World Without End
by Ken Follett
Published in the Los Angeles Times 2007
At nearly one thousand pages, Ken Follett’s World Without End comes perilously close to fulfilling the dread promise of its title. The second of the thriller writer’s medieval novels, this new supersized story inspires the same question posed by its doorstop predecessor: too fat to pick up or too engrossing to put down? Naturally the author plumps for the latter – sure of interest in the project, Follett even invited a crew to film him writing the monster, in a program which aired in his native Britain last month.
All this excess will delight the Follett faithful, already accustomed to his whipsaw plotting and repeated recourse to violence and rapine. Like his previous medieval effort, Pillars of the Earth (his most popular book to date), World Without End makes for giddy chutes-and-ladders reading, where no situation can be reversed too often and no conflict resolved without serial surprises. Follett’s Middle Ages – bestial, political, venal – are relentlessly eventful.
The setting is Kingsbridge, a stout market town in the heart of England whose twelfth-century cathedral builders were put through the Follett plot wringer in Pillars of the Earth. Now comes the turn of their descendants two hundred years later, as World Without End follows four principals through the first half of the calamitous fourteenth century. Two spirited women – one a stubborn and lovesick serf, the other a preternaturally intelligent merchant’s daughter – lead tempestuous lives that are intertwined with those of two sons of a ruined nobleman. One boy goes on to become a master architect; the other, rotten to the core, rises in the ranks of the aristocracy through the application of strategic atrocity. As children, these four witnessed a murder on which the fate of the entire kingdom hinged; as adults, they struggle for power and position amidst the interest groups in the town: monastery, nunnery and merchants’ guild.
While the story zigzags mostly around this foursome and their various weddings and beddings, along the way Follett has his many characters work out the mechanics of medieval bridge building, wool dyeing, market trading, medicinal bleeding and tax levying. As a whole these nuts-and-bolts dialogues are edifying, even if at times the enterprising townspeople sound, alas, like the guileless problem-solvers of the Magic School Bus. Where Follett excels, however, is in the dramatization of the politics of clergymen vs. burghers vs. nobles – the constant tug-of-war that made medieval life as contentious as our own age of litigation. Monastic politics, for example, usually come coated with dust in academic works of history; here, thanks to Follett’s breezy anachronistic style, the obscure infighting is fresh and diverting. Thus we are treated to the memorable prior of the monastery in Kinsgsbridge, incompetent at everything save the acquiring and maintaining of power, and his Karl Rove-like sidekick, adept at dirty tricks and sliming reputations. Like the current White House, the two move from one catastrophic decision to the next, all the while maintaining the upper hand on their rivals. It can hardly be a coincidence that Follett’s wife is herself a successful politician.
So, what actually happens? In the first half of this saga of wheeling and dealing, the central stake is the governance of Kingsbridge and its revenue-generating fleece fair. The bright wool merchant’s daughter, Caris, and her paramour architect, Merthin, struggle to free the town from the dead hand of monastic control and its hidebound devotion to tradition. Follett shows how the medieval era was effervescent, with trade expanding and new ideas cautiously being floated. The lovers’ ambitions are thwarted when Caris, accused of heresy, is forced into a convent, upon which the heartbroken Merthin flees to find his fortune in Florence. Unbowed, Caris then journeys to France with a beautiful lesbian nun and accidentally witnesses the Battle of Crécy, the kick-off to the Hundred Years’ War. Gore connoisseurs will rejoice at this reconstruction.
Into the narrative game roars the Black Death, reshuffling, or rather halving, the deck and allowing the survivors a chance to hatch new schemes and couple with new partners. By this time it will come as no shock to the reader that Follett, whose flair for non-consensual sex scenes borders on the distressing, lingers on the hideous symptoms and agonies of plague victims. In a more seemly vein, he also demonstrates how the epidemic changed the lives of peasants, who suddenly had bargaining power as a result of the depleted number of hands available to work the land. In the wake of the plague, one of the principal characters, the lovesick and perpetually luckless serf Gwenda, finally manages to outmaneuver her rapist overlord, who is none other than Merthin’s ne’er-do-well brother Ralph.
Then comes the dizzying spiral of the book’s latter half. Caris more or less invents modern medicine in her convent plague hospital in Kingsbridge. Merthin, now a rich widower, returns to town to manage and start affairs. Bad brother Ralph, a hero of Crécy and thus in royal favor, extorts, bludgeons and abuses with abandon. Couples are made and unmade, ghastly comeuppances dished out, and a swarm of subplots finally put to sleep until at last a gay bishop and his lover (they are Norman French, of course) come to see the innate reasonableness of the townspeople, who are led by Merthin and Caris, united by love and brains.
However much it stretches plausability, World Without End remains a breathless entertainment throughout, and one that has few pretensions of faithfully recreating the Middle Ages through popular fiction (That, to my mind, was best achieved in Zoé Oldenbourg’s 1946 classic, The World Is Not Enough). Rather, the novel is more a testament to Ken Follett’s proven talent at keeping a story careering along at an almost alarming pace. Serious medievalists may sniff and literary novelists howl, but legions of readers will no doubt go along for the ride. They will need nothing more than a solid pair of wrists to lift the damn thing and, if I may make a suggestion, a very big bowl of popcorn.