Ken Follett illuminates Medieval Europe with 'Column of Fire'

Sunday, November 19, 2017 - 4:28pm

With his recently released generational saga “Column of Fire,” historical fiction guru Ken Follett brings the latest installment of the Kingsbridge Series to the niche community of Middle Age-enthusiasts. While revivalist Medieval literature is usually associated with dense texts written in convoluted language, Follett uses plain but literary language to color the world of Medieval Europe as a vibrant and intricate space full of the same human emotions and experiences as any age. Rife with drama, sex, intrigue, politics and romance, the Kingsbridge books are wholly captivating and impossible to put down. These sweeping generational sagas are between 900-1100 pages, but the length isn’t oppressive. Rather, it allows Follett and the reader to explore a wide range of issues in this period as well as the changes that occur over time. Published this past August, “Column of Fire” brings the classic Kingsbridge elements lovers of the series come to expect, with some distinct differences that both help and hurt it.

The overarching preoccupation in the Kingsbridge series is change. Follett is interested in architectural change, seen most poignantly in the building of the Kingsbridge Cathedral that spans the entire first and second book (“Pillars of the Earth” and “World Without End”). The narrative reflects the long and grueling process of building monuments in that time, and Follett describes the laying of each brick with an accuracy that communicates his intimate knowledge of medieval architecture.

Follett is also interested in geographical change. Over the three books, Kingsbridge expands from an insignificant town to a hub of trade and commerce. The narrative scope also reflects human movement over time. “Pillars,” set in the 1100s, focuses only on Kingsbridge because travel was difficult and dangerous in that century. Set 400 years later, “Column of Fire” spans across Western Europe and beyond in a narrative that mirrors the international exchange and exploration of the period afforded by advancements in technology (bigger and faster sailing ships).  

One of the most interesting and captivating aspects of the trilogy is its discussion of technology and labor specific to the Middle Ages feudal society. Follett is largely preoccupied with the lower and middle classes, the peasant farmers, the craftsmen and the merchants. Follett explores the intricacies behind each form of labor, from securing farm work to transporting stone from the quarry to dyeing and treating wool. Follett also focuses heavily on commerce, and is interested in the human exchange of currency, the negotiation of contracts and the dynamics of making a living in an age where people buried their savings underground.

Religion is another huge theme woven throughout the Kingsbridge books. Besides the working class, key characters in the novels include priors, bishops, nuns, missionaries and even holy monarchs. Follett explores the dynamics of monasteries in “Pillars,” the expansion of nunneries in “World Without End,” and the tumultuous Catholic vs Protestant landscape of the Reformation in “Column of Fire.” He both exposes the corruption of religious figures and celebrates altruistic religious zeal in an age where the Church was an integral component of life, and a character in itself.

Overall, Follett braids together these many preoccupations with compelling and dynamic characterizations. His characters are not static, but undergo emotional changes influenced by experiences that mold them and alter their point of view. Follett tends to use a character formula, and his books contain the same tropes: a male protagonist that is attractive, intelligent and a natural born leader; a strong female protagonist that is independent, headstrong and sexual, though not overly so; and a male antagonist that is cunning, power-hungry, brutally violent, amoral and asexual. While these character tropes can become repetitive and predictable, they interact in different ways and in different arrangements in each book. Another characteristic aspect of the trilogy, and what really keeps you reading, is a book-long unrequited romance between two key figures that is dramatic and overdrawn but gripping.

The most controversial aspect of the Kingsbridge series is Follett’s treatment of women. His female protagonists maintain incredible agency, have a voice, making decisions largely for themselves and challenge societal ideas of women’s roles. Caris in “World Without End” runs a prosperous wool business and spearheads the development of modern medicine in Kingsbridge, while Sylvie in “Column of Fire” operates an illegal Protestant book trade across Europe. But beyond these strong female leads, women are discussed mainly in terms of prostitution and rape. Rape in these books is frequent, grotesque and viewed as an inevitable part of life. Reading these scenes is uncomfortable and disturbing, begging the question: Is this an important aspect of Medieval life that is necessary for an accurate portrayal, or is it superfluous and indulgent? Follett writes women with simultaneous depth and superficiality that is difficult to unpack.

“Column of Fire” widens the scope of the Kingsbridge series and allows for new possibilities and areas of exploration. A game board with constantly moving set pieces, the novel involves characters that originate in England, France and Spain who constantly move around Europe and interact with different people. While this is somewhat daunting and confusing at first, the characters eventually come together in classic Kingsbridge fashion. Unlike the two before it, this book is largely interested in foreign policy and diplomacy, focusing on the politics between Queen Elizabeth, Mary Queen of Scots and the de Guise family in France, among other monarchs. This focus on international politics spotlights an important time in European history, but the grand scale detracts from the small details of everyday life specific to Kingsbridge books. The focus on international politics makes for an exciting and suspenseful narrative that is captivating in its own way. But because it is no longer rooted in labor and the middle class, “Column of Fire” neglects what makes the Kingsbridge series unique and dazzling in the first place.