The Evening and the Morning

Bob’s Pick: The Evening and the Morning by Ken Follett

When I started to read this book, I wondered why it was entitled “The Evening and the Morning” and not “The Morning and the Evening”. After reading the book, however, I feel that it could also have easily been called, “The Darkness before the Dawn”.

The tenth century was a tough time to have been around in England. Before the middle ages and later the enlightened years of the Renaissance, these times were also known as the Dark Ages and they were named so for a reason. Justice was truly subjective and was in the hands of the nobility. Laws were interpreted by the nobles and usually to their own advantage. Big fish swallowed smaller fish. Kings trumped nobles who in turn trumped everyone else.

Life was a hardscrabble existence and it did not much matter what social class you were born into, especially if you were born a female. Women were treated little better than property, and if you were born a peasant, your life wasn’t even worth a pound (English currency in silver, probably today worth about $30.00)

The story of this book centers on the lives of our 3 main protagonists or heroes. They are Edgar, the craftsman, Ragna, a noble highborn lady and Aldred, a gentle and bookish monk. They each have high aspirations for their lives and are all highly intelligent. All struggle to survive in a strongly political environment dominated by an ealdorman (local nobleman in charge) and a bishop.

The antagonists of the story are the family of the ealdorman named Wilwulf.  They include a diabolically clever bishop named Wynstan, the brother of Wilwulf, Wigelm, a nobleman and another brother of Wilwulf and Gytha, Wilwulf’s mother.  The plot in the story resembles a chess game, where the schemes of the evil bishop dominate the play. Every move by the good queen, Ragna, is countered by the evil bishop and his family.

The story begins with Ragna, a Princess from Normandy in France, marrying Wilwulf, an ealdorman from the Southwest Coast of England, whose main city was to become Kingsbridge. She was in love with him until she discovered that Wilwulf had already been married to someone else and then divorced1 in order to marry her. Her marriage was arranged to seal a trade deal between England and France. Wilwulf’s family does not wish to lose any political and economic power to her, so they continuously conspire against her. As time goes on, she allies herself with Edgar and Aldred.

Edgar doesn’t have any political power. Yet he dreams beyond his station in life and falls in love with Ragna. He is a prototypical renaissance man. Fluent in several languages, he is also a skilled craftsman, architect and engineer. He becomes a thorn in the side of the ealdorman and bishop. They can’t dispose of him because his skills are uncommon and necessary for their own economic gain.

Friar Aldred is a humble monk who has affection for both Edgar and Ragna. He wishes to make his parish at Kingsbridge a center of learning activity by assembling the largest library in England (Go Librarians!). He is an advisor to both Edgar and Ragna, providing them with whatever assistance is at his disposal.  Having caught Bishop Wynstan in a number of illegal and immoral activities, he is the bishop’s nemesis and mortal enemy.

In terms of her thinking, Ragna is ahead of her times. She is outspoken and will not back down to her enemies. Ragna is forced to endure many indignities, deprivations and even depravities at the hands of the Wilwulf family. Wilwulf himself is murdered and Wigelm takes over. She falls in love with Edgar but is forced to marry Wigelm. Edgar becomes dejected and travels to France. Aldred hangs on to save his monastery. At this point, it would seem that our heroes have all fallen into an inescapable deep and dark pit of despair. Yet hope ever springs eternal and with all this darkness, there must come a dawn.

The dawn finally rises and the story ends happily for our band of heroes. They take their lives into their own hands and shape their destinies. What goes around, comes around and it certainly came around with a vengeance for the Wilwulf family. Their endings are not so happy and in some cases tragic.

Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres. Ken Follett is a master of this and also happens to be one of my favorite authors. This book was written as a prelude to “Pillars of the Earth”. There are four books he has dedicated to the history of Kingsbridge, England. “The Evening and the Morning” is the fourth in this series of books, but chronologically speaking, it should have been the first book. The third and fourth books in this series are “World without End” and “A Column of Fire”.

1During this time period, a euphemism was used by the populace to describe divorce. It was called being “put aside”.