- "Tom had been offered the post of builder to the Exeter castellan, repairing and improving the city's fortifications. It would have been a lifetime job, barring accidents. But Tom had turned it down, for he wanted to build another cathedral" (p. 23). Do you think Tom should have taken the position? Have you ever passed up a sure thing in pursuit of your life's passion?
- After being released from building William Hamleigh's stone house, Tom demands payment for himself and his workers according to custom. William stops work because the Lady Aliena has refused to marry him, breaking tradition. What roles do custom and tradition play in the first part of the book? Which customs and traditions are upheld? Which ones are broken?
- Why do you think William Hamleigh is so afraid of hell?
- Tom leaves his newborn son to the elements after Agnes dies from childbirth. Do you think he did the right thing? What other options did he have?
- Once Tom discovers where his newborn son is, he considers trying to get him back. What would you have done? Do you think Tom would have succeeded?
- Tom proposes to Ellen very soon after the death of his first wife? Why do you think he did this? Can he truly love another woman so soon after the loss of his wife?
- Compare and contrast Agnes and Ellen. Is one woman stronger than the other? How did their different styles of motherhood affect their children? Which do you think is a better complement for Tom?
- When we meet Prior Philip, he reminds another monk of the importance of poverty, chastity and abstinence. How does Prior Philip invoke this general idea in other situations throughout Part One? Does it benefit his efforts, or harm them?
- Why does Prior Philip agree to take in the abandoned baby? Are his reasons altruistic, or selfish—given the fact that his own family was taken from him? How is the order like a family? What needs does it fulfill, and which ones are still lacking in the brotherhood?
- When discussing the crowning of a new king with his brother Francis, Philip thinks, "Stephen's relationship with the Church had been defined, right at the start of his reign, on the Church's terms. But perhaps even more important was the precedent. The Church had to crown kings but until now it had not had the right to lay down conditions. The time might come when no king could come to power without first striking a deal with the Church" (p. 105–106). What are Philip's motives? How could this benefit the church? How could it backfire? What relationship, if any, should church and state have?
- What are your first impressions of Waleran Bigod? Is he a devout man at heart, or does he have something up his sleeve? Is Philip his ally or his pawn?
- Aliena values happiness over honor and alliances. Did she make the right choice?
- What effect does killing a man have on William Hamleigh?
- William acts disrespectful toward women—berating Aliena and offering to buy Ellen. But after he successfully invades Earl Bartholomew's castle, he seeks the approval of his mother. "William's heart was warmed by her praise, and he grinned foolishly" (p. 208). Why does William respect his mother, but no other woman?
- What do you think is the real reason Ellen decides to leave Tom and Kingsbridge?
And if you're not ready to leave Kingsbridge yet, try World Without End, Ken Follett's sequel!
Part 1 plot points
Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6
More from the complete reading guide to The Pillars of the Earth.