Pillars of the Earth: Surprisingly Feminist

by | September 8, 2010
filed under Feminism, Pop Culture

Don’t let the poster fool you: the recent Pillars of the Earth miniseries, based on the 1989 novel by Ken Follett, is surprisingly feminist.


Spoilers Ahead!

To start with, I should mention that I haven’t read the book, so I’m not commenting on Follett’s intent or the content of the book that may differ from the novel.

For those of you not familiar with Pillars of the Earth, it tells the story of the attempt to build a great cathedral in the priory of Kingsbridge in the mid-12th century. The story takes place over several years, and places two generations of characters in the middle of a feud between the illegitimate King Stephen and his sister Maud over the throne of England.

Ellen (Natalia Worner) and her son, Jack (Eddie Redmayne)

First we meet the older generation, consisting of Tom the Builder, Ellen the witch (Natalia Worner), and Prior Philip (Matthew Macfadyen), and the evil Bishop Waleran (Ian McShane) and his sometimes henchmen Lord and Lady Hamleigh. Donald Sutherland and Gordon Pinsent also have relatively small parts.

In the younger generation we have the violent and disturbed William Hamleigh; the dispossessed Aliena (Hayley Atwell), determined to reclaim her father’s Earldom for her brother; Tom Builder’s son Alfred; and Ellen’s son Jack (Eddie Redmayne), a prodigious sculptor who is targeted by the King, the Bishop, and William Hamleigh at various points in the story.

Knowing the story is over 20 years old and set in the 12th century, and not ever having considered using the word “feminist” to describe Ken Follett, I was pleasantly surprised. For one thing, Pillars of the Earth has some kick-ass female characters. There’s Ellen, who’s a witch who escapes the attempts of the church to persecute her and ends up causing the evil Bishop Waleran’s downfall. Her character is complicated and doesn’t reinforce stereotypes about witches.

Hayley Atwell as Aliena

Then there’s Aliena, whose father is arrested and hanged for treason, leaving her penniless. She’s then raped by William Hamleigh and his groom once they find out where she and her brother are hiding. But even though she struggles with the psychological aftermath, she never rests from pursuing her goal of restoring her brother to her father’s title. She uses her smarts to begin a fleece business. She ends up achieving her goal when she sees the potential in William Hamleigh’s abused teenage wife Elizabeth and the two of them hatch a successful scheme to peacefully take back William’s castle for Aliena’s brother. She ends up happily with Jack.

Even though it’s really Ellen and Aliena who steal the show, it’s not like the male characters are one-dimensional. The “bad guys”, Bishop Waleran and William Hamleigh, struggle with guilt and inner demons. The good Prior Philip wrestles with selfishness and occasionally lies, though just to keep the cathedral being built. And Jack, who finally completes the cathedral Tom couldn’t, gets into serious trouble for failing to control his anger. And did I mention there’s a gay monk? How cool is that? All the major characters in Pillars of the Earth are multi-faceted, which makes the series pretty addictive.

I recommend you check out Pillars if you’re looking for something to watch that combines great characters with unlikely feminist politics.


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