The Crypt at Canterbury Cathedral.

From the Pillars of the Earth to The Moon

Ken Follett
Ken Follett, author of The Pillars of The Earth and World Without End.

A few days ago, I had the good fortune to attend an evening presentation given in the Crypt of Canterbury Cathedral. The subject of the presentation was to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the first publication of his novel ‘The Pillars of the Earth’ and it was being delivered by none other than the author himself – Ken Follett.

Collaborating with ‘Waterstones’ – a well-known chain of book stores here in the United Kingdom – Ken Follett is marking this auspicious landmark by delivering a series of presentations in the crypts of a select few cathedrals to mark the occasion. And what could be a more atmospheric setting or right place for a presentation celebrating both this book and its sequel – ‘World Without End’ – than for it being delivered from the crypt of one of these timeless buildings.

The Pillars of the Earth.
The Pillars of the Earth.

For those of you who may not have read either of these best-selling novels – and I count myself among that number – they are set in around the 12th Century here in the United Kingdom, with the story being centered a round the cast of medieval characters whose paths cross in the fictitious town of Kingsbridge, where a character called Prior Philip decides to expand his priory and build a cathedral. Essentially, this novel and its sequel – ‘World Without End’ – follow the fortunes of Prior Philip in his quest to elevate the fictional Kingsbridge, to becoming a cathedral city and as such, the story of that quest weaves itself into the factual setting of the time of King Henry 1st medieval Britain.

Having openly admitted to you that I have neither read either of these two novels, or watched the later TV mini-series that have spun out of them, I cannot really accurately give you more details other than the brief outline that I have recounted above. However, this post is not really about the novels in themselves and is more about the wonderful presentation that the author gave to all of us that attended the presentation. What made it even more special was that when considering that a major part of the subject of the plot setting involved the building of a magnificent cathedral, here we were in the Crypt of Canterbury Cathedral itself, listening to his recollections on how his thought processes developed into building a story around the building of one.

Motivations and Driving Forces

Now how you may say, does the building of a fictitious mediaeval cathedral bear any similarities to Project Apollo and landing a man on the Moon some 800 years later. Well here’s the thing. During the presentation, Ken Follett started to explain what he considered were the motivations and driving forces that led to the creation of these magnificent buildings. Obviously, in an attempt to be as historically accurate as he could in the portrayal of this attempt, a lot of time was invested visiting and reading about these buildings and the life and times of those people who not only commissioned them, but also the craftsmen and labourers who actually constructed them.

World Without End.
World Without End.

Anybody who has visited any cathedral, cannot fail but to be immersed first by its timeless calm and spirituality of the atmosphere that seems to fill these buildings. They are truly remarkable and in my humble opinion, the nearest thing that us human beings have constructed that could be considered as ‘time machines’. One only has to spend a minute or so standing within their vast, cavernous knaves and then gaze up at the incredible romanesque or gothic arches and the beautifully delicate ceiling vaulting and just wonder – how on Earth did those artisans and architects in medieval times do what they did, and all without the aid of the technologies and modern machines that we now have at our disposal to build our buildings in the modern era?

Time Machines

I made a comparison in the previous paragraph that stated that I felt these buildings were the nearest things that people have created that might be considered as ‘time machines’. Well, when you consider that here in the UK, most of our cathedrals have stood in one guise or another for 1,000 years or more and what you are seeing, feeling and touching would be instantly familiar to anyone of those original builders and the later generations that have filed reverently in and out of them over the intervening centuries, I think that you may well feel that it is not too much of an outlandish statement.

Ken Follett then went on to ask what was the incentive for these people to build such magnificent buildings as these? Well obviously religion and the worship of God, Jesus Christ and the Saints to which the buildings are dedicated, was the first premise for their construction. But then you may ask, why did they evolve into being the overwhelmingly ornate, huge, complex, beautiful and of course, expensive buildings that we see today? Ken Follet stated that the buildings bore no resemblance to the living conditions of the people who built them. Most were living in very dark, primitive conditions in comparison to those in which we live today. Of course, the building of such large and grandiose buildings such as these places of worship, have been carried out throughout the ages. One only has to consider the building of the pyramids and the temples and cities of antiquity to see the lineage from which these buildings could be drawn. We also have to take into account the prestige and the desire of powerful priests, kings and the state, who ultimately would want some outward manifestation or legacy, to state that they were here once here and this is a symbol to all – and the generations that follow – that we too once lived and these buildings are our legacy.

Shock and Awe

Once constructed, these buildings would have attracted pilgrims from far and wide who would want to make their ‘trip of a lifetime’ to visit these holy places. In times gone by, we would refer to them as being pilgrims. Today, we might recognise them more easily as tourists, who also want to visit these amazing places and are driven by similar motivations as their medieval ancestors. Of course today, apart from a few of these buildings that are located in dominant locations – such as Durham and Lincoln Cathedrals which sit atop hills and Salisbury, which can still be seen clearly from miles away, as it sits in a flat flood plain and has not been obscured by modern tall buildings. One can only imagine the effect that seeing such colossal structures would have on the minds of these medieval tourists. Structures such as St. Paul’s in London are now situated among large, multi-storied office buildings. They are still magnificent and imposing edifices and a wonder of design and construction. But if we think back to those pilgrims, who would have walked for days to visit these holy places and their first glimpses of them would have been either from the top of hills or across meadows and fields – as if placed their by Gods hands himself – one can only guess at the impression it would have left upon them. There would be nothing in their experience to compare them with what they were first seeing from many miles away. They would have soared above everything around them. As they gradually approached, these medieval pilgrims would be confronted with a structure so magnificent and unlike anything that they had ever saw before. The carvings and ornate masonry that are lavished in the decoration would have overwhelmed – it still is. Once inside they too would have been awe and that spirituality of the atmosphere probably accompanied by monastic chants or choral music. And then there would have been the magnificent stained glass, depicting biblical stories and lauding the King and other saintly people. With the sunlight streaming through, these pilgrims would be witnessing colours and lighting never seen before seen. The only comparison by modern day standards would be the witnessing of a multi-media display.

Aerial view of Launch Complex 34 with with Saturn IB being prepared for launch in 1963.
Aerial view of Launch Complex 34 with with Saturn IB being prepared for launch in 1963. Image Courtesy of NASA.

And this is where Ken Follett made an analogy that really made me sit back and think. What was the motive – or driving forces – behind all the cost, time and the legions of craftsmen who went into building them? Yes we can think of a lasting statement of power and prestige that a wealthy patron or group of backers who could afford to finance such a venture and use the finest craftsmen, building materials and resources available to build such a building of their dreams. But ultimately, these buildings were places where people would come to venerate a saint and of course God and Jesus Christ. The taller and more prominent a scene that it was built, the better in that the nearer to God it would be. The reason for its creation was to worship here on Earth a concept; a deity; an ideal.

Lift off for Apollo 15, July 26th 1971.
Apollo 15 lifts off from Launch Complex 39A at the John F. Kennedy Space Center on July 26th, 1971. Image Courtesy of NASA.

It was to this that Ken Follett alluded that the best modern day analogy that he could think of to compare with such an undertaking, was the Apollo Program and its stated goal of placing a man on the Moon. We all know that one of the principal objectives of the Apollo Program, was to best the Russian, who during the late 1950’s and the earlier part of the 60’s, pulled off amazing ‘firsts’ in space, which left the American public feeling that soviet technology was better in the worlds eyes than that of the ‘free’ capitalist west. So when President John F. Kennedy set the American nation the national goal of landing a man on the Moon before this decade is out in 1961 – just as those who were responsible for the planning and commissioning of the cathedrals – the call went out for the best of the nations technical, engineering and scientific resources to come together and plan the project and ultimately, construct the exotic craft and launch facilities to make that dream a reality.

Astronaut James Irwin salutes the American flag during Apollo 15 mission.
A quarter million miles from home, astronaut James Irwin salutes the flag and the achievement of the Apollo 15 mission of 1971, the fourth manned journey to the moon. David Scott, mission commander, radioed to Earth, “I realize there’s a fundamental truth to our nature—man must explore.” Image and Caption, Courtesy of NASA

And why the Moon? Yes later in the Apollo Project, there would be landing sites that were selected for their scientific value. But make no mistake. When Apollo 11 landed in the Sea of Tranquility in July 1969, its main aim was to beat the Russian to a first manned landing and to extol an ideal. It was to support a concept and quell a national fear and prove that capitalism and that bastion of freedom – The United States of America – was an ideal more powerful and virtuous than that of their Cold War foe – the USSR.

Upon contemplating what Ken Follett said, I think that he is right. Landing a man on the Moon was primarily nothing to do with exploration. Certainly the exploration of space was one of the many drivers and the later missions would have a greater emphasis on scientific exploration. But all the engineering, science and the best technology and science that the United States could bring to bear, was initially to prove an ideal. That the concept of freedom and free market capitalism would always succeed over those subjugated by communism.

2 thoughts on “From the Pillars of the Earth to The Moon”

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