by Ken Follett
‘A moment later [Edgar] realized he was looking at something even worse than a monster: it was a Viking ship, with a dragon head at the tip of its long curved prow.’
It is more than thirty years since Ken Follett published Pillars of the Earth, his first successful full length historical novel. World Without End followed in 2007. Ten years later, he completed the trilogy with A Column of Fire. He could have finished there, but life and literature are full of surprises; 2020 saw the publication of a fourth ‘Kingsbridge’ novel, The Evening and the Morning, a ‘prequel’ to Pillars of the Earth.
The Evening and the Morning is set during the years 997 to 1007 CE, a daring period for a writer of historical fiction, one about which so little is known. The novel follws the lives of three main protagonists, Ragna, a Norman French noblewoman, Edgar, an English boatbuilder, and Aldred, a dedicated monk.
Ragna travels to southern England to marry the man she has fallen in love with in Cherbourg, Wilwulf, the ealdorman of Shiring. She is determined to retain her independence and sets out to make a difference in the community. However, in his home setting, Wilf is not the man Ragna remembers. Ranged against her and attempting to stall or halt her good intentions are Wilf’s two brothers, the over-worldly and corrupt Bishop Wynstan and the bully Wigelm, not to mention their mother and Wilf’s other ‘wife’ and son.
An encounter with Vikings and the loss of his first love has shaped Edgar’s life. He becomes a farmer, then a ferryman in the hamlet of Dreng’s Ferry, before finding his true vocation as a mason and builder. Edgar meets Ragna when she arrives in England with her retinue and has to use his ferry to cross a river. Despite their different social status, they become friends and Edgar falls in love with her.
‘Using his tongs, Cuthbert heated the coin in the fire then dipped it in dilute vitriol. As Wynstan watched, the acid took the copper away from the surface, leaving a sort of skin of pure silver.’
Aldred has already met Ragna in Cherbourg – he was a member of Wilf’s embassy to the Norman castle. He wants to be more than a mere librarian and dreams of building a new church and developing Dreng’s Ferry as an important town. As an honest churchman, he despises Wynstan’s carnality and his schemes for enriching himself, including forgery. But the bishop’s exalted position make it easy for him to wriggle out of awkward corners and ensure the blame (and often punishment) falls on the innocent (or at least the less guilty).
As the story moves forward through the decade, Ragna is gradually sidelined by her husband until he dies from a battle wound. She is then forced into marriage with Wigelm who makes her humiliation complete by attempting to disinherit her legitimate children. While Wynstan makes a bid to be Archbishop of Canterbury, Ragna’s friends, and even King Ethelred, are powerless to help her. And realising his hopes of ever making Ragna his wife are in vain, Edgar decides to leave England to pursue his career abroad.
‘The vessel gathered speed. Normandy would be warmer than England, he guessed, as it was to the south ….. It would be a new life. He took a glance back. His bridge dominated the view. Most people no longer referred to the place by its old name of Dreng’s Ferry. Nowadays they called it King’s Bridge.’
As with Follett’s other historicals, evil has a way of rebounding on the perpetrators. Whilst not rewarding virtue without tragedy and heartache for some of the characters, the retribution here is in one respect especially appropriate and nasty.
My personal view of The Evening and the Morning is that, while it is a most enjoyable novel, it doesn’t quite hit the brilliant standard of Pillars. The formula is the same but it seems to lack depth, in character and, especially, in its historical content. Given the paucity of facts about the Dark Ages, this was probably inevitable. I would nevertheless recommend it to fans of Ken Follett as very readable.
Readers may wonder at the thirty-year writing and publication span of this quadrilogy of novels. However, between 2010 and 2014, Follett also published the three historical novels of his ‘Century Trilogy’. He has also continued writing his thrillers and produced nine in the years between 1990 and 2007. Not a bad achievement at all!