The Pillars of the Earth
A Game of Thrones
And there’s something else to blame the hideous St. Patrick’s Day ‘celebrations’ for: introducing into my life The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. I’m not going to repeat my feelings on National Drunk Day; they have, if anything, gotten even more sour since last year. And if you’re sufficiently interested you can read ‘Blood and Vomit’ from twelve months ago on www.charleybrady.com
Since it is an entire weekend in which normal, regular pub-goers daren’t stray near a bar, because the twice-a-year-drinkers have been let out of their cages and will be falling all over the place, I thought that I would get myself stuck into a nice big juicy epic. I was thinking of something in a James Michener vein, something to immerse myself in.
I have recently read George M. M. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, the first volume in his epic fantasy myth-sequence A Song of Ice and Fire and as a result was feeling up to any heavy volume that could be thrown at me. In fact, I had read Thrones a couple of years ago; but back then I had sped through it, finding it an absolute page-turner. This time, I decided to go back and read it slowly. What a very satisfying experience that is! With attention the reader can build up an image of, and become completely immersed in, this fully realized world.
Yes, I understand the remarks of some reviewers who feel that Martin takes forever to get there. He does. Interesting for me is that one commentator pointed out that this first volume alone is longer than all of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories put together. I haven’t checked, but that sounds about right. As a matter of fact I’m reasonably sure that you could probably throw in most of the King Kull tales as well. But I don’t really think that enjoyment of one cancels out the other. You know by now that you’re in for the long haul with Martin and brevity (800 pages with Thrones) won’t be coming into it; but if you are up to it I would advise you to read them carefully and you’ll be well rewarded for your patience.
I wish to Hell that I had stayed with Martin and just gone on to Volume Two, but oh no. My curiosity was roused over all the comments I’ve heard down the years about how great Follett’s 1989 The Pillars of the Earth is. I had to see what the fuss was.
Well, it looked promising. The paperback weighs in at over a thousand pages and I would be back in medieval times, only this time with a factually historical basis since the novel is set specifically in the tumultuous years that followed King Henry and most of his brood going down to watery death in The White Ship. I was really looking forward to losing myself and living vicariously (not to mention safely) in another time for a few days.
On Friday night I read the prologue and a sinking feeling hit me. I wasn’t getting that buzz of being transported at all. Worse, when the beautiful forest girl Ellen gets down on her knees to deliver her curse I had a distinct feeling of entering Holy Grail land—of the Monty Python variety. It didn’t get any better when the prologue ends with what is supposed to be an image of sinister portent but which unfortunately just came across to me as comical: a decapitated cockerel dancing its life blood out before a hanged man.
I sighed and put it aside, thinking that I just wasn’t in a receptive mood. After all, this is a best-seller. Everyone who bought it can’t be wrong, can they? Well, I guess it’s me that’s missing something because when I tried again the next day it was no better.
Whereas A Game of Thrones takes place over the span of about a year The Pillars of the Earth covers a couple of generations. And please don’t object that one is fantasy and one isn’t. Remove the alternate-Medieval earth setting and the references to dragons from Thrones and the two are very much alike. Except of course that with Martin I was completely in his world; with Follett I never left the 21st Century. I was just never convinced.
And let me say right here that I didn’t get beyond reading slightly over two chapters; but don’t hold that against me because that alone comes to 200 pages! I mean, everything drags in this novel. Every detail has to be poured over; and mainly, it seemed to me, to show off the author’s research. Well, like any kind of learning, that should be worn lightly. You shouldn’t need to bludgeon us over the head with every tedious detail in order to make it real.
Martin throws in a lot of detail, too; but in a way that is more seamless. I can see the ice wall weeping; I can feel the serenity in the godswood. Follett just deadens the imagination with endless architectural description—it is, after all, about the building of a cathedral over a period of decades—and in the end I could picture very little clearly. And of course this is just me; tens of thousands of readers obviously don’t feel that way.[By the way, Martin actually makes a strength of one of his weaknesses. He’s not too great at writing battle scenes (again, Robert Howard he ain’t!) and so most of the big ones take place ‘off-stage’. As indeed they do in the excellent TV series’, although I’d imagine that’s more to do with the limits of the budget, not of the imagination.]
Still, I would defy any of Follett’s many admirers to defend the utterly ludicrous sequence in which Ellen comes to the main character Tom Builder just after he has buried his wife and is lying in a fever. This has to be one of the most unintentionally hilarious sex scenes ever written—and believe me there have been some bad ones. And if that wasn’t awful enough she then declares that she fell in love with him at first sight. Oh please, pass me the sick bucket!
No, if all belief hadn’t already fled, the 200 pages of treacle that I waded through would have finished me. Let’s face it, if you can’t grab the reader in that time you’re not going to—and I felt that I had already wasted enough time on The Pillars of the Earth.
Now: roll on, A Clash of Kings: Book Two of A Song of Ice and Fire. At least with that one, I know that I can’t go wrong!