Ken Follett’s 31 books, written over the last 40-plus years, include sweeping historical novels as well as modern spy thrillers. His most popular novel, and the one he considers his best, is “Pillars of the Earth,” published in 1989. Set in the 12th century, that book centers on the building of a cathedral in the fictional town of Kingsbridge in southern England. Two sequel novels carried the fictional narrative up to the end of the 16th century.
“The Evening and the Morning” is the fourth in what Follett calls his “Kingsbridge Series,” but this is a prequel rather than a sequel. It is set in the decade from 997 to 1007, primarily in the same area of England, two or three generations before the 1066 Norman Conquest. The main characters are mostly in their twenties: a boat-builder who later uses his skills to construct bridges, a canal, and buildings; a scholarly monk; three powerful brothers; and a beautiful Norman noblewoman who falls in love with and marries one of the brothers. The builder, monk and noblewoman are bright, decent and just human beings. The brothers and their kinfolk are deceptive, crafty and cruel.
The story begins with a Viking raid on the coastal town where the builder and his parents and brothers live. Viking intrusions occur later as well, as do armed battles between the local English and nearby Welsh. The Normans are largely allies rather than enemies. The King of England and the Archbishop of Canterbury get drawn into the story, but most of the narrative takes place in the handful of towns and villages in southwestern England. We learn a lot about local power relations, village justice, economics, marital practices, slavery and more at the end of the dark ages. I was unclear on the rationale for the book’s title, but I think it refers to the time period being the evening of the dark ages and the morning of a period that will feature an increasingly elaborate medieval order and a better historical record.
This book has plenty of sex, from moving romantic encounters to rape and other sexual exploitation. One feature that I had not recalled seeing in Follett’s earlier historical novels was the instances of homosexual attraction, central to the roles of two or three of the monks and one abbess.
One of the things that made “Pillars of the Earth” such a good book was its extensive and detailed discussion of the building of Gothic cathedrals in England. “The Evening and the Morning” also has some of that, though on a much smaller scale. Watching Edgar the young builder solve practical problems of shoring up a dilapidated church or constructing a fish trap in his artificial pond is an important part of the attractiveness of the book. In some ways, such practical problem-solving is a metaphor for the more complex social construction which Edgar, the monk and the noblewoman utilize in trying to build more viable and just towns and villages. At still another level, I think Follett’s admiration of ingenuity and building skills is reflected in his own construction of this lengthy but engaging novel.
This book is available at Manhattan Public Library. There is a waiting list, but the read is well worth the wait.
William L. Richter is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and former Associate Provost for International Programs at Kansas State University.