The Pillars of the Earth

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An epic novel set in 12th century England, The Pillars of the Earth is the chronicle of a man, his family, their enemies and the extraordinary dream that consumes them all. It is by far the most popular story Ken Follett, mainly an author of thrillers and various spy novels, has ever written. He followed it up with a sequel many years later: World Without End, which takes place several generations later in the same village.

Tom Builder is a poor stonemason who dreams of building the something that will be his legacy and which will sustain his family for the rest of their lives. Philip, the Prior of Kingsbridge, fights to build a cathedral there, against the wishes of his Bishop, Lord and all manner of political enemies.

The Gothic Cathedral at Kingsbridge, it turns out, becomes more important than anyone imagines. Woven throughout this deeply personal drama are the civil wars between King Stephen and Queen Maud, and later the machinations of King Henry II and the priest Thomas Becket.

Also adapted, along with World Without End, into a popular Euro Game Board Game.

A miniseries starring Ian McShane, Rufus Sewell, David Oakes, Eddie Redmayne as Jack and the lovely Hayley Atwell as Aliena ran on the Starz network in July and August 2010.


Tropes used in The Pillars of the Earth include:
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: More like the whole aristocracy is an evil system.
  • Arranged Marriage: William and Aliena would have become this (it ended very badly), but it was to be William and Elizabeth twenty years later.
    • Played with in Alfred and Aliena, as she makes it clear to him that she doesn't love him, and Ellen curses the wedding.
  • Asexuality: Word of God has it that Phillip was deliberately created to be a "cheerfully celibate" character, as Follett was sick of the outwardly-chaste but inwardly-smouldering-with-lust monk trope.
  • Ax Crazy: William!
  • Backstory: Jack's parentage.
  • Berserk Button
    • Don't ever laugh at William. He'll murder rape murder you.
    • Ellen does not take kindly to the Church.
    • King Henry II does not like his underlings' cheap talk.
  • Book Ends: The executions in the first scene and the last. The scenes even have the same opening sentence.
  • Break the Cutie:
    • From a modern perspective, young Aliena is a feisty and fetching noblewoman who wisely rejects the advances of a creep. She suffers very, very horribly for it.
    • Played straight with Elizabeth, quite literally on her wedding night, when William sates his violent lusts on her.
  • Break the Haughty: From the perspective of contemporary medieval characters, young Aliena is a spoiled brat who reacts rudely to William's awkward attempts at wooing her. She suffers very, very horribly for it.
  • Bring My Brown Pants: William wets himself on the way to the gallows.
  • Bury Your Gays: Matthew is killed by William quite early in the story.
  • Butt Monkey: Brutally deconstructed with William. In the beginning, he is just an idiot who is mocked by almost everyone. However, when he finally snaps, he becomes a nightmare: raping the woman who despised him, burning Kingsbridge to ashes, generally raping and pillaging all over the place because it's fun.
  • Celibate Hero: Prior Philip is one of the few monks who's not sexually deviant in any way. In the novel he talks about his sexual lusts mercifully fading away over time.
  • Character Witness: Remigius, whose gossiping gets Ellen banished from the village.
  • The Chessmaster: Bishop Waleran Bigod.
  • Christianity Is Catholic: Justified, not surprisingly, as the Reformation was still centuries away.
  • Civil War: The Anarchy.
  • Corrupt Church: The corruption of the church is occasionally shown, both in individual ministers like Waleran Bigod and in the overall system in which ministers like Waleran are raised to the top of the hierarchy.
  • Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: Waleran, William Hamleigh, Bishop Henry
  • Come to Gawk: Remigius asks this to Philip when he's wandering the streets as a beggar. Philip, being the pious man he is, offers to take him back as a novice instead. This would save him a lot of problems later.
  • The Crusades: Richard is dispatched to the Holy Land.
  • Dead Guy, Junior: Tommy.
  • Death by Childbirth: Agnes, Tom's first wife.
  • Decoy Protagonist: Tom Builder, who dies about halfway through the book. Swapping protagonists in some fashion was probably unavoidable, since building churches was a generational undertaking, but Tom dies fairly young and suddenly.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance:
    • Prior Philip, although a benevolent figure for his community, and more compassionate than most of his peers, still has the views of a 12th century monk on subjects like extra-marital sex or the respect due to his own authority.
    • Richard killing Alfred is considered murder, since Aliena is Alfred's wife in the eyes of the Church, making her consent a non-issue.
  • Defrosting Ice Queen: Aliena.
  • Dirty Coward: Alfred Builder, who torments Jack mercilessly since childhood, then comes crawling back for a job, only to use it to backstab Jack.
  • Domestic Abuse: Alfred beats Aliena because he is impotent. And William's brutal treatment of… any female he's even mildly attracted to.
  • Doorstopper: 973 pages.
  • The Dragon: Walter to William. This is much more pronounced in the miniseries; in the novel, Walter is a Punch Clock Villain.
  • Explicit Content: Per usual for Follett, the sex scenes are detailed, and lovingly so for the Official Couple.
  • Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas: William's one non-Complete Monster act is to build a church in his mother's memory, to rescue her soul from Hell, and he's even offended when Waleran takes advantage of it for his own plans.
  • Everything's Better with Princesses: both grand (Maud) and petty (Aliena).
  • Evil Matriarch: Lady Regan Hamleigh.
  • Eyes of Gold: Ellen.
  • Feudal Overlord: William embodies this trope, especially after becoming Earl of Shiring.
  • God Save Us From the Queen: the main reason Maud does not succeed Henry I despite previously being named Henry's heir.
  • Good People Have Good Sex: Jack and Aliena. Tom and Ellen.
  • Good Shepherd: Prior Philip and Archbishop Thomas Becket. When Henry II has William murder Becket, the entire country is outraged.
  • Heel Face Turn: The monk Remigius.
  • Henpecked Husband: Lord Percy Hamleigh.
  • Heroic Bastard: Jack.
  • Historical Fiction / Historical Domain Character: As noted above, Queen Maud, Kings Henry II and Stephen, and Thomas Becket play significant roles in the book. The Battle of Lincoln is a key plot point. King Henry I appears in the television miniseries.
  • Holier Than Thou: Waleran Bigod.
    • Peter of Wareham, too.
  • Honor Before Reason: Aliena's father in the novel, much to Aliena's dismay. In the book, she resents her father for making her swear to restore the family's lordship. Averted in the miniseries, where she's the one with the idea.
  • The House of Plantagenet: Dynasty founder Geoffrey Plantagenet was Maud's husband; their son Henry II was the first Plantagenet king.
  • Humiliation Conga: Waleran Bigod is put through this at the end of the book. He ends up a powerless monk.
  • Impoverished Patrician: Aliena and her brother Richard.
  • I Have You Now, My Pretty: William v. Aliena
  • Ineffectual Sympathetic Villain: William appears to be one at first, but we soon learn otherwise.
  • Jerkass: Alfred, Tom's son.
  • Kick the Dog: William does everything except kicking an actual dog to remind you that yes, he is the villain.
  • Love At First Sight: Jack and Aliena, at least for Jack.
  • Mission from God: Philip considers his work to raise a cathedral to be this.
  • Murderers Are Rapists: William.
  • Off with His Head: Robert gets his head taken off cleanly.
  • Parental Abandonment: Played heavily throughout the book. Tom abandoning his baby son so he could provide for his other two kids instead just shows how hard people had it during these times.
  • Parental Favoritism: Tom to Alfred.
  • Plucky Girl: Aliena, who goes from spoiled noblewoman to resourceful wool merchant in order to avenge her family.
  • Punch Clock Villain: Walter in the novel. He's never shown to share William's sadism. He simply follows the orders of his lord without complaint. In the miniseries, he's a much more cruel and central villain.
  • Rape as Drama: Happens to almost every woman in William's path.
  • Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: William, Alfred
  • Redemption Equals Death: Averted. Both Regimus and Waleran end their time with the book as humble monks rather than die.
  • Red Right Hand: Lady Regan has boils covering her face.
  • Romancing the Widow: Ellen was doing this to Tom, although they had met when his wife still lived.
  • Royals Who Actually Do Something: Both King Stephen and Prince Henry (the future Henry II) lead men in battle. See also Warrior Prince.
  • Royal We: Maud. "We are betrayed!"
  • Sadistic Choice: William gives Aliena a choice between lying still as he rapes her and watching her brother's ear get cut off.
  • Shown Their Work: Ken Follett wants you to know all about cathedral architecture.
  • Sinister Minister: Waleran Bigod.
  • Standard Female Grab Area: used against Aliena During Alfred's attempted rape. Also attempted by William when he raped Aliena, but it fails there; instead, William threatens her brother to force compliance.
  • Storming the Castle: Averted. Aliena wants to attack William in Shiring Castle, but Richard patiently explains that storming a castle never works.
    • The Hamleighs make a successful attack on Bartholemew's fortress home, but it requires a great deal of scouting and sabotage.
  • Succession Crisis: Truth in Television!
  • Took a Level in Badass: Richard. Goes from being little more than a puppet for Aliena to being a fairly kickass knight.
  • Took a Level In Dumbass: Don't expect Richard to be much more competent at anything that doesn't involve hitting someone with a sharpened stick. He's better off dying in the Crusades than being Earl of Shiring.
  • Turbulent Priest: Thomas Becket, the Trope Namer himself, of course.
  • The Woman Wearing the Queenly Mask: Queen Matilda.
  • Wham! Episode: William and his gang of soldiers attack Kingsbridge, nearly burning it to the ground and killing hundreds, including Tom Builder.
  • Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?: For all that he fails to act like it most of the time, the very mention of Hell is usually enough to make William shake with fear.
  • Woman Scorned: Ellen is an unusual example.
  • Worthy Opponent: Minor example, but Richard and Robert of Gloucester have a degree of respect for each other.
  • Yamato Nadeshiko: Aliena.

The miniseries contains examples of:[edit | hide | hide all]

  • Adaptational Attractiveness: Lady Regan in the novel has hideous boils all over her face. In the miniseries, she's an otherwise attractive woman with a facial birthmark.
  • Adaptation Distillation: Despite being eight hours long, the miniseries had to significantly abridge the 850+ page novel. Most notably, it cut most of the last part of the book, including all of the Henry II/Thomas Becket showdown, and substituted a different ending. Unfortunately, this compression led to some wonky history, which the book was generally good about.
  • Age Cut: The last shot cuts forward 840 years, to show Jack's cathedral still standing in the modern day.
  • All-Star Cast
  • Bad Dreams: William; Stephen to the point of Psychic Dreams for Everyone.
  • Beard of Sorrow: Phillip at Tom's funeral
  • Blood From the Mouth: Repeatedly.
  • Cain and Abel: Jack and Alfred. Lampshaded by Jonathan.
  • The Cameo: Ken Follett pops up as an Englishman that Jack meets in Cherbourg.
  • Climbing Climax / Disney Villain Death: Waleran
  • Cue the Sun: Masterfully invoked by Philip to put the fear of God into some quarriers.
  • Curtain Camouflage: Cuthbert, complete with Polonian death and dramatic reveal.
  • Darker and Edgier: The miniseries, in many respects. While it leaves out some of the gorier details of the novel, it also adds some incest to make the Hamleighs more villainous, and changes just about every death in the story into some sort of murder.
  • Dawson Casting: 28-year old Eddie Redmayne and Hayley Atwell as teenaged Jack and Aliena in the early episodes. Justified by the need to dramatize a story that spans 35 years.
  • Dead Person Conversation: Stephen has a few unpleasant visions of the late Henry I.
  • Death by Adaptation: Waleran, Walter, Percy, Regan.
  • Disney Villain Death: Waleran.
  • Get Out!! Tom to Jack, after he confesses to burning the old cathedral.
  • Hey, It's That Guy!: Jack is Osmund, a novice monk.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Stephen of England goes from "weak pawn of the nobles" to personally arranging the deaths of his predecessor, Henry I, and his son and heir so he can inherit the throne.
  • Hollywood History: Several minor changes are introduced in the TV series for no possible reason other than because they are "so medieval". Among them:
    • Waleran whipping himself in classic The Da Vinci Code style.
    • Ellen being forced to flee Kingsbridge because she is accused of witchcraft, instead of just because she is having an open relationship with Tom but refuses to marry him.
    • St. Adolphus' skull being crushed during the destruction of the old cathedral, then promptly replaced with another skull by Prior Philip.
    • Jack's father having his tongue cut and then being burned at the stake, instead of just hanged.
    • For dramatic purposes, the miniseries shows both King Stephen and his son Eustace alive in 1156 when they were both dead by 1154. Additionally, the miniseries has Eustace die in battle, when the real Eustace died of natural causes.
  • Good People Have Good Sex: We cut from Tom and Ellen having passionate, loving sex to Regan and Percy Hamleigh having perfunctory, unpleasant sex. The two even talk strategy during their intercourse.
  • It Will Never Catch On: Philip accidentally invents the futures market some 500 years ahead of time, and Aliena has to convince him that it makes sense.
  • Kneel Before Zod: Waleran demands this of Philip after he refuses to declare fealty to him.
  • Parental Incest: William and his mother.
  • Prophecy Twist: "Peace will reign and war depart/when arrows pierce your sister's heart" - doesn't technically say that she'll lose, mind you...
  • Psychic Dreams for Everyone
  • Redheaded Stepchild
  • Self-Made Orphan: William.
  • Shipper on Deck: Ellen wants her son to be happy. To the point of cursing marriages that make him unhappy.
  • Shout-Out: Rearrange the name Raschid Alharoun, and you should get a very famous character in another story.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Richard.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Stephen after first seeing Jack, getting the news that Maud has revolted and finding out his son Eustace was killed.
  • Villainous Incest: William and Regan.
  • Took a Level in Badass: Richard went from a coward to a badass knight.