Ken Follett’s ‘Pillars of the Earth’ prequel is just as transporting – and lengthy – as his famous epic

Bill Sheehan

THE WASHINGTON POST – Ken Follett came to prominence in the 1970s with a string of international bestsellers, chief among them the Edgar Award-winning Eye of the Needle. It seemed back then that he had found a comfortable niche as a thriller writer in the manner of such contemporaries as Robert Ludlum and David Morrell. That perception changed dramatically with the 1989 publication of The Pillars of the Earth, a thousand-page epic focussed on the decades-long construction of a cathedral in medieval England. The novel was an immense gamble and an equally immense success, selling millions of copies and creating a template for the sort of vast historical dramas that would dominate Follett’s fiction in the years to come.

Follett returned to Kingsbridge, the primary setting of Pillars, in two subsequent novels: World Without End and A Column of Fire continue Follett’s absorbing, deeply researched fictional history of England, carrying the story forward to the early 17th Century and the religious conflicts of the Elizabethan age. In his latest, The Evening and the Morning, Follett moves backward in time to the Dark Ages. The story concerns the gradual creation of the town of Kingsbridge and of the many people – priests, nobles, peasants, the enslaved – who played significant roles.

As Follett notes in his afterword, the Dark Ages left relatively little concrete evidence behind, leaving “room for guesswork and disagreement”. His re-creation of the period – the hazards, the harsh physical realities, the competing influences of politics and religion – is detailed and convincing, providing a solid underpinning to the later installments of the Kingsbridge series. The Evening and the Morning begins in 997 and ends 10 years later, a relatively compressed period for a Follett novel. There is no overarching plot, but rather a series of subplots involving the adventures, misadventures and struggles of a socially diverse cast of characters.

The novel begins in violent fashion with a Viking raid on the coastal village of Combe. The raid forces young Edgar, the protagonist, to move with his family to a rural backwater known as Dreng’s Ferry, where he will begin to develop his exceptional talents as a builder. (Builders, and the very act of design and construction, are of primary importance to the entire Kingsbridge sequence, which at its deepest level concerns the incremental creation of England itself.)

Edgar will find an ally in Brother Aldred, a monk whose intellectual ambitions find their counterpart in Edgar’s more pragmatic goals. Together, and in the face of unrelenting obstacles, they will transform Dreng’s Ferry into a center of both spiritual learning and commerce, eventually building the bridge that will give the town a new purpose and, in time, a new name.

Another narrative thread concerns Lady Ragna of Cherbourg, a French noblewoman who moves to Edgar’s corner of England after her marriage to Wilfwulf, a local chieftain or “ealdorman”. That ultimately disastrous marriage brings her into the orbit of the novel’s central villain, Wilfwulf’s brother Wynstan, a thoroughly corrupt bishop obsessed with power, wealth and distinctly nonpriestly pleasures. More than any other character in this densely populated book, Wynstan stands between Edgar and Aldred and their larger plans for the community. He also stands in the way of a potential relationship between Edgar and Ragna.

Taken both individually and together, the Kingsbridge books are as comprehensive an account of the building of a civilisation – with its laws, structures, customs and beliefs – as you are likely to encounter anywhere in popular fiction. Despite their daunting length, these novels are swift, accessible and written in a clear, uncluttered prose that has a distinctly contemporary feel. At times, the prose can feel a bit too contemporary, as when Ragna, ruminating on some conflict with her husband, wonders: “What was bugging him?” Mostly, though, Follett writes in a transparent style that rarely calls attention to itself, moving his outsized narratives steadily – and compulsively – forward.