The attribution of the origins of the children’s nursery rhyme ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’ to a Viking attack in 1010 is an appealing theory, if somewhat contested. I read about it in Magnus Magnusson’s The Vikings:
… it was Ólafur Haraldson who first had the bright idea of tearing down London Bridge by fixing grappling irons to its piers and wrenching them free by the muscle power of his oarsmen […] the stock of nursery rhymes in Britain was enriched by a new song still sung to this day: ‘London Bridge is falling down’. This piece of trivia suggests the destructiveness of Viking attacks upon England during the period, as well as the problems of piecing together a cogent historical narrative.
Ken Follett’s latest Kings Bridge novel, The Evening and the Morning, attempts to do just that in a narrative over 800 pages long. It’s set just a few years before the purported attack on London Bridge, and if you believe the blurb on the inside cover,
[it] will take us on a journey into a rich past, which will end where his masterpiece begins. Of course, Follet’s ‘masterpiece’ is The Pillars of the Earth, first published in 1989 after Follett had made a career for himself as a writer of thrillers. The Pillars of the Earth was over a thousand pages of close text, set in twelfth-century England. The subject: the building of a grand cathedral over several generations. It was a huge success and over the years Follett wrote two sequels, World Without End (2007), centred around the building of a new bridge in Kingsbridge, and A Column of Fire (2017) which features conflicts around the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century.
The Evening and the Morning is a prequel to The Pillars of the Earth, but the book doesn’t dovetail as neatly into the first book’s timeframe as the blurb suggests. Unlike the original novel, the timeframe for The Evening and the Morning is much shorter, covering about ten years, ending October 1006, while the original novel begins in 1123, over a hundred years later, which is roughly the span of time between London Bridge’s demise at the hands of the Vikings and the first historical report of the event. Edgar, a young Saxon living in Combe, avoids death at the hands of the Vikings during an early morning raid, and manages to save many in the town when he rings the church bell to warn of the attack. Edgar is about to elope with his secret love, Sungifu, married to Cyneric, when the attack occurs and she is killed, as is Edgar’s father. Edgar’s father is a skilled boat builder and has raised Edgar to the trade. With their house destroyed, Edgar, his mother and his two brothers have little option but to accept an offer to run a farm at a place called Dreng’s Ferry, upriver.
I’ve previously read the first two books in the Kings Bridge series - A Column of Fire is on a very long ‘To be read’ list – so my reading of Follett’s latest book is coloured by that, as will many readers’ be. There are some broad generalisations that can be made. While the books are long, they are easy reads. They lack the psychological complexity of Hilary Mantel’s writing for instance, and their linear narrative, peppered with many signposts, make following the story and character motivations simple. In fact, Follett is quite often guilty of repetition, unsure, I suppose, that his readers will make connections or remember salient facts. For me, those repetitions were one of the few jarring notes in a style that attempts to focus on the story, along, perhaps, with some of the direct speech, which occasionally seems too modern, both in its language and ways of thinking.
The Evening and the Morning also feels like it is following a formula, albeit a very successful one. Each of the novels I have read are centred around the progress of Kingsbridge from a small settlement through to an important town of religious worship and trade. By the end of this novel plans are being made for the cathedral that will be built in The Pillars of the Earth. Each book features a bright and talented builder whose alliance with a patron will progress the fortunes of the town, despite the evil doings of evil doers. Progress and change threaten the status quo, and there are always those who will push back. When Edgar builds a pontoon bridge at Dreng’s Ferry (later to be renamed Kingsbridge), it is not surprising it is burned by Dreng, whose ferry business will be ruined. But villainy in Follett’s Kings Bridge books is usually mostly represented by the noble class and powerful clergy, out to protect their interests. Ragna, a Norman noble woman who marries Wilwulf, the ealdorman of Shiring, is brought to England to live, where she finds her household authority challenged by Wilwulf’s step mother, Gytha, and her property rights as agreed in her marriage contract challenged by Wilwulf’s brothers, Wigelm, a thane, and Wynstan, the bishop of Shiring. And Aldred, a monk with ambitions of establishing a centre of learning, finds himself also butting heads with Wynstan over the matter of forged coins. Aldred believes in truth and the good work of God, while Wynstan treats his position primarily as a means to power, wealth, and as a stepping stone in his grand ambition to be the archbishop of Canterbury.
Another thing to be said about this book in relation to the previous two I have read, is that the focus of its narrative is not as compelling. In The Pillars of the Earth the cathedral, itself, is a character, emerging from the mind of Tom Builder and those who follow him. The descriptions of its architecture and engineering are an enthralling part of the story. The Cathedral changes the life of the town, bringing in new trade. In World Without End the town is beset by plague and the collapse of the bridge. Once again, a monumental building project becomes central to the story, as a new stone bridge is planned and executed. In each book we see how these building projects change society by changing the economic world of their people. This is what makes the novels modern, because progress is attributable to engineering and proto-capitalism. Follett’s narrative is imagining the span between humanity’s focus on religion in the Dark Ages and the more secular set of principles that will one day govern the modern Western mind. Edgar’s building projects in The Evening and the Morning are, by comparison, less inspiring, even if they also progress the lot of the people of Dreng’s Ferry/Kingsbridge. He builds a new alehouse and cuts a canal to the river from the quarry to make the moving of stone more economical. He also builds a bridge, but all these constructions are tangential to the story.
Yet Follett’s narrative still has much to offer its audience. I found myself easily progressing towards the end of this long novel. And while Follett’s characters feel a little modern in their ways of thinking and behaving, Follett’s story is supported by some good research and historical fact. Issues such as the keeping of slaves in Saxon Briton and their status is interesting. The fact that murder would normally be punished by a large fine is also interesting, if somewhat alarming. And Follett has managed to successfully integrate modern issues, like feminism, into a time period when the status of women was poor. Ragna’s desire to rule in her husband’s stead, as a noble woman, naturally has feminist overtones, but her historical setting makes her ambitions only possible through the agency of a husband. Her tenuous position regarding challenges for her land demonstrate this, along with her forced marriage and rape. And Aldred, the Prior of the Dreng’s Ferry monastery, is plagued by desires for Edgar. His homosexuality can never be acknowledged or acted upon, except once as a novice many years before, in an incident of kissing that almost had him expelled from the church.
The Evening and the Morning delivers the same kind of story as its predecessors. We understand who the bad guys are, who the good guys are, and we know, much as we might expect from a pleasant fairy tale, that everyone will get what they deserve in the end. Yes, there is a cartoon simplicity to some of the characterisation. Wynstan is such a bad bishop that I began to imagine Dick Dastardly twirling his moustache, while Wigelm sniggered beside him like Muttley. If the good guys have to do something bad to achieve their ends, they’re good guys and we will forgive them for that. Because don’t expect the bad guys to do anything good, except to confess freely that they were bad guys when they get their comeuppance. Like a Shakespearean comedy that veers a little close to tragedy in the middle part of the play, expect weddings and happiness at the end, while the bad guys come to a bad end. Those who have read the other Kingsbridge novels know this is what to expect. And if that’s what you want, The Evening and the Morning is an enjoyable read.
‘Your father has spoiled you by teaching you about government. But a woman can never be a ruler.’
‘That’s not so,’ Ragna said, speaking more heatedly than she had intended. ‘A woman can be a queen, a countess, an abbess or a prioress.’
‘Always under the authority of a man.’
‘I don’t know what I’m going to be, but I’d like to rule side by side with my husband, talking to him as he talks to me about what we need to do to make our domain happy and prosperous.’
Genevieve shook her head sadly. ‘Dreams,’ she said. ‘We all had them.’ She said no more.