Scott Farrell Comments:
Fans of historical novels often cite Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth as a classic portrayal of the Middle Ages. Follett recently published an eagerly awaited sequel to that book, World Without End, which delved even deeper into medieval culture.
Journalist Chris Waddle wrote an excellent review of Follett’s latest medieval romp. And while his review has nothing directly to do with “chivalry,” it does provide some interesting food for thought about the similarities between the medieval world and the 21st century.
But there is a connection: Critics often say that chivalry has no relevance in today’s world; that it was an idealistic concept, born in a time of violence, superstition and repression, which is best left on the pages of history. But as Waddle discovered, while the Middle Ages was a violent, superstitious and corrupt time, it was not as different from modern society as we’d like to think. Peering back into the world of the 14th century, we find some very familiar institutions, challenges and attitudes looking back.
How can we think chivalry is irrelevant in a time that is so reminiscent, in so many ways, of the era which gave rise to the principle of chivalry in the first place?
There’s something about the Middle Ages.
Think about our time. Think about their time. You can recognize the people, know them, feel with them.
The peopling inside the literary construction of World Without End, though, is not done with your neat beginning-middle-end storyline. The plot sprawls from England to the Battle of Crecy to Florence and back via Avignon, Chartres and Paris.
Ken Follett is an international writer of modern suspense thriller-dillers. Except when he isn’t.
His previous exception is the renowned Pillars of the Earth. That epic sends a wonder-of-the-age cathedral soaring skyward in countryside England during the 12th century, because a prior and his monastery peer wonderfully out from medieval gloom.
Religious and most other institutions two centuries later lose the light or can’t yet find their way forward in this sequel.
But a hodgepodge of children in the World grow up around a secret and come into their own by their mature years, each in his or her own way. Well, some do fall by the wayside.
The characters remind you of the All Saints’ Day hymn brightening this time of year:
“I sing a song of the saints of God … and one was a doctor, and one was a queen, and one was a shepherdess on the green … and one was a soldier, and one was a priest, and one was slain by a fierce wild beast … for the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.”
Can’t identify with the 14th century? Picture yourself in a Brueghel painting. You see a familiar populated-landscape, not a distant portrait.
Fall in line with Chaucer’s pilgrims marching off to Canterbury. You’ll know the way figuratively.
Or share stories while hiding from the plague with Boccaccio’s characters in The Decameron. Even the ribaldry will seem familiar.
Expect to compare the economic threat of our time, the lack of confidence in government and the demand for creative self-reliance.
Examine the peril of infants, the challenges of childhood and the sometime brutishness of old age.
Notice both eras are super-religious and steadfastly profane at the same time. Churches ever seek reformation while the irreligious constantly stimulate a renascence in art, science and trade.
We hold in common our foreign wars, more appealing to heads of state than to us plain folk. Then and now, government can grow overbearing.
And there’s the Black Death, the great antagonist in World Without End. We have AIDS but also cancer, heart disease and diabetes — more pronounced because of our life span and life habit.
Technology sets us apart from our ancestors, not our daily and mortal lives. Even so the engineering solutions in the cathedral town of Follett’s Knightsbridge inspire us.
At its length this is a lifestyle more than a book. So it should be.
We’re not reading about a distant time, a distant place, a distant folk. We’re experiencing ourselves through a novel.
So easily could we be medieval.
© 2008 Chris Waddle
About the author: Chris Waddle is director of the Knight Fellows in Community Journalism and president of the Ayers Family Institute for Community Journalism. You can read more of his writing at his blog OneJournalist.