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Book Review: "The Pillars of the Earth" by Ken Follett

MacPharlain enjoys reading good books from many genres. His favorite is historical fiction and his favorite author is Patrick O'Brian.

Ken Follet's book about the construction of a cathedral in the 12th century

Ken Follet's book about the construction of a cathedral in the 12th century

The Pillars of the Earth Book Review

Set in medieval England, The Pillars of the Earth is a gripping tale of the passions, intrigue, politics and greed surrounding the construction of a 12th-century cathedral.

Medieval times, cathedrals, castles, knights, deception, love, rivalry and intrigue...sounds like an interesting story. Does this best-selling book set in 12th century England live up to the hype?

Let's dig into The Pillars of the Earth and find out...

Plot Summary

The central plot element of The Pillars of the Earth is the construction of a new cathedral in the fictional English town of Kingsbridge during the 12th century. But the story is really about the conflicts between the people building the cathedral and those who want to destroy it.

It is the early 12th century and England is about to erupt into civil war. The new prior of the monastery at Kingsbridge is determined to rebuild the current run-down cathedral into one that will glorify God. He finds a young master builder who shares his vision of building the most beautiful cathedral in England.

Unfortunately, the local bishop is a power-hungry man with other plans. He works to disrupt the prior's efforts at every turn. His frequent ally in this is a cruel and vengeful earl consumed by his own greed.

Thoughts About the Book

The story kept my interest and flowed well. The book is 970 pages but doesn't feel long at all. With a story spanning over 50 years (1123-1174) those pages are all needed to weave this multi-generational story together effectively.

Reading this was like a medieval emotional roller coaster. There are moments of love, joy and happiness mixed in with scenes of greed, cruelty, violence and tragedy.

The book is divided into six parts with a drawing of the cathedral in its current state at the start of each part. The drawings are well done and a nice touch.

It was interesting to learn more about medieval life while reading this book. Little everyday practices such as people walking right into someone's house unannounced or bringing your horse and other livestock inside the house added flavor to the story.

This is one of those books that so engrossed me in the story, it made me want to play a computer game related to the storyline. In this case, it was Lords of the Realm II where you compete against other nobles (including an untrustworthy Bishop) to control the realm.

Writing Style

Follett does a good job of telling the story from multiple viewpoints. Each section or chapter is told from the perspective of one of the main characters so you get an understanding of their thoughts and actions.

The descriptions of how the cathedral is designed and built are very well done. There is enough information to picture the construction in your mind and complement the story without overwhelming the reader with technical details.

One odd thing is that the characters speak as if they are living in modern times. There's very little use of language from the time period. Maybe I'm spoiled from reading the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O'Brian, but I enjoy historical fiction more when the characters sound authentic to the period.

What I Liked About This Book

1. An engaging story with interesting characters, plot twists and good pacing.

2. Detailed descriptions of the cathedrals, castles, battles and medieval life that enhance the story.

3. A cool glimpse into medieval times. I enjoyed learning about the construction of cathedrals, the political power struggles and the challenges of daily medieval life.

My Rating of "The Pillars of the Earth"

Medieval times, cathedrals, castles, knights, trickery, love, rivalry and intrigue...there's something in this book for everyone. On top of that, it's a good read and I really enjoy good historical fiction.

Historical Figures in The Pillars of the Earth

Several historical figures who lived during the years covered by the book were included in the story. Below are links to more info on the major historical characters:

Thomas Becket - Archbishop of Canterbury
Head of the Church of England, Thomas and Henry II were frequently in conflict over the independence of the church from the monarchy.

King Henry II

King Stephen
King of England during most of the story.

Empress Matilda
Referred to as Empress Maud in the book, she is the daughter of Henry I and rightful heir to the throne which her cousin Stephen claimed as his.

King Henry I

Robert - 1st Earl of Gloucester
Matilda's half brother and ally against King Stephen.

The White Ship
This ship sank in the English Channel while carrying the only legitimate heir to King Henry I. The sinking triggered several plot lines in the book.


Thanks for reading my book review. Please share your thoughts below on The Pillars of the Earth, cathedrals or anything medieval.

Your Review...

Ted Owen on June 01, 2020:

Good book.Don't usually read fiction.Thought it was not believable.Story far reaching.Still enjoyed it.

Hazard99 on November 14, 2019:

My friend just recommended this book so I really enjoyed your review which neatly summarised the book while covering several aspects of its content. I love historical fiction and have now ordered I it

gracezylb2 on April 10, 2013:

gosh! i learned from a previous professor that the pillars of the earth was a damn good novel and i just turned a blind ear to that. i was able to watch world without end on a cable channel and when i read this lens, i just learned that it's some sort of the same thing! got to buy a copy right noooow... hahahaha!

keltron0 on November 20, 2012:


LabKittyDesign on October 16, 2012:

Any opinion on the 2010 Starz adaptation? It would be interesting to hear how it compares to the book.

krior76 on September 05, 2012:

I've read it more than once... Yeah it's a long book but definitely worth all the hours I've spent reading it :-). I love follett's books.

This lens was nicely done

MacPharlain (author) on September 01, 2012:

@anonymous: It's a long book and well worth the read.

anonymous on September 01, 2012:

It took me a long time to read it, but it was worth it. His descriptions of building the cathedral are amazing.

anonymous on August 26, 2012:

Great book; very detailed so that you get a sense of the time.

natashaely on June 19, 2012:

Your review allows me to decide whether I would read a book before I pick it up. I like the personal touches and enjoy your writing style. Another great page to add to my online squidoo library.

Millionairemomma on June 16, 2012:

What a great review. I love this auother so I enjoyed this lens.

Georgene Moizuk Bramlage from southwestern Virginia on February 20, 2012:

Very well done lens and book review. I love reading Ken Follett and really enjoyed "Pillars of the Earth," as did my husband. We also enjoyed the TV series of the same name.

Barbara Walton from France on February 19, 2012:

While it isn't really my kind of book, the story is intriguing but the content is excellent. I assume it's a well-reaerched book as far as the facts go. I also loved the way that the characters that I asssume to be fictional - I'm on my way to find out if they are fact or fiction, rub shoulders with real historical figures. Nice review.

JeanJohnson LM on September 23, 2011:

Since I have been reading many Scott O'Dell books, I have enjoyed historical fiction. I'll have to check out "The Pillars of the Earth." It sounds very interesting!

MacPharlain (author) on May 29, 2011:

@jptanabe: Thanks!

Jennifer P Tanabe from Red Hook, NY on May 29, 2011:

Blessed by an angel on the Memorial Day bus trip!

Evelyn Saenz from Royalton on July 28, 2010:

Just wanted to let you know that this lens is now featured on The Ramsay Scallop Medieval Unit Study.

Holley Web on February 14, 2010:

Nicely reviewed. I think I'm going to have to take a look at this book.

MikeMoore LM on March 26, 2009:

Pillars of the Earth is one of my favorite books! The second one is out and is just as good. Maybe even better. You did a great job reviewing this book too. I've given this lens five stars and lensrolled it into my Godspeaker Trilogy lens ( )

Thanks for the read!

anonymous on March 23, 2009:

This was by far the best book I have ever read. I went to bed and woke up thinking about it. I was actually sad when it ended. I was thrilled to learn about its sequel, World Without End, which was nearly as good as its father book. I just personally love the way Mr. Follett writes and now go looking for his titles when at the library. I read Whiteout, which was good. Nothing can compare to Pillars though. Never have I spent 8 hours a day reading a book--seriously, it was that good. I'm about to start on Eye of the Needle. Will try some of his other best-sellers after this. Happy reading!

kit564 on October 22, 2008:

This is my absolute FAVORITE book. World Without End was also a great read. ***** 5 Star Lens.. good job. Thanks.