Tom Builder is a poor man with a big dream – he wants to build the most beautiful cathedral. Tom himself is not religious, but he sees cathedrals as the most impressive buildings in the world. They were, especially in medieval England when most people lived in something slightly better than a barn. Because of Tom’s dream, though, his family is more often than not starving and homeless. When his wife dies in the woods giving birth to his third child, Tom is near desperation and abandons the baby in the woods. Meeting Ellen, a strange outlaw living in the forest, and falling in love with her is the one thing that saves him from desperation.
Ellen is one of the strong and admirable women in the novel. She lives alone with her strange son Jack after leaving the comfort of communal life nearly 10 years ago. The father of her child was wrongly hanged for a crime he didn’t commit and in a feeling of desperation, Ellen cursed the church and the accusers. Her life ever since has been in opposition to the greed and hypocrisy of the ruling men – whether they are earls, priors, bishops, or kings.
Prior Philip is one of the most enchanting figures in the novel. As a child his parents were violently murdered and his brother and Philip were saved and raised by monks. His devotion to the Church and God is unshakable, yet as every human being he feels pride and desire to succeed. After becoming the Prior of Kingsbridge, Philip is set on the challenging mission to restore the priory to its former glory, to build the most beautiful church, to reinstall the market, and to transform the small village into a prosperous town.
Agains Tom, Philip, and Jack, who becomes Tom’s apprentice and most devout follower stand William, the earl of Shiring and Waleran Bigod, the ambitious Bishop of Kingsbridge. William is probably the only completely evil character in the novel, with nothing human in himself. He is greedy, sexually maniacal, and extremely violent and ruthless. His hatred towards the people of Kingsbridge is well connected to Aliena – the daughter of the former earl of Shiring. When she refuses to marry him, he violently rapes her and throws her out. Now Aliena has united with Prior Philip and the villagers of Kingsbridge and this makes William’s desire for revenge even stronger and bloodier.
It is impossible to describe the pathos of this epical story. Spanning from one generation to another, Follet creates rich characters, neither saints nor devils (excluding William of course). The reader feels drawn to the destinies of Ellen, Tom, Jack, Aliena and Philip, trembles when evil threatens to overwhelm justice and leaps with joy when the building of the cathedral is again on its way. Despite Follet’s rather negative fame for writing slightly shallow thrilers that can hardly excite a 10 year old, in The Pillars of the Earth and World Without End (so far) he is at his best. I quite enjoyed him in Fall of Giants but to be perfectly honest, he is doing a much better job identifying with the medieval society than with the intriques surrounding WWI.