
Personally I think Follett does a great job on the historical aspects of his novel. He pays a lot of attention to the changes of the position of the lower classes in society after the plague decimates the population of England. I also liked to description of the Battle of Crécy, one of the early victories of the English in the Hundred Year’s War. I’m sure there are all manner of historical inaccuracies if you care to look for them but he certainly did his homework on the setting of his work. That being said, I think most of the characters are very liberal thinking people, more so than would be accepted in medieval society. While there obviously was a great deal of pragmatism involved in making things work, the characters don’t seem quite so aware of their social position as one would expect. But maybe that is just my imperfect understanding of history.
What I likes less about this book is that unlike The Pillars of the Earth it misses something really ties the characters together. Sure, the arrival of Thomas in Kingsbridge is something they all witness, and his secret is used to close the novel but in the years between the characters seem to float free. No overarching storyline seems to connect their individual projects. In the 14th century people still lived in relatively small but densely populated communities, so the characters run into each other frequently but they are driven by their own ambitions, much less by conflicts or joint projects. Where the cathedral provided a solid centre for the novel in The Pillars of the Earth, World Without End lacks such a core. The various episodes we get to see in the main characters’ lives sometimes strike me as random. Which given the length of the book is not a good thing.
Despite it length the novel is a light read, judging from the translation Follett doesn’t just use very complicated language. He also keeps a good pace even if not all scenes seem to fit into the overarching story. Despite it’s flaws I enjoyed reading it. The Pillars of the Earth is definitely the better of the two but people who enjoyed the first book will want to read this one.