There are books that you read, with vaguely interesting stories, that sometimes within less than a month have been forgotten, ignored, barely recollected except for title, author and a minor recall of plot. Then there are books that change your mind on life, that give you a thrill as you read them and think about how much you’re loving to read this particular book, and how it’s making such an impression on you, and how you’re going to remember it for a long part of your life. I don’t need to tell you which kind of book World Without End is. I’m also not going to give you a formal, regurgitated plot summary that you can find in just about any review of this book. I am however going to try to convince you why you should read this book with the intention that it will have the same pivotal impression on you as it did on me.
While I have never been a fan or proponent of the seemingly omnipotent Oprah and her book club, she nevertheless has the power to make a considerable number of Americans do, and more importantly, read whatever she tells them. In January of this year, Oprah nominated Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth for her book club and overnight people of all different kinds, and of unexpected types, picked up this lofty paperback tome set in the Middle Ages and documenting the fascinating building of a giant cathedral with immense architectural detail. It’s one of my favorite books, and to see so many people buying it and reading it made me happy. Naturally, once these people got to the last page of Pillars of the Earth, and assuming they enjoyed it as much as Oprah said they would, they would then turn to World Without End. Follett’s new book has been labeled as the sequel of Pillars of the Earth, which is not exactly correct, for none of the original characters are in the new book, and it is set in a later period; however it involves descendants of the main family in Pillars of the Earth, and there is the memory and impression left by characters both in historical record and physical form, such as the cathedral. But World Without End takes many giants leaps further forward as a deeper and more complex book than Pillars of the Earth ever did, equivalent to an ant making its way along a path, while a person looks down upon the ant as they walk by. Perspective is the key here, and if one has some knowledge of the fourteenth century, one will enjoy the book all the more.
Don’t look for the good guys to always win out, and the bad guys to fail in World Without End because, like real life, this world does not reward those who do good and punish those who do bad; it’s a harsh world that gives more opportunity to the survivors of the fittest. You must also remember that this is the fourteenth century, the time of the peasant and noble, a time where class distinction was at the most severe and was a defining character of every person. Though while there is all this suffering, one cannot help but think at some point it must get better for the characters you like, and worse for the characters you hate, and this is after all a novel; but don’t expect Follett to do anything you might predict.
The fourteenth century had a lot going on throughout Europe, and what makes World Without End an incredible novel is that Follett uses the monumental and catastrophic events in microcosm focused through a couple of small towns in England. There were cooling temperatures, which led to crop failure and starvation for many peasants, known as the Great Famine; coupled with this was the uprising of peasants against their noble overlords, who had subjugated and oppressed them for so long, known as the Peasant’s Revolt. Then there was the growing guild system, where anyone wanting to become skilled in a trade would have to be invited to become a member of a guild. There was the horrific plague that is estimated to have wiped out half the population of Europe, known as the Black Death. There was also the moving of the papacy from Rome to Avignon, which created a fission in the Christian faith and led to questioning and critique of the absolute religion. Finally there was the seemingly never ending Hundred Years War.
Follett skillfully uses these events in World Without End, weighing in at 1024 pages, but never overtly calls out any of them for what they are, partly because a lot of the terms and names for the events were not yet in existence, and because he seeks to be less overt and obvious, but to have these events occur in most cases beyond the scope of these small towns, to be events occurring far away that have little importance and effect on the citizens of the town – much like the Iraq War is for the American people today. At least this seems the case at first, and then the subliminal effects come into play, where men head off to war, craftsmen have to fight to get into guilds, peasants are suffering and in some cases starving, the church is overbearing in its control and being questioned, and finally with the arrival of the plague, the people’s lives and the towns are changed forever.
World Without End takes you on a journey through the fourteenth century, but not via a history lesson, but in the important and complex lives of some ordinary townspeople of varying classes, their loves and losses, their hopes and dreams, their despair and suffering. It’s a moving and some might say depressing book, but as I mentioned, the fourteenth century was a tumultuous time to say the least. But when you get to the last page, you’ll wish it had never happened; you’ll wish for more story, for more characters; you’ll wish to remember this incredible tale for a long time.
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Originally written on March 2nd, 2008 ©Alex C. Telander.