Ken Follett’s “A Column of Fire” and the Emotional Thrill of Historical Fiction

Having told two stories set in the fictional town of Kingsbridge, Ken Follett returns with the third installment in his saga, A Column of Fire. Set during the reigns of the monarchs Mary Tudor, Elizabeth I, and James I, it chronicles the intertwined fates of several men and women, most of whom have some connection to Kingsbridge. As per usual, a romance is at the center of the novel, this time between the Protestant Ned Willard and the staunchly Catholic Margery Fitzgerald, who find their love tested not just by the escalating conflict between their rival faiths but also by the tense politics of Elizabeth England.

In typical Ken Follett fashion, the story is very much a historical melodrama, with clearly good and clearly evil characters. Pierre and Rollo are, as religious zealots, clearly coded as evil and, in Follett villain fashion, are sadistic and cruel almost to the point of caricature. As a result, their ultimate deaths and defeats are cathartic; they suggest that evildoers, no matter how powerful they might be for a time, are always brought low by their own nefariousness. This is particularly true of Pierre, whose yearning for power over others, which leads him to ally himself with the ultra-Catholic Guise faction, leads directly to his demise at the hands of his mistress and his stepson, both of whom he has tormented relentlessly. That being said, the novel does at least make clear that Rollo, at least, is a true believer in Catholicism, even though his belief leads him to acts of great malice, including both the Babington Plot (designed to depose Elizabeth and replace her with her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots) and the Gunpowder Plot (intended to blow up Parliament, which would have resulted in the death of King James and his two sons).

Anyone who’s read either The Pillars of the Earth or World Without End knows that Follett has a strong interest in the nature of religion and in the ways that people express it. Given the era in which this novel is set, it now becomes the center of the narrative. This was the time, after all, in which Catholics and Protestants waged war with one another all across Europe, though the novel focuses mainly on the numerous conflicts in Spain, France, the Netherlands, and England. Given that this is Follett we’re talking about, there’s a pretty heavy dose of moralizing and, while Rollo and Pierre are depicted as “bad” because they are zealots, Margery and Ned are painted as “good” because they both favor tolerance. It’s a bit simplistic, of course, but that’s what one expects of a melodrama like this one, in which grand historical and social conflicts are rendered morally and emotionally explicable through our investment in the characters, both good and evil.

Some have complained that large portions of the book focus on characters not from Kingsbridge and that even the characters from there end up spending large parts of the novel in other regions of Europe and, in some notable cases, the “New World.” To me, that choice seems both deliberate and appropriate. This was the time, after all, when England became far less insular, as the Age of Exploration took flight and the various nations of Europe set out on their missions of bloody conquest. Among other things, this allows Follett to demonstrate the increased presence of people of color in the European imagination, and one of the viewpoint characters, Ebrima, is actual a Black man from Africa who gains his freedom and builds a life in the Netherlands, while a white character, Barney, fathers a child with a Black woman in Hispaniola. It’s actually rather refreshing to see people of color given at least some time, however small, in a historical novel largely set in Europe.

As I finished my third of Follett’s Kingsbridge novels (his newest, The Evening and the Morning, was just released this year and serves as a prequel to The Pillars of the Earth), I thought deeply about what it is that makes these novels so enduringly popular and compulsively readable. As I’ve noted before, I do think it has a lot to do with how effective he is at allowing his readers to feel history, to form an affective attachment to these men and women and the ways in which they struggle to survive in a milieu very different from our own. Of course, that’s precisely why so many people continue to seek out historical fiction (which remains an enduringly popular genre). They don’t just want to know the facts about a given period; they want to escape the comfort and safety of modernity to encounter a bit of the thrill and excitement of the precarious past. Follett’s skill is that he chooses exactly those periods of English — and, in this case, European — history that lend themselves to these kinds of narratives.

It’s to Follett’s credit that he’s managed to make this old-fashioned mode of historical fiction storytelling and render it palatable for a much more cynical and jaundiced reading public. In fact, it may be precisely because his novels are so morally simplistic that they are so popular. They reassure us that there is a moral coherence to the arc of history, that it isn’t just the play of chance and cruel fortune, that the outcome of the great conflicts isn’t always solely contingent on the whims of those who happen to have power. We want characters like Ned and Margery to get together because they are the most like us. In A Column of Fire, they are the closest that we get to characters who are modern in both their sensibility and their moral code.

All in all, A Column of Fire is another success from Follett. Though his next book is a prequel to The Pillars of the Earth, one can but hope that he will continue to write novels set in different periods of Kingsbridge history, if for no other reason than that it would be fascinating to see the denizens of the town face the crises of modernity. In Follett’s hands, it would certainly be a triumph.

Cliophilia

For the love of history

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