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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Sunday, February 03, 2008

The Pillars of the Earth and Stonehenge

Stonehenge by Bernard Cornwell. New York: HarperTorch, 2000. ISBN (paperback): 0-06-109194-4. The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. New York: Signet, 1989. No ISBN listed.

Here we have two great historical novels of England by two great historical novelists. Ken Follett, formerly famous for his spy novels, has turned his hand to medieval history, writing a fictional account of the building of a great English cathedral, during that long period when King Stephen and the Princess Maud fought over the throne. Of course, the story goes back further than that, and takes place over a period of two or more generations.

Follett is a master storyteller, par excellence, and the reader is captured, heart, mind and soul, from the very first page. Played out against the backdrop of civil war, the more immediate story involves a struggle between good and evil. First there is pious Prior Philip, against faithless power-hungry Bishop Waleran. Then the wicked and ruthless Hamleigh family, who dispossess the local earl and his family. Richard and Aliena, the earl's children, are left to make their own way in the world.

And there is also the builder, Tom, and his family. Eventually, it's his adopted son, Jack, who actually finishes the cathedral. Jack and Aliena eventually fall in love, have children, but can't get married, since Aliena was previously married to Tom's son by birth, Alfred, slow, sly and mean, and Waleran blocks any attempt at an annulment. Lots of good vs. evil conflicts happening, everywhere you look.

Follett has recently written a long-awaited sequel, World Without End. Since its release, both books are again very popular in the nation's public libraries, with multiple holds on both. I'll have to wait a good while to get my hands on World Without End, I'm afraid.

Stonehenge takes us back to a much earlier, prehistoric period in Britain's history, and chronicles the building of the greatest of all the circular stone circles found scattered across Britain. Bernard Cornwell is actually the more established author, in terms of writing historical fiction, with his series of novels retelling the Arthurian mythos, and his Saxon Stories, set in King Alfred's time, not to mention his over twenty Sharpe's novels. You can find reviews of the Arthurian books and some of the Saxon tales here on my blog. Check out the "other fiction" index.

But with Stonehenge, he has not even the luxury of any existing history or mythos on which to build. Other than archaeological evidence from the period, he has to make it all up. And while he does a darn good job of it, writing a story that is believable—this could indeed be how it might have, how it could have happened—with characters almost equally compelling to those of Follett, I wasn't quite as happy with this book.

Mainly because the primitive society he depicts is SO utterly savage and uncivilized. Although I'm sure it probably was, it is not as pleasant to read about. Not to say that the “civilized” evil in Follett's book is any more pleasant, really. But I find myself wanting to read and reread sections of Pillars, while I don't think I'll be tempted to reread Stonehenge any time soon. Not that I regret having read it, not at all. It's just not as enjoyable.

That said, both books are recommended. Follett is HIGHLY recommended, while Cornwell, in this instance, is more neutrally presented. Both are well worth reading, but Pillars is essential reading, in my view, while Stonehenge is optional.

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