Balanced between the violence and betrayal of Game of Thrones and the heart-warming coming-of-age story, Merlin lies The Pillars of the Earth. This television mini-series is based on the world bestselling novel by Ken Follett, and it will reward your viewing investment with memorable characters, intertwining destinies, a greater cause for determination and a suspenseful struggle for survival.
Set in the 12th century, England, The Pillars of the Earth has a stronger moral compass than Game of Thrones. In this time period of poverty, godliness, and lack of law, small villages must fend for themselves, and are often victims to the royalty who can burn, reward, hang, beat and rape their members at will. It pushes the harshness of the times into the frame more than Merlin. Yet beyond this reality, faith runs within Ken Follet’s plot, and though often challenged by the “evils of ambition”, the symbol of goodness (the cathedral being constructed in a small village) continues to rise.
The cathedral’s building is overseen by a prior monk, played by “kind-eyes, soft-spoken” Matthew MacFayden, previously Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice. MacFayden performance for this role fits it like a monk’s cloak in its believability. (Unlike the disbelief you may be feeling at the pun-simile I just used.)
Prior Philip hires the family of builders who carve the stone and architect the cathedral, headed by Master Builder Tom played by Rufus Sewell. Sewell does a convincing job as a man who only wants to work with his hands and leave greatness behind. Tom raises his own son, Alfred, and his adopted son, Jack, a carver of flaming hair who will feature in the story’s prophecy to King Stephen.
The two sons, though raised by Tom, are as different as black and white, both love the same woman, both covet Tom the Builder’s tools and heritage, and they will struggle in their relationship as fighting siblings until it destroys the family, the cathedral or themselves.
The other man of faith is one who flails himself bloody to bribe his God into meeting his ambitions is the Bishop Bigod. Ian McShane portrays Waleran Bigod as a sadistic but deliciously manipulative holy man who strategically puppets England through 16 years of war.
The highlights of this series for me includes the time period. I enjoy historical, medieval based films and books, especially ones that stick to the language of the time. There was only one shocking word – that dropped by Waleran Bigod. The sex scenes were more sensual than the violent sex portrayed in Game of Thrones, and Pillar’s scenes did not seem overly gratuitous. As well, misogyny seemed to be lower on this series’ list of goals behind the portrayal of its females: a crown-hungry Queen, a “witch-accused” hermit, an honour-bound lady, an incestuous, psychotic mother, and a love-struck teenager who only desires a “small piece” of Jack.
I really enjoyed the aspect of the cathedral’s raising running alongside the intertwined lives. This additional plot was very interesting from an architectural / historical perspective and really enriched my memories of Europe as I was given insight into the challenges of raising stone to such heights.
The final pleasing aspect of this series was seeing Donald Sutherland (Earl Bartholomew) light up the screen. His performances always contain an element of beauty for me, he projects some combination of visual grace and auditory peace that I immediately open my heart to. Or perhaps I just recognize a fellow Canadian, and feel at ease with “my people”.
If you loved Merlin and Game of Thrones or found Merlin too candy-coated and Game of Thrones too spicey, you will find The Pillars of the Earth much to your liking. It is nestled between the two, yet rises above as an incredible and tasteful story of 12th-century struggle to find a balance between honouring ourselves and honouring our Gods.