Everywhere I look, these days, I notice someone reading Ken Follett’s World Without End. Yesterday, I saw someone wading through it on the bus to work; later, someone else reading it in Starbucks. In December, I’d see several open copies each day on the beach in Cabo San Lucas. World Without End has been out a little more than a year, now (in Canada, at least), but it has already been published in multiple languages. It isn’t high on the bestseller lists at the moment, but I get the idea that Follett book sales stretch out, slowly, inexorably over the horizon, for years.
I take some encouragement in the book’s popularity, which may be due in part to its subject matter — the medieval era, the same time frame as my own novel. There is something about these years — roughly 1066 to 1400 — that still appeals to the modern imagination. The honourble knight, the damsel in distress, castles in the mist, the longbow archer, not to mention Monty Python and the Holy Grail. These are the prevailing images of the era, its archetypes, and we are still fascinated with it. An earlier Follett novel, The Pillars Of The Earth, published 20 years ago, also concerns the medieval era and is enjoying renewed sales.
Follett’s topic in these books are wise choices, but he is also a superb storyteller. Both books are epic tales that sprawl out in front of us, seemingly with a cast of thousands. They cover lifetimes of their characters, replete with struggles, love affairs, violence, war and the great moments of history. He lets us know in no uncertain terms that he has done his research. He not only paints his scenes with rich historical detail, but he often bursts forth joyously into a long dissertation about medieval warfare or the intricacies of church construction in the middle ages. (I often find myself skipping past the ponderous details and deliberate scene-setting, as do many Follett readers I have spoken with.) Writing a Follett novel is a massive undertaking, on the basis of page counts alone — my hardcover version of World is a weighty 1,014 pages, and my paper Signet edition of Pillars is 984 pages. With someone of Follett’s stature and ambition, I would not be surprised if he had a small staff of researchers, writers and editors all taking part in these projects.
What I miss in Follett’s medieval novels, however, is fine character study. I suspect his characters suffer from the attention he pays to his complex plots: they are a little flat and they never fully come to life for me; they are too clean and well-scrubbed. I like the kind of psychological detail that Charles Dickens achieves with fine lines and raw smudges. I also like the gritty detail that we might find in Chaucer: the satirical edge, the ribald tale, the grotesque features played out in full colour. And I believe there is much that is dark in the Dark Ages, as my own monks will attest, and that the shadows inside the monastery have much to reveal — detail that Follett chooses to ignore.
How presumptuous of me to criticize Follett! His novels are loved by millions, including me. His accomplishments and enterprise are inspiring and his name really should appear in the Acknowledgements section of my published novel. But Brother Richard has not heard of this fellow, and he is telling me something quite different than anything Follett would write about.
The candle is growing dim, brother. Should we not be on our way to the dorter?