For a confessed bookaholic and fan of Ken Follet’s collective works what could be better than a new novel that is over 900 pages? After having read and digested THE PILLARS OF THE EARTH, WORLD WITHOUT END, and A COLUMN OF FIRE I have long looked forward to Follet’s prequal to his Kingsbridge series, THE EVENING AND THE MORNING with great anticipation and I must confess I was not disappointed. Set in England at the turn of the 11th century Follett, a master storyteller has conjured up a complex story of human greed, passion, slavery, clerical corruption, and political uncertainty. The story commences from the east with a Viking raid on the village of Combe that results in devastation and loss for its inhabitants.
Follett’s new book continues the approach taken in PILLARS OF FIRE and other volumes in the Kingsbridge saga. The reader is exposed to powerful personalities, some acceptable, others cruel and nasty. Of course, love and human emotion are factors and on full display. Even though the book takes place between 997 and 1007 AD competition, jealousy and other traits of the human condition are clear. Follett describes what daily life was like in England and Normandy at the turn of the 11th century – the forests, castles, poor villages, ale houses, farms, whorehouses, and religious buildings. The political machinations of the nobility and church figures dominate a good part of the plot. During this historical period survival was key as most woman did not live past their thirties, many of which dying in childbirth, and men succumbing by their late forties.
Follett immediately introduces a series of characters each with their own agenda and character flaws, some of which even have positive traits! Follett is a master storyteller with an incredible ability to capture the reader’s attention only after a few pages. Follet’s immediate focus is on a family that consisted of three brothers, Edgar, a ship builder and very bright, Erman, the eldest, and Eadbald both of which are common laborers with little skill. The matriarch, Mildred has the final voice in family decisions since Pa succumbed during the Viking attack as did Edgar’s love, Sunni. The family lost everything and is forced to accept working a rundown farm fifty miles away to survive.
Edgar emerges as one of the dominant characters that Follett creates along with a host of others. Chief among them was another family with three brothers, Wilwulf, the ealdorman of Shiring, who held political power from the king, Wigelm the thane controls most of the forest and surrounding areas, and Wynstan, the Bishop of Shiring the leading figure in the corrupt church he rules, and of course, Gytha the deceitful mother who pulls strings behind the scene. Follett, as in all of his novels is able to create so many different threads and characters, weaving them together seamlessly in a story that eventually becomes clear.
As the plot develops a number of other important individuals play important roles. Aldred, a Monk concerned with books and learning who becomes involved in an investigation of the Bishop of Shiring, Lady Ragnhild, the daughter of Count Hubert of Cherbourg, known as Ragna who falls in love with Wilwulf when he visits Normandy to negotiate a treaty. Ragna was kept in the dark about a number of important things after she marries Wilwulf and moves to England. Two other people that appear over and over are Dreng, the owner of an ale house and his brother Degbert Baldhead, the Dean of Deng’s Ferry Minster and owner of numerous farms that are worked by tenant farmers and slaves.
Follett develops a number of plot lines that are important. First, the plight of Edgar’s family following the Viking attacks. Second, Aldred’s religious fervor and his suspicions concerning the minster in Deng’s Ferry. Third, the relationship between Cherbourg and the English settlements in need of protection. Fourth, the marriage of Wilwulf and Ragna. Fifth, the corruption and deceit that seems to pervade every page. Sixth, the machinations of church politics and the hypocrisy of monks, priests and bishops, a problem that would plague the church for centuries, Lastly, the structure of England. What is the relationship between a king, in this case Ethelred and the nobility who ignore his rulings? What is the relationship between the Archbishop of Canterbury and a bishop who refuse to conform to the preaching’s of the church? In the story that Follett conjures up we have Wilwulf the ealdorman of Shiring ignoring King Ethelred’s pronouncements, and Wynsan, the Bishop of Shiring ignoring the teachings of Elfric, the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Aside from the inherent political conflicts that exist in feudal England at the end of the dark ages Follett brings to the reader’s attention the issue of slavery. In England during this period 10% of the population consists of slaves. Among those classified as slaves are people in poverty who cannot provide for themselves, soldiers and ordinary people taken prisoner in war, or people punished for crimes. These individuals consist mostly of people ages eleven to thirty who become servants, prostitutes, laborers, and any other activity their owners can think of.
As the story evolves plots seemed to be enveloped by subplots as Follett deftly springs numerous surprises on his readers. Just when you think you know how things will play out; he shifts gears. Follett’s recreates a period fraught with the hazards, the harsh physical realities, the competing influences of politics and religion, detailed and convincing, providing a solid underpinning to the later installments of the Kingsbridge series.
As Bill Sheehan points out in his review in the Washington Post that “Taken both individually and together, the Kingsbridge books are as comprehensive an account of the building of a civilization — with its laws, structures, customs and beliefs — as you are likely to encounter anywhere in popular fiction. Despite their daunting length, these novels are swift, accessible and written in a clear, uncluttered prose that has a distinctly contemporary feel. At times, the prose can feel a bit too contemporary, as when Ragna, ruminating on some conflict with her husband, wonders: “What was bugging him?” Mostly, though, Follett writes in a transparent style that rarely calls attention to itself, moving his outsized narratives steadily — and compulsively — forward.
While the Kingsbridge novels are in no way formulaic, they all rely on common narrative elements, such as multiple alternating story lines, a large cast of characters from all levels of society, the patient accumulation of precise period detail, and specific long-term goals, such as the building of a cathedral or, in “World Without End,” a bridge and hospital. But perhaps the key to Follett’s success is the way in which his gifts as a thriller writer have merged so seamlessly with the larger demands of historical fiction. Follett presents his worlds in granular detail, but the narratives never stand still. Something dramatic, appalling or enraging happens in virtually every chapter. Rape, murder, arson, infanticide and betrayals of every stripe follow one another in relentless succession. The result is a massive entertainment that illuminates an obscure corner of British history with intelligence and great narrative energy. THE EVENING AND THE MORNING is a most welcome addition to the Kingsbridge series. I hope it won’t be the last.”* I agree wholeheartedly!
*Bill Sheehan, “Ken Follett’s PILLARS OF THE EARTH prequel is just as transporting – and lengthy – as his famous epic.” Washington Post, September 21, 2020.
(Berkshire, England, 11th century castle)