Bookworm: ‘World without end’ by Ken Follett

The weekend passed in a blur. I was reading a very long book.

‘World without end’ by Ken Follett weighed in at a mighty 1,237 pages. I started this about four weeks ago with a slight feeling of dread. Books of this length can be dangerous.

As I am the type of person who will nearly always finish a book once I have started it, tomes like these are threatening. What if it is absolute gash, yet I don’t find this out until three hundred pages in? That’s a long and lonely nine hundred pages left to go.

As a result of this reluctance to commit to such a reading project, the book has been sitting on the bookshelf of doom, since I purchased it on January 17th this year, in the Oxfam charity shop on Parliament Street for €4. I know these dates and numbers because the receipt for the purchase was still inside the front cover. Since that date the book has been festering on my bookshelf. Lonely and unread.

As I have been engaged in valiant efforts this year, to address the unread book mountain in my living room, I have been making inroads into the slush pile on my shelves.

But why would I even contemplate buying such a thick book, I hear the voices in my head ask, if I am so reluctant to engage with a book longer than 500 pages? Well you see ‘World Without End’ is a sequel of sorts, to a very  special book – ‘The Pillars of the Earth’ which I read about five years ago. That book was a gripping medieval yarn about the construction of a cathedral, in the fictional southern English town of Kingsbridge, in the twelfth century. While this may not sound like the most interesting premise for a book, it was in fact a fascinating looking at life at that time, when England was still covered in forest, when modern farming techniques – namely fields – were a recent invention, and where the south of England and the north of France were passed back and forth between the kings of England and France. The drama and catastrophe that befalls the central characters led to a riveting book.

‘World Without End’ is set two centuries later in the mid-1300s in the same town of Kingsbridge. In the intervening years, it has become a major city, with a population of 7000 people (at the time the population of London was 20,000). The metropolis teems with builders, tanners, butchers, candlestick makers, wool merchants, and tavern wenches. It is ruled with an iron fist by the monastery, to which the population must all pay tax – whether that be in livestock, or eggs, or money.

The story starts in 1327 at Halloween, when four children – Merthin, Caris, Gwenda and Ralph – witness a murder in the forest. The book follows these four characters over the next forty years, and the various disasters and triumphs that befall them.

It is set against the backdrop of the outbreak of the Black Death – the plague transmitted by fleas living on rats – that wiped out 40% of the British population between 1347 and 1353 (and which would make special guest re-appearances over the coming centuries to wipe out additional huge numbers of people).

It’s a very interesting book. I was impressed by the research that went into it – describing how primitive medicine was at the time – with ‘bleeding’ being the seeming cure for all ailments. How the response of the church to the plague, weakened its power over the population; how women were especially vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft; how the depopulation of the land led to the cessation of serfdom – with labourers no longer required to work entirely at the lord’s instruction; to advances in technology, medecine and architecture.

The story of the characters is engaging. The scheming, double crossing monks; the murderous knights; the vengeful nuns, and the uppity serfs are all wildly entertaining.

A fault with book might be weak individual characters development tends to be. Each of the four main characters is symbolic of a particular type of person – builder; knight; nun; serf. Yet there is little subtlety or complexity to these portrayals. A ‘bad’ character is invariably evil to the core, with absolutely no redeeming features whatsoever. And the ‘good’ characters are sainted and wise.

If there’s anything I detest in a fictional character it is worthiness. I was therefore not cheering or  applauding for the sainted Caris as she tended to the ill; but rather for the vile knight Ralph as he plundered, and raped, and pillaged and murdered his wicked way through the land.

This is an epic of a book, almost resembling a soap-opera in how the drama unfolds.

But the painstaking and detailed historical research makes this a far better book than mere pulp fiction.

Not quite a book without end, ‘World Without End’ is a fantastic tale, which I would highly recommend.

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