Thoughts: World Without End, by Ken Follett

While I was reading this, I joked far too often that it was Book Without End, hohoho.

A spoilertastic one – I want to basically just ramble on about this one.At the beginning, I wasn’t convinced by World Without End, I admit. One thing I’ve realised since making the effort to write down my thoughts is that I haven’t actually read that much historical fiction. Hilary Mantel, C.J. Sansom… I guess maybe other odds and sods? Not enough to do more than draw crude connections between what I have read. Certainly not enough to have any kind of context or canon to place the book in. All I can really say is that the other historical fiction I’ve read is more descriptive, immediately immersive. World Without End’s prose is very plain, blunt almost. I can imagine people finding it hard to get into.

But one day I realised I was really into it. I started wondering what the characters would do in situations I found myself in. I started casually scheming, which is a high compliment (I don’t often get that into books, though when I read Richard Adams’s Watership Down as a teenager I found myself thinking like a rabbit for about a month). The plainness of the prose worked, because it was a perfect window into each individual viewpoint character. There was no thinking or feeling, things just were, because that’s how the character saw the world. Importantly, the dialogue was natural and stood on its own. The narrative text was unornamented, but the dialogue was full of colour and character.

And, sure, I’ll say it – it was nice to have such accessible historical fiction. I like difficult prose, and jewelled sentences, and puzzle-stories, but in World Without End I learned what a coffer dam was and how to build one. I learned about feudal law. I learned how to make scarlet dye and how treadle looms work.

Occasionally the explanations fell clunky on the ear – especially Merthin explaining treadle looms to Madge – but hey, I still know how they work, so it counts as a success.

I think World Without End was an improvement on Pillars of the Earth. Pillars was very black and white. Baddies and goodies, and the baddies were generally ugly and the goodies pretty (I don’t count Jack Builder as being ugly even though everyone was dumbfounded by his ginger hair, because it totally counted in his favour). World Without End is greyer. I honestly didn’t know at the beginning who would turn out well and who badly. A few characters had proper arcs in this direction, and I found myself sympathising with almost everyone at one time or another.

And for those I didn’t sympathise with (and some I did)?

Follett Deaths (TM).

There’s no non-bloodthirsty way to say this. Sometimes you just really need a character to die, especially in an awful and possibly ironic way, and Ken Follett delivers every time. World Without End was no exception. Prior Godwyn’s end was just exactly what I needed.

I’m just going to go by character from now, so forgive the messiness of the rest of this.

Let’s start with Gwenda, seeing as she’s the first character we meet. There aren’t the words to describe how proud I was of Gwenda by the end of the book. She grew so much, and she did so much, and she made so much happen for and by herself. Though she (justifiably) hates her father (who did literally sell her to an outlaw prostitute ring in exchange for a cow) she’s always his daughter. She may devote her energy to escaping the bottom-of-every-heap life that drove her father to crime and her mother into poverty, but she uses the tricks and cunning she learned from her father to do so. Tricking Wulfric into giving her a chance was all Joby, but earning his love was all Gwenda. She may end the book as a peasant farmer, but after following her journey we understand what that means for her: stability, a measure of self-sufficiency, all the things she never had as a child. She saves Wulfric from the consequences of his own dimness and no one ever acknowledges it. Wulfric is very much like Boxer from Animal Farm, hardworking and loyal but too stupid to know when he’s being taken advantage of. He has his small dreams and he can’t see beyond them, or how they might be used against him. Gwenda manoeuvres behind the scenes, using connections and herself with absolutely no scruple or hesitation to dispense justice while he’s busy moping or ploughing or earning not-even-a-pittance. Gwenda is boss. And her reconciliation with Annet right at the end actually brought tears to my eyes. The only thing about Gwenda’s arc I was a bit ambivalent to was Sam, Ralph’s secret illegitimate son. It seemed a little bit too neat that he would grow up to be violent, but I did like that he had taken on some of the general goodness of his upbringing. Maybe that kind of excessive violence can be hereditary, but Wulfric and Gwenda brought him up as best they could.

Gwenda is also a good reminder of the role of women in the 1300s. Women worked in the fields, women earned their pay. They did as much work as they could physically do.

Which brings us to Caris. Caris’s social position is different to Gwenda’s, of course. No hard labour for her. But with more freedom comes, paradoxically, more restriction. It’s almost like the more visible you are (not sure that’s the right word) the more policed you are. So Caris comes up against brick walls time and again. As a woman at all, her hopes for herself are at the mercy of marriage and husbands and children. As an astute businesswoman, she’s at the mercy of the priory (run by the woman-fearing Prior Godwyn), and there are easy ways to get troublesome women out of the way (burn the witch!). As an accomplished healer, she’s thwarted by the fact that only men can be considered professionals in the field. Her whole life is spent fighting for change, fighting to make Kingsbridge better while her opponents only want to keep the status quo for the sake of their continued power.

She fights the monks over the hospital, she fights the city over the plague, she fights Merthin over his inability to understand what the culmination of his hopes and dreams mean for her. Oh, fine, I was as frustrated as anyone else at her mood swings over the course of their relationship, her repeated “no”, her private anguish. But she put it best herself – for Merthin, marriage and children come as an addition to his career as a builder. For her, they would replace her own career as a merchant or a healer. She would be giving up everything she’d earned, whereas he would only gain more. And he never understood it – never, not even at the end. I can forgive her frustration. There weren’t the words to frame her feelings. How could she understand herself what she was so angry about when there was no concept of a wider context?

It was immensely satisfying when she had finally stopped fighting, when she accepted that she had lost, and then everything went so to pot that Bishop Henri came crawling back.

Just as Gwenda reminds us that women, you know, existed back in historical times, Caris reminds us that not every woman was happy in her place. Kingsbridge is full of women who run businesses and are members of the Guild, and there are Gwendas in the fields and Matties healing the sick and Mother Cecilias running nunneries with quiet efficiency. And there are Carises who want even more. Is it unrealistic to believe that before feminism there were these angry, intelligent women who agitated for change and fought for power? Is that just us projecting our modern sensibilities on the past?

Because if it is, where did feminism come from?

Anyway, onto the boys. Ralph and Merthin, the brothers from a noble family down on its luck, take two very different paths. You could almost say Merthin wanted to beat ’em while Ralph wanted to join ’em. They’re both… pretty successful, actually, though Ralph’s Follett Death was completely earned.

Merthin is a good, talented kid, though as I’ve said, he didn’t make too much of an effort to understand Caris. Contrasting the two of them, both fighting for change and improvement, you can really see where gender comes into play. Even though Merthin is kicked off his apprenticeship before earning his own tools or a right to enter the Guild, he still warrants a measure of respect, and when it all goes south he can simply up and leave, just go to Florence and carve out a place for himself in the world, find a wife, have a daughter. No one can accuse him of being a witch. And obviously this is not to say he doesn’t have a hard time of it – he spends an awful lot of his life fighting against petty grudges and backstabbing and stacked odds – but he also has a lot of routes open to him that aren’t open to Caris.

Ralph is given the better options even as a boy, and he uses them to the fullest. And even he has to do some hard work, fighting and waiting, because surprise! no one wants a homicidal maniac as a knight. He takes advantage of plagues and wars and tragedies to work his way up the ladder, and once he gets there, proves himself singularly unworthy of them. He gets what he wants and then doesn’t want it anymore. Both of his marriages were pretty terrifying, to be honest, and if that doesn’t make you understand Caris’s fears, then nothing will.

It wouldn’t be a Ken Follett book without a few scheming monks, and these we get in abundance. Both Godwyn and Philemon start out being almost sympathetic. Philemon has joined the monastery out of some seemingly genuine desire for religion, but can’t shake off his father’s shadow, engaging in petty thievery, lies, compulsively spying out weakness in others and hoarding it. His desire for beautiful things might stem from his deprived childhood. His eye for weakness might come from a similar place. He starts the book (after the child chapter) as a pathetic enough figure, but once he does manage to weasel his way into power, enabled by the ruthless Godwyn, you quickly stop feeling sorry for him.

Godwyn himself is intelligent though thin-skinned, scheming and at first, in agreement with Caris and Merthin in the way the city should change. For a brief while their paths run parallel, and that I particularly enjoyed seeing. Of course, once the city has changed enough for him, he changes sides immediately, and then he starts racking up points towards his own Follett Death.

There were miscellaneous other things I noticed and had thoughts about, chief among them being the way homosexuality is treated in the book. Which is as a sin, yes, but… just like any other sin in a city full of sinners. Like, some people cheat and lie and steal, during the plague they fornicate in the taverns and get up to all sorts of mischief, and some people just like people of the same sex. Bishop Henri and his lover are just a thing, the way that Prior Godwyn keeps a cat against the rules and Prior Philemon surrounds himself with treasures and jewels in a distasteful way. It might be frowned upon by some as hypocrisy, but most people probably just shrug at the thought of someone in power breaking the rules. Caris’s dabbling with Mair was treated as just another unrequited love affair as well. More than anything, it was just something some people were into and others weren’t. A private thing.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen it done that way before, and it was… kind of refreshing? I mean, obviously homosexuality isn’t any kind of sin, but it was a good reminder that the past wasn’t always as barbaric and backwards as we often assume (see the points about women).

Other things I liked: the sheer timespan. I don’t know why, I think this is just personal. It’s just really comforting to me to see people live out their long lives, and maybe they don’t get everything they want straight away, and maybe Caris spent the best part of a decade in a nunnery and Merthin had a whole other family before they could be together, but it happened, and it was worth it. I love that.

Fundamentally, World Without End is a hopeful book. The fight is long and relentless and neverending, but good wins. It has to win. It inevitably wins. The old and rusted status quo simply can’t withstand it for long, not with all their tricks and power and grudges. The good guys always win. Even in the 1300s.

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