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The Pillars of the Earth – Comments on Episode Four August 14, 2010

Posted by rwf1954 in historical fiction, Ken Follette, television commentary, The Pillars of the Earth.
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(Richard Warren Field wrote the award-winning novel,
The Swords of Faith. Read why this book will make a great movie.)

Not such an on-the-edge cliffhanger for this episode. But let’s be honest—it would have been hard to top last week’s intense ending. Immediately, within the first five minutes, the cliffhanger elements resolve: 1) Philip’s brother Francis gets the rope from around Philip’s neck just in time, and 2) Jack finds his way out of the pile of corpses. That allowed us to move quickly into this week’s drama.

Where did they leave us this week? Without Tom Builder. Just as in the book, Tom Builder dies in the raid on the Kingsbridge Fleece Fair. This was as much a shock in the book as it was in the mini-series, because it is hard to imagine Kingsbridge Cathedral without Tom Builder. I wondered if the mini-series producers would decide to keep him around longer. But Tom Builder himself says the cathedral would not be finished until he had passed on. In The Pillars of the Earth, the cathedral is the main character that cannot die; the human Tom Builder is the more expendable character.

We’re also left with a ruined Kingsbridge village, including Aliena’s fortune in wool, destroyed in the fire, and with an ongoing civil war rendering loyalties flexible and allowing bullies to enforce their will without limitations, bullies like William “my-market-or-no-market” Hamleigh. The good guys seem prostrate and defeated. Not really a cliff-hanger—more like already gone over the cliff and landed hard on craggy rocks.

For this week, the true cliff-hangers may have been offered in the previews of next week’s episode. Aliena marrying Alfred? Kingsbridge church collapsing? William declared the earl of Shiring? Yipes; given the events of this week’s episodes, we are left wondering. (All right, if you know the book, you know how we get to those points—that is, if they follow the book.)

So to continue the basic pattern of these commentaries, I’ll again discuss how the series is in synch or out of synch with the book, and how I think it works with the story:

Waleran Bigod and the Hamleighs. This is well out of synch with the book. Waleran Bigod remains the key evil character of the book, and I do not expect that to change. He expresses his clear ambition to gain the highest position in the Church, the position of Archbishop of Canterbury, and implies he does not care how this is accomplished. He instigates the attack on Kingsbridge; in the book, this is a William of Hamleigh operation. Bigod manipulates a prisoner exchange in a way that gets an innocent farm-boy hostage killed—there is no such hostage exchange in the book. He is almost completely unredeemable. The only moment that hints of remorse is when he puts spikes in his shoes to atone for the death of the innocent boy. But this is a private moment, all too easy; it isn’t much to give him any sympathetic qualities.

William of Hamleigh remains more of a pawn than an actor for his own purposes. We see him showing an attraction to a pretty young twelve year old girl (she doesn’t look twelve, but she’ll have to play older later in the story). In this scene, he almost seems like a courtly gentleman until his mother gives him a disapproving look. This storyline is in the book, but it’s just a hint now, so we’ll wait to see where they take it. I suspect there will be some variation, as we have the mother’s weird obsession with her son, present in the series and not in the book, as a factor to deal with.

Jack and Aliena. This largely synchs up with the book in what I believe are effective ways. We get a hint of their courtship in the book in the scene where Jack plays with the yarn, and in a second scene where he tells stories to her and demonstrates his ability to read. That scene ends with Jack getting familiar in a way that reminds Aliena of her rape by William. I think this is more effective than in the book, where Aliena’s rejection of Jack is vague. The series tracks more logically. And it does leave us in the same place as in the book—Jack is rejected, but we know there is something between these two, and we want them to get together.

Jack and Alfred. This also synchs up with the book, but with some different details that I do not believe track as well as in the original novel. In the book, Alfred taunts Jack about his criminal father, executed on the gallows. This leads to a fight that causes major damages to the cathedral. In the mini-series, Alfred’s vandalism of Jack’s work on the church causes the fight. It is hard to believe Alfred would have been able to defend his actions, and that his vandalism wouldn’t have even been considered in the aftermath of the fight. But we do end up with the “brothers” (only because they share Tom Builder as a father figure) at odds with each other, as they are in the book.

Maud/Matilda, Philip and the Kingsbridge Market License. This gets back in synch now that Maud/Matilda takes the power of the throne. (The series takes major liberties with history here. We have a young Henry II at her side, not present in the book and I don’t believe present in England at this point. She also implies she has just taken the title of “empress.” She had that title years before, as a result of her previous marriage to the now deceased Holy Roman Emperor Henry V.) She grants Philip the market license, but then charges him an exorbitant fee! This is straight from the book and the history. When Maud/Matilda ruled briefly during the civil war, she was known for exploiting her subjects for all the money she could squeeze from them. Here, we are in complete synch with the book, with Philip going to Aliena for next year’s wool payment this year in order to pay the market license fee. In the book, Aliena recalls Philip’s assistance to her at the beginning of her business when she was struggling, and is happy to help him. Of course, this puts everything she owns into that wool, setting up devastating consequences of the raid for Aliena, and potentially for her brother Richard as well.

Aliena and William. In the book, William is obsessed with Aliena—he stalks her and seems unable to find satisfaction with any other woman. Having him call her a witch and trying to burn her seemed to me to be sadism without clear motivation. In the book, Aliena catches on fire trying to save her wool, as she desperately tries to prevent her entire fortune going up in flames; Jack saves her. In the mini-series, Alfred saves her. He also stalks her earlier, alluding more to William’s behavior in the book. The series in this area seems muddled to me—the book is clearer.

Ellen. I remain disappointed with the treatment of this character in “The Pillars of the Earth” mini-series. Her relationship with Tom Builder is relegated to near insignificance, when in the book, it is an important part of the early story. Her appearances seem awkward because of her exclusion from much of the story. Jack returns to Kingsbridge before he finds his mother and tells her he is alive? She has to come into town to see him? Later in the episode, Ellen asks Jack some weird questions we cannot imagine a normal mother discussing with her son. Is she taking lessons from William of Hamleigh’s mother? In the confrontation with Philip about Jack joining the monastery as a monk, she mouths some anti-organized religion ideas that seem out of place in the 12th Century, and hint of story-telling agenda. I stand by my episode one comments, that the “witch” storyline would paint the producers into a corner. I think this has proven true. But I also think they have a way out, and will use it soon, to bring Ellen back into the mainstream of the story. She is a much stronger character, more nuanced and multi-dimensional, more powerful, in the book.

Tom Builder and His Son Jonathan. I loved these scenes between Tom Builder and Jonathan just before the raid, scenes invented for the mini-series that offered some real poignant and even suspenseful moments for their relationship. First, as Tom Builder pulls his son away from a bear-dog fight, he tells his son that it isn’t so bad for the bear or the dogs to die with honor fighting for something worth defending. (This turns out to be prophetic, though it would have been stronger if Tom had died while more actively fighting Willliam Hamleigh.) Then, Tom is about to tell Jonathan what their relationship really is. We are hanging on his words. Frankly, I was thinking of what a huge departure this would be from the book, and that this would have major significance for later plot occurrences. Then William shows up. No, Jonathan would not learn this secret—not yet, anyway. This was great story-telling!

Prior Philip and Jack. Prior Philip’s maneuvers to bring Jack into the church are completely in synch with the novel. The monk ceremony brings us into this development powerfully—it is a great scene in the miniseries as it shows us the profound nature of Jack’s new commitment, and has us wondering how this will affect his future, particularly with respect to Aliena.


So the series has moved much more in synch with the book, with the two major exceptions of the character development of Waleran Bigod and Ellen. And the preview of next week’s episode indicates to me we will remain largely in synch. That’s good news, because this is a great story!

 I’ll be back with another “The Pillars of the Earth” post next Saturday. I have an unusual guest blog appearance set for this coming Wednesday; I am still working out the details. No, it’s not “The Pillars of the Earth” related in any way…

(Synopsis of The Pillars of the Earth novel.)


The Pillars of the Earth (paperback)

The Pillars of the Earth (paperback)

The Pillars of the Earth (deluxe edition/Oprah’s Book Club)

The Pillars of the Earth (deluxe edition/Oprah’s Book Club)

The Pillars of the Earth (hardcover)

The Pillars of the Earth (hardcover)


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