The Pillars of the Earth

By Ken Follett


Welcome to the grand world of “The Pillars of the Earth” 🏰✨, a historical masterpiece by the renowned author Ken Follett. Set against the tumultuous backdrop of the 12th century England, this novel not only transports its readers back in time but also into the hearts and minds of its vivid characters. Ken Follett, known for his meticulously researched and epic historical novels, outdid himself with this publication in 1989, marking a significant pivot from his previous thrillers to the realms of historical fiction.

“The Pillars of the Earth” is more than just a story; it’s an immersive journey through the complexities of ambition, power, conflict, and love. It falls under the genre of historical fiction, with a hefty dose of drama and a sprinkle of romance and intrigue. 📚💔 The narrative revolves around the construction of a cathedral in the fictional town of Kingsbridge, England, serving as the epicenter of various intertwining plots that span generations.

Follett’s dedication to detail not only paints a vivid picture of medieval England but also explores the intricate social and political landscapes of the era. Whether you’re a history buff, a romance aficionado, or someone who appreciates a well-crafted saga, “The Pillars of the Earth” promises a compelling read that’s hard to put down. Let’s embark on this epic journey through Follett’s masterpiece, exploring the intricacies of its plot, characters, themes, and much more! 📖✨

Plot Summary

“The Pillars of the Earth” is an epic narrative that spans several decades, focusing on the construction of a cathedral in the fictional town of Kingsbridge, England, during the 12th century. The story intricately weaves together the lives of its characters through love, betrayal, ambition, and adversity.

Exposition — The novel introduces Tom Builder, a skilled mason who dreams of building a cathedral, and Prior Philip, a devout and ambitious monk who becomes the head of Kingsbridge Priory. Their lives intersect with the beautiful but beleaguered noblewoman Aliena, her vengeful brother Richard, and the scheming bishop Waleran Bigod.

Rising Action — As Prior Philip endeavors to build his cathedral to glorify God and enrich Kingsbridge, he faces opposition from Waleran Bigod and other nobles. Tom Builder, mourning the loss of his wife, joins forces with Philip, offering his architectural genius. Meanwhile, Aliena, vowing to regain her family’s lost earldom, ventures into the wool trade, supporting her brother Richard’s knighthood.

Climax — The zenith of the novel revolves around the completion of the cathedral’s roof and the confrontation between the protagonists and their adversaries. The cathedral’s construction faces numerous setbacks, including financial difficulties, sabotage, and natural disasters. Amidst these challenges, Aliena and Tom Builder develop a profound love, further complicating the plot.

Falling Action — With the cathedral nearing completion, the power struggles within Kingsbridge and the broader kingdom intensify. Aliena battles to reclaim her family’s earldom, while Tom Builder and his family endure personal and professional trials. The falling action sees the resolution of these conflicts, often in unexpected ways.

Resolution — The novel concludes with the cathedral’s completion, symbolizing the triumph of perseverance, faith, and human spirit over adversity. The characters find various forms of redemption or fulfillment. Tom Builder’s legacy lives on through his architectural masterpiece, Philip’s vision for a thriving Kingsbridge is realized, and Aliena and Richard reclaim their noble status, albeit at great personal cost.

“The Pillars of the Earth” masterfully combines historical events with fictional narratives, providing a panoramic view of 12th century England through the lens of its memorable characters and their relentless pursuit of their dreams.

Character Analysis

“The Pillars of the Earth” is rich with complex characters whose motivations, personal growth, and interactions drive the narrative forward. Here’s a closer look at some of the main characters:

  • Tom Builder — A master mason driven by the singular dream of building a cathedral. Tom is a representation of persistence and resilience. His journey from a struggling builder to the master mason of Kingsbridge Cathedral illustrates his dedication to his craft and his adaptability in the face of adversity. His personal life is marked by tragedy, love, and ultimately, legacy, through his children and the cathedral he helps build.
  • Prior Philip — The ambitious and devout monk who becomes the Prior of Kingsbridge Priory. Philip is the moral center of the novel, characterized by his unwavering faith, integrity, and visionary leadership. His efforts to build the cathedral and improve the lives of Kingsbridge’s residents reflect his commitment to service and God. Despite his piety, Philip is not without flaws, as he navigates the murky waters of medieval politics and conflict, showcasing his resourcefulness and determination.
  • Aliena — The noblewoman who vows to restore her family’s fortune and status after their downfall. Aliena’s journey from nobility to destitution and back is a testament to her strength, intelligence, and resilience. Her success in the wool trade, her support of her brother Richard, and her complex relationships, particularly with Jack, highlight her multifaceted character. Aliena embodies the themes of revenge, love, and redemption.
  • Jack — The son of Tom Builder and Ellen, Jack is a gifted architect who inherits his father’s dream of building a cathedral. His innovative ideas, combined with his strong sense of justice and love for Aliena, drive much of the narrative. Jack’s development from a curious, talented boy to the master builder of Kingsbridge Cathedral showcases his growth, creativity, and perseverance in the face of personal and professional challenges.
  • Waleran Bigod — The ambitious bishop who opposes the construction of the cathedral and the prosperity of Kingsbridge. Waleran is the primary antagonist, representing greed, corruption, and the abuse of power within the Church. His machinations against Prior Philip and the builders of the cathedral highlight the conflict between personal ambition and the greater good.

Here’s a summary of the character analysis in a table format:

CharacterPersonality TraitsMotivationsDevelopment Throughout the Story
Tom BuilderPersistent, Resilient, SkilledTo build a cathedralGrows from a wandering builder to the architect of a masterpiece
Prior PhilipDevout, Ambitious, ResourcefulTo serve God and improve KingsbridgeEvolves from a simple monk to a visionary leader
AlienaStrong, Intelligent, ResilientTo reclaim her family’s statusRises from fallen nobility to a successful businesswoman
JackCreative, Just, DeterminedTo fulfill his father’s dream, Love for AlienaDevelops from a boy to a master builder, overcoming personal and professional hurdles
Waleran BigodGreedy, Corrupt, ManipulativeTo gain power and controlFaces the consequences of his actions, highlighting the battle between ambition and morality

This analysis highlights the depth and evolution of “The Pillars of the Earth” characters, showcasing their complexities, struggles, and triumphs against the backdrop of the cathedral’s construction.

Themes and Symbols

“The Pillars of the Earth” is woven with rich themes and symbols that deepen the narrative and enhance its historical and emotional resonance. Here’s a look at some of the major themes and symbols:

  • Ambition and Achievement — The cathedral itself symbolizes the heights of human ambition and achievement. The characters’ desires to build, to reclaim lost status, or to rise in power reflect broader human struggles and aspirations. This theme is explored through the various obstacles they face and overcome, showcasing the persistence and resilience required to achieve greatness.
  • Faith and Morality — The contrast between genuine faith and the use of religion for personal gain is a recurring theme. Characters like Prior Philip embody true devotion and moral integrity, while figures like Waleran Bigod represent the corruption within the church. This theme questions the true essence of faith and the ethical dilemmas faced by individuals in their pursuit of what they believe is right.
  • Love and Sacrifice — The relationships between characters such as Tom Builder and Ellen, Jack and Aliena, highlight the theme of love’s transformative power and the sacrifices made in its name. Love drives many characters to extraordinary actions and decisions, underlining its role as a powerful motivator and source of conflict.
  • Power and Corruption — The novel delves into the nature of power and its corrupting influence, especially within the church and nobility. The struggle for power leads to a series of conflicts and alliances, illustrating how ambition can corrupt and lead to moral compromises.
  • Social Order and Justice — Through the lives of its characters, the novel explores the rigid social hierarchy of the 12th century and the quest for justice within it. Characters like Aliena and Jack strive to overcome their predetermined roles in society, challenging the status quo and advocating for a more just and equitable world.
  • The Cathedral as a Symbol — Beyond its religious significance, the cathedral represents various aspects of human experience: creativity, resilience, community, and the perpetual reach for the divine. It stands as a testament to the enduring human spirit, reflecting both the glory and the folly of its builders.
  • Stone and Light as Symbols — Architecturally, the use of stone and light within the cathedral embodies the themes of strength, endurance, and enlightenment. The stone signifies the solid foundation of faith and determination, while the light represents divine presence, hope, and the triumph of good over darkness.

These themes and symbols enrich “The Pillars of the Earth,” intertwining the personal with the universal, and the historical with the timeless. They invite readers to reflect on the complexity of the human condition, the struggle for power, the quest for justice, and the enduring nature of faith and love.

Writing Style and Tone

Ken Follett’s “The Pillars of the Earth” is marked by a writing style and tone that are both engaging and expansive, adeptly bringing the medieval world to vivid life while exploring the depth of human emotions and ambitions. Here’s how these elements contribute to the book’s atmosphere:

  • Descriptive and Immersive — Follett’s prose is richly descriptive, painting detailed pictures of 12th-century England, from the harshness of its landscapes to the intricacies of cathedral construction. This immersive detail not only educates but also transports readers, allowing them to experience the sights, sounds, and textures of a bygone era.
  • Character-Driven Narrative — The tone of the book is deeply influenced by its focus on character development. Follett takes the time to explore the inner workings of his characters’ minds, their motivations, fears, and desires. This introspection adds layers to the narrative, making the historical events and settings deeply personal.
  • Epic and Sweeping — The narrative scope of “The Pillars of the Earth” is vast, spanning several decades and covering significant historical events. The writing style mirrors this epic breadth, managing to weave together multiple plot lines and characters in a coherent and engaging manner. The tone is therefore one of grandeur and significance, reflective of the monumental achievements and dramatic conflicts of the era.
  • Accessible and Engaging — Despite its historical setting and the complexity of its themes, Follett’s writing remains accessible. He avoids the trap of over-complication, ensuring that the reader is always engaged and connected to the story. The dialogue, while reflective of the period, is crafted to be understandable to the modern reader, enhancing the characters’ relatability.
  • Dramatic and Tense — Follett masterfully builds tension through his narrative structure, using short, cliff-hanger chapters to keep readers on the edge of their seats. The writing style is thus dynamic, with a tone that oscillates between the suspenseful and the contemplative, reflecting the highs and lows of the characters’ journeys.
  • Emotional Depth — The tone of the novel is imbued with a profound sense of emotion, capturing the joys, sorrows, triumphs, and tragedies of its characters. Follett’s ability to evoke empathy and connection is a testament to his skillful character portrayals and narrative pacing.

In summary, Ken Follett’s writing style and tone in “The Pillars of the Earth” are characterized by their ability to create a vivid, immersive world filled with complex characters and dramatic, sweeping narratives. The book’s accessibility and emotional depth make it a compelling read, drawing readers into the medieval world and the lives of those who seek to build, love, and survive within it.

Literary Devices used in The Pillars of the Earth

Ken Follett employs a wide array of literary devices in “The Pillars of the Earth” to enrich his narrative, enhance thematic depth, and create a vivid historical setting. Here are the top 10 literary devices used in the book:

  1. Foreshadowing — Follett uses foreshadowing to hint at future events, creating suspense and preparing readers for upcoming developments. This technique is especially evident in the early mentions of the cathedral, hinting at its eventual significance to all characters involved.
  2. Symbolism — The cathedral serves as the central symbol of the novel, representing human ambition, faith, and the quest for beauty. Other symbols, like stone and light, underscore themes of endurance, hope, and enlightenment.
  3. Irony — The use of irony highlights the contrasts between appearance and reality, especially in the depiction of the church’s corruption versus its spiritual mission. Irony is also present in characters’ fates, where their desires often lead to unforeseen outcomes.
  4. Metaphor — Follett frequently employs metaphors to draw comparisons that enhance his descriptions and themes. For instance, the building of the cathedral is metaphorically linked to the construction of a community and the building of lives.
  5. Allusion — The novel is replete with allusions to historical events, figures, and places of the 12th century, grounding the narrative in its time period and adding layers of realism.
  6. Imagery — Vivid imagery is used to paint detailed scenes, from the architectural beauty of the cathedral to the starkness of medieval life. This device immerses readers in the setting and emotions of the characters.
  7. Personification — Follett personifies elements of the cathedral’s construction, giving life to stone and wood, which emphasizes the spiritual and emotional investment in the building project.
  8. Alliteration — The use of alliteration adds a lyrical quality to the prose, enhancing the readability and flow of the narrative, particularly in descriptive passages.
  9. Parallelism — The parallel stories of different characters and their interactions with the cathedral’s construction create a narrative symmetry, reinforcing themes of interconnectedness and community.
  10. Juxtaposition — Follett juxtaposes the moral and ethical dilemmas faced by his characters against the backdrop of the cathedral’s construction, highlighting the complexities of their decisions and the era.

These literary devices collectively contribute to the depth, richness, and texture of “The Pillars of the Earth,” making it not only a compelling historical narrative but also a profound exploration of human ambition, morality, and creativity.

Literary Devices Examples

For each of the top 10 literary devices used in “The Pillars of the Earth,” here are tables with 3 examples and explanations:


Early references to the cathedral’s design and construction foreshadow its central role in the community and the personal lives of the characters.Sets the stage for the cathedral as a symbol of ambition and faith, indicating its future importance.
Predictions of conflict between nobility and clergy hint at the power struggles that will affect Kingsbridge and its inhabitants.Prepares readers for the thematic exploration of power, corruption, and resistance.
Dreams and visions experienced by characters, such as Ellen’s premonitions, foreshadow critical plot developments.These mystical elements hint at future events, adding a layer of suspense and anticipation for the reader.


The cathedral symbolizes human ambition, faith, and the eternal quest for beauty and knowledge.It represents the potential for greatness within humanity, as well as the struggle and sacrifice required to achieve it.
Light streaming through the cathedral’s windows symbolizes divine presence and enlightenment.This imagery suggests the idea of spiritual illumination and the hope for a better future.
The stone used in the cathedral’s construction represents durability, strength, and the lasting impact of human endeavor.It underscores the themes of resilience and legacy, emphasizing the enduring nature of human achievements.


Characters who seek power and wealth through the church often find themselves facing ruin or moral bankruptcy.Highlights the ironic twist that those who pursue material gain in a spiritual context often lose more than they gain.
The cathedral, intended as a house of God, becomes a battleground for human ambition and conflict.This irony underscores the contrast between the spiritual ideals of the church and the reality of human nature.
Aliena’s vow to help her brother regain their lost earldom leads her to a successful career in the wool trade, a path she never intended to take.Demonstrates irony in her achieving success and independence through unforeseen circumstances, diverging from her original goals.


The cathedral is described as a “ship of stone,” navigating the storms of human conflict and ambition.This metaphor emphasizes the cathedral’s role as a vessel for the collective hopes and struggles of the community.
Characters’ lives are often likened to the buildings they inhabit or construct, reflecting their personalities and fates.Suggests the idea that humans are architects of their destinies, constructing their lives through choices and actions.
The process of cathedral construction is compared to the growth of a living organism, emphasizing the organic development of the project and its impact on the community.This metaphor highlights the interconnectedness of human endeavors and the natural evolution of societal progress.


References to real historical events, such as the Anarchy in England, provide a backdrop for the novel’s plot.Grounds the narrative in a specific historical context, adding depth and realism to the story.
Mentions of historical figures and places, like King Stephen and the city of Winchester, anchor the story in the reality of the 12th century.Enhances the authenticity of the setting and characters, bridging the gap between fiction and history.
Allusions to biblical stories and religious texts reflect the characters’ faith and the era’s cultural beliefs.Adds a layer of spiritual significance to the narrative, enriching the thematic exploration of faith and morality.

These examples showcase how Ken Follett utilizes literary devices to enrich “The Pillars of the Earth,” weaving a complex tapestry of themes, symbols, and historical depth that engages readers and immerses them in the medieval world.

The Pillars of the Earth – FAQs

What is the main theme of The Pillars of the Earth?
The main theme of “The Pillars of the Earth” is the pursuit of ambition and the human spirit’s resilience. The novel explores how individual aspirations, whether to build a cathedral, seek revenge, or find love, intersect with broader themes of faith, power, and social change in 12th century England.

Who are the main characters in The Pillars of the Earth?
The main characters include Tom Builder, a mason with a dream of building a great cathedral; Prior Philip, a devout monk who becomes the prior of Kingsbridge; Aliena, a noblewoman who vows to restore her family’s fortune; Jack, an architect and Tom’s son, who falls in love with Aliena; and Waleran Bigod, a bishop who opposes their efforts.

What is the significance of the cathedral in The Pillars of the Earth?
The cathedral represents the culmination of human ambition, creativity, and faith. It serves as a backdrop for the characters’ personal growth and the socio-political changes of the era. The building of the cathedral symbolizes the struggles and triumphs of the human spirit and the possibility of achieving greatness against all odds.

How does Ken Follett portray historical accuracy in The Pillars of the Earth?
Ken Follett conducted extensive research to ensure the historical accuracy of “The Pillars of the Earth.” The novel accurately portrays the architectural techniques, political climate, and social conditions of 12th century England. While the main characters and the town of Kingsbridge are fictional, they are set against a backdrop of real historical events and figures, adding depth and authenticity to the story.

Is The Pillars of the Earth part of a series?
Yes, “The Pillars of the Earth” is the first book in Ken Follett’s Kingsbridge Series. It is followed by “World Without End,” set in the same town of Kingsbridge 200 years later, and “A Column of Fire,” which moves forward into the 16th century. The series explores the town’s development and its inhabitants’ lives across centuries, with each novel standing on its own while contributing to the overarching narrative of the Kingsbridge saga.

Can The Pillars of the Earth be considered a historical novel?
Yes, “The Pillars of the Earth” is considered a historical novel. It combines fictional characters and narratives with historical events and figures from the 12th century. The novel provides insight into medieval architecture, the English monarchy, and the life of common people and nobility, making it a rich exploration of the period.

What challenges do the characters face in building the cathedral?
The characters face numerous challenges in building the cathedral, including financial constraints, political opposition, sabotage from rivals, and natural disasters. These obstacles test their resilience, faith, and ingenuity, reflecting the broader struggles of the human condition.


QuestionABCDCorrect Answer
Who is the master builder who dreams of constructing a grand cathedral?Prior PhilipJackTom BuilderWaleran BigodC
What is the primary motivation of Prior Philip in ‘The Pillars of the Earth’?To become kingTo build a cathedral and improve KingsbridgeTo defeat all his enemiesTo amass great wealthB
Aliena vows to regain her family’s lost…?JewelsEarldomCathedralFaithB
Which character is known for their architectural innovations and falls in love with Aliena?Tom BuilderPrior PhilipWaleran BigodJackD
Who is the main antagonist opposing the construction of the cathedral?RichardAlienaWaleran BigodJackC
‘The Pillars of the Earth’ is set during which historical period?The RenaissanceThe Roman EmpireThe Elizabethan EraThe 12th CenturyD
What major theme is explored through the construction of the cathedral?The inevitability of deathHuman ambition and resilienceThe importance of educationThe power of silenceB
How does Ken Follett incorporate historical accuracy into the novel?By using modern languageBy focusing solely on fictional elementsThrough extensive research and incorporating real historical events and figuresBy avoiding detailed descriptions of the settingC
The cathedral in ‘The Pillars of the Earth’ symbolizes…?The characters’ inability to changeThe finality of all human endeavorsHuman ambition, creativity, and faithThe simplicity of medieval lifeC
Which character undergoes significant personal growth and helps to advance the construction of the cathedral?Waleran BigodRichardJackPrior PhilipC

This quiz is designed to test comprehension and understanding of key characters, themes, and plot elements in “The Pillars of the Earth” by Ken Follett.


Identify the literary devices used in the following paragraph from “The Pillars of the Earth”:

“The cathedral stood tall, its spires reaching towards the heavens as if in silent prayer. Around its base, the people of Kingsbridge moved like ants, their lives intertwined with the stone and mortar of this sacred place. Inside, the light filtered through the stained glass, casting a kaleidoscope of colors across the nave, telling stories older than time itself. Here, amidst the echo of footsteps and whispered devotions, the ambitions and fears of a community were laid bare, as enduring as the pillars that held up the sky.”

Identify the literary devices:

  1. ________________
  2. ________________
  3. ________________
  4. ________________


  1. Personification – The cathedral is personified with “spires reaching towards the heavens as if in silent prayer,” attributing human characteristics to inanimate objects.
  2. Simile – The comparison of the people to ants using “like” emphasizes the bustling activity and the smallness of individuals in relation to the cathedral.
  3. Imagery – Descriptive language creates a vivid picture of the light filtering through stained glass and the effect it has on the interior of the cathedral.
  4. Symbolism – The cathedral symbolizes the community’s ambitions and fears, and the pillars represent strength and support, both physically for the building and metaphorically for the community.