11 January 2020

pillars of the what now?

pillars of the earth by ken follett has been my favorite book since its publication in 1989. i have read it three or four times and loved it every time. the engineering, the architecture, the innovations in selling wool futures and automated fulling, the love between jack & aliena, not to mention knights and castles and cathedrals and monks, history and intrigue and gold stored in trunks. IT HAS EVERYTHING. 

so when i was looking for my next audiobook, it was a natural choice. i was so excited to listen to someone telling me my favourite story. yay!

and so it began, and as is so often the case with a story you haven't read in a while, there was a lot of stuff at the beginning that i had forgotten. oh, goody goody goody!! we were off to a great start. 

the story takes place during "the anarchy" which is the period of norman-english history immediately following the sinking of the white ship in november of 1120. the white ship sank in the english channel just off barfleur, normandy. upwards of 250 people drowned - lords & ladies, knights & squires, retinue & posse & so on. among the victims was king henry the first's sole legitimate heir, william. by all accounts, young william - who was about 17 - supplied wine in abundance to passengers and crew alike. when it came time to sail, the revellers were in high spirits and ordered the captain (whose father had captained the ship which brought william the conqueror on his english invasion in 1066) to race out and overtake the ship carrying the king. they quickly proceeded to hit a rock, and the ship went down. there was one survivor and it was not william the heir. this circumstance left henry without a legitimate heir. he named his daughter, maud, as his heir, but neglected to prepare her at all. nor did he adequately prepare his barons, because upon henry's death in 1135, most of them couldn't stomach a woman in power, and, betraying their oaths to henry, threw their support behind stephen of blois, henry's nephew. stephen's authority was legitimized when his treacherous brother the bishop of winchester crowned him at winchester in december of 1135. maud's brother robert rebelled against stephen in 1138, and he & maud invaded england in 1139. and then, stephen and maud led opposing factions in a violent and destructive war that raged across england for 20 years. in the end, stephen made peace with maud's son henry, and henry became the first angevin king. 

so this story is the backdrop for pillars of the earth. it's a deep & dim backdrop, though, with the daily lives of the fictional characters taking the spotlight. 

as the story unfolded, something weird happened. there is a violent rape scene early on, which i remembered... but i did not remember the characters being quite so... stereotypical, i guess is the best word. flat. unimaginatively drawn. plus the whole scene was overly graphic and had a sort of rah-rah misogynism that made me question mr follett's sensibilities. 


and then, it happened again. and again. and throughout the story, there were graphic scenes of gore and sex. what was happening? where was my lovely story??

i blame audio. when you're reading, your brain does the imaginotransference (per jasper fforde). when you're listening, the narration contributes mightily to the experience. i mean, more than just the difference between seeing and hearing. i know for a fact that when i am reading, my mind slips over some passages and locks in on others. when a narrator is expressively moving through the text, they can hold my attention on it in a completely different way. 

in conclusion, i am a bit sad about pillars. all of the things i have loved about it have been tarnished. it is like catching a dear friend abusing kittens. what is happening? i have loved you.


i am now listening to sharon k penman's when christ and his saints slept. i have read this one as well -- many years ago -- and enjoyed it. it's also set during the anarchy, with the royals and their respective entourages being the focus. i am about halfway through and it is solid. 

but i don't see it replacing pillars. pillars has all those other things, those things i have loved. you can't just unlove things you have loved, even if they are all caught up in tawdryness, or they spend time with gruesome neighbors. 

in the end, the heart wants what the heart wants. 

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