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On Ken Follett and Whether Epic Novels Are Worth the Time

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Salisbury Cathedral is one of the cathedrals that inspired the fictional Knightsbridge Cathedral in The Pillars of the Earth.

On Ken Follett’s Epic Novels

A Saga of a Place

The first Ken Follett book that I ever read was The Pillars of the Earth.  I don’t remember exactly when it was, but I know I started reading it on a Kindle in a plane.  For years, I lived overseas in places that involved 12+ hour flights, and this one was unusual in that I read and read.

 

Usually, I used the time to catch up on my movie watching.  I’m also pretty good at sleeping in an economy airline seat. 

 

When the Century trilogy came out a few years later, I was excited to do it all again with a new setting, but I just couldn’t get into the Century trilogy the way that I did Pillars of the Earth.  I chalked it up to the fact that I already knew too much about the historical period. In U.S. schools, we start with indigenous cultures and move on to the first English settlers. English people before that? Western Civilization? Little to nothing : You get maybe one year in high school for the whole world as compared to as many as 4 for U.S. history if you include government.

 

Although I considered myself a bit burned by the Century trilogy, I found myself sucked in again when Follett published a prequel to The Pillars of the Earth, The Evening and the Morning.  I was riveted, and obsessively read it for days, days mind you (that’s a lot for me), only to finally peter out on page 702.  The book started to feel shallow: characters were introduced and then disappeared into the background, and I found I had so few details to go on that I had difficulty picturing either the people or the setting.

 

After rooting around on the Internet, I found the answer to the question I didn’t know I had fairly easily (don’t you love it when that happens): Follett got too good at playing his own game.  He explains that the way you write a compelling novel is to give the reader a plot turn every six to eight pages.  Ok, great.  I get that.  Something needs to happen.  But the problem with The Evening and the Morning is that there are very few details that really draw me into the story, and eventually I get to the point where I feel as though I can diagram the book by calculating the “high” points that dutifully appear 3 every five to ten pages.

 

Not to mention the regularity to which the book refers to the sexual orientations of the nuns, monks, and priests.  I mean really, WHO CARES? 

 

Ok, so I read The Pillars of the Earth and the rest of the series years ago, so maybe I’ve just become a more jaded reader since then. Or perhaps Follett is uniquely suited to plane reading…and belief me, writing books that make long flights go faster is a good think.

 

First paragraphs of The Evening and Morning:

1.     We meet Edgar, the protagonist.

2.     We find out that he is about to get married.

3.     We find out he is good at dates, as in on the calendar.

4.     We find out he lives in a thatched hut and sleeps in a room with his family. 

5.     It’s also important to note that his parents sleep back to back, but sometimes they wake up in the night, “embrace, whispering and moving together, until they fell back, panting.” Hmm.  I wonder what they were doing?

And why does Follett think it’s worth noting that they all sleep together in the same room and the parents sometimes have sex?

 

First paragraphs of  Pillars of the Earth:

 

1.     There is a group of small boys who like to go to hangings.

2.     They embrace what is bad or ugly and scorn what is beautiful and good.

3.     They live in hovels in a little town where it has just snowed.

4.     They hang out on the steps of the church until the older boys kick them out, then gradually the other townspeople make appearances, and we get a sense of who the different groups are and how the town operates.

By starting with something small, the behavior of the group of boys, and expanding outwards, I get a sense of the setting of the story: where we are and why I should care. I’m already wondering why these people interact they way that they do, which is a great start to a story.

Follett has already mentioned the church and has shown us how important it is to the community, which is key since the building of the cathedral is the hub of the plot.

Even more importantly, this cathedral, pictured, is something worth writing hundreds of pages about and building a story around. It’s an amazing building, even for 2020, let alone when it was started in 1220.

 

The front and back matter give us a sense of Follett’s connection with the material in each book: In The Pillars of the Earth, Follett wrote a long preface telling us all about his reasons for writing the book, his interest in Cathedrals and church building in general, not to mention his conflicted feelings about religion itself.  In The Evening and the Morning, the only matter, either front or back, is a page long note acknowledging his historical advisors and also acknowledging that he often ignored their advice. 

 

Well, isn’t that just great?  The main reason I was reading The Evening and the Morning was to find out about the end of the Dark Ages, and now I don’t even know what to believe.  Great. Because Ken Follett thinks he knows more than career historians.

I should also add here that I own a Kindle copy of Fall of Giants, the first book because I downloaded it for a long flight. I tried to read it and got to irritated with the obvious explanations for every details that means either Follett (or his editor) thinks his readers are clueless or he’s padding his writing. According to my Kindle copy, I made it to Chapter 5, 15% of the way in, before I finally gave up on it.

I was an English teacher for a long time, and one of my cardinal writing rules for my students was “Don’t bore me or waste my time: padding your writing does both.” Those were expectations for thirteen year olds, who were definitely not professional writers!

So when I compare the Century Trilogy to The Evening and the Morning, I have to conclude that I’m not the problem. I recommend that you stick to the three original books in the Giants of the Earth trilogy. 

An epic novel can be a great way to spend your time.  I wouldn’t even call it a “time killer” because an engaging story that opens you up to another world…especially if it’s reasonably factual…is enriching as well as entertaining.  But make sure it’s one that’s worth your time.

What works for me is attention to detail…episodic stories that go deep, the meaning of which might be unclear for a while before coming together in the last sections.  I want to be able to experience the time and place: be transported in a sense.  And finally, I want to know that the author’s work has some basis in reality.  I want to know what kind of research was done, and how the research informed the final plot.  I’m ok with getting this information outside of the book…that’s what the Internet is for…but taking the time to put some material in the book really shows one cares!

 

So yes, pick up a saga. Even pick up a Ken Follett saga. Just make sure it’s the right one.

Luckily, because books by all of the authors are huge sellers and have been around for years, they are all easy to find either through the library or low-cost used editions, so just don’t invest anything until you are sure your into the one you’ve picked up.

 

James A. Michener

Sagas of Places

James A. Michener was almost literally a product of the 20th Century as he lived from 1997-2007. The settings of his first books were drawn from the time he spent in the South Seas as a Naval historian in World War 2, in fact, the classic Rodgers & Hammerstein musical South Pacific was based on his book, Tales of the South Pacific.

The notable thing about South Pacific to me is Michener’s treatment of interracial romance, and let’s just say it, racial prejudice. His plot may seem a bit passée now, but not for their time. And that is an important truth to tell.

Here’s the short version….

Of course, he is best known for his sagas that are set in various locations around the world. He is known for his extensive research, which included historical, cultural, and even geological…no kidding, his books often start at the dawn of time with a description of the local landscape and how it was formed.

Each book is a self contained saga starting with prehistory and eventually focusing on multi-generations of families.

His bestselling book, according to Amazon.com, is The Source, which is about Jerusalem.

Michener’s first “place based” saga is Hawaii, which was published at about the time that Hawaii became the 50th state.

My personal favorite is Chesapeake, mainly because I am from coastal Virginia, near the Chesapeake Bay. Many people associate the Chesapeake with Maryland, but actually Virginia has just as much coastline, and its mouth is near in the Norfolk, Virginia area (once called Tidewater and now called Hampton Roads).

I’ve also read Hawaii and two or three more. The nice thing about these books is that some of the history sticks with me. Ironically, I end up best remembering the prehistory sections even though the lack of human characters makes me the most likely to want to skip through them.

Check out this interactive map at the James A. Michener Society website to select more of his novels by location.

Jean M. Auel

A Saga of People

Jean M. Auel basically focused her entire writing career on her Earth’s Children series, which focuses on prehistoric Europe and the interaction between Cro-Magnon people and Neanderthals. She is known for the extensive research that she did, which includes both hands on work, such as crafts, and visiting actual sites in Europe.

She actually started writing in midlife, when her children were nearly grown. Before that, she held other types of jobs and was the mom of a fairly large family.

Here is an interview with her done in 2014, after the publication of the sixth and final book in the series:

Ayla, a Cro-Magnon raised in a clan of Neanderthals, is the protagonist of the entire series although she moves from place to place in each book.

I remember when I was reading the series in my 20’s: I spent the entire four hour drive for Thanksgiving reading with these books leaving my poor husband to drive basically by himself, and the whole afternoon I was thinking about sneaking off to read more.

There was a movie made of The Clan of the Cave Bear in the 80’s. I don’t think it was a hit then, and it’s kind of painful to watch now despite what I considered the perfect casting choice of Daryl Hannah as Ayla, the protagonist.

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