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Randi Kreiss

On the road with a priest, a knight and a monk

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After 15 months, hundreds of miles, 800 pages and 40 hours of audio, I listened to the closing words of my book this week, and it was good.

Early in the pandemic, I experienced the kind of deadening boredom and restlessness that can unravel the human spirit. So I pushed myself outdoors to walk. No matter the weather, no matter the temptations of the couch and the TV, I walked.

After some weeks, the thoughts that accompanied me were not helpful. I tended to perseverate on medical, political and existential threats. So I decided to listen to a very long book with my newly purchased AirPods, and that’s how Ken Follett’s “Pillars of the Earth” saved my life. Well, that’s an overstatement, but the book, all 40 hours of it on Audible, kept me reasonably sane.

The only other Follett book I had read was the breakout thriller “The Eye of the Needle.” I chose “Pillars” because it was unreasonably long and because the reader, John Lee, got rave reviews. I wanted a deep, authoritative voice in my ear, an English narrator who would add authenticity.

I had strict rules for myself. I would only listen to the book — no contemporaneous reading. I would allow myself to listen only when I was walking, thus the built-in motivation. And when I was listening, I wouldn’t take phone calls or allow other distractions. I only listened when I walked alone.

In an afterward, Follett explains how he came to write this doorstop of a book, an epic piece of historical fiction, and his story is unique. He grew up in a family that adhered to a Puritan-like religious ethic. As a young lad, he became enthralled with the building of cathedrals, an odd fascination for a kid, especially since it was paired with an interest in medieval architecture.

He began writing thrillers, and all the while kept researching the story of the great cathedrals of England. His publishers wanted him to keep churning out best-sellers, because he had a real knack for it and they liked a sure thing, but he decided to write a big book on the building of a fictional cathedral in England between the years 1135 and 1170. It took him more than three years, which is nothing, because it took 30 years to build a cathedral in those times.

The building of the grand churches over decades is the infrastructure of the book. But it isn’t all flying buttresses and knaves and arches. The human story drives the narrative. The tale begins with a priest, a knight and a monk who witness an illegal hanging, and it flows out from there in all directions and over decades, with characters questing and crusading across the world. Follett creates dozens of characters whose stories pull us into the drama of life in medieval villages, castles and emerging towns.

I walked day after day, with Tom Builder and Prior Philip, Jack Jackson, Ellen the witch, Bishop Waleran Bigod, Aliena and Johnny Eightpence and even the ill-fated Thomas Beckett. Like a Woody Allen of Medieval times, Follett intertwines his characters with authentic historical figures we’ve only met in history books. Beckett, for one, leaps to life with a dignity and grace he may or may not have exhibited in real life.

Villains abound. Heroes get pierced through with swords. Women sacrifice youth and beauty to honor oaths to dictatorial fathers. Lovers are thwarted by religion and plague and just bad timing. Babies are born to and abandoned by desperately poor itinerant workers, and they are found and raised by good-hearted monks to become servants of God.

I’m telling you about this now because it’s just possible that you’ll need to walk your way through a troubling time, and a really long book can make the journey easier. It was impossible to think any bad thoughts while I was listening my way through “Pillars of the Earth.”

We are all in a better place now, but a worrier is a worrier. So I still walk, and just today I began “The Long Ships,” by Swedish writer Frans G. Bengtsson. Published in 1941, it recounts the adventures of Viking Rode Orm in the late 10th century.

This is a find. I look forward to my morning walk. After listening to live news this evening about Covid spikes, galloping Trumpism and political paralysis, it’s downright comforting to hear bloody sagas of Viking hordes raiding and sacking the known world.

Copyright 2021 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at randik3@aol.com.