William Golding, British Nobel Prize winner, is of course best known for The Lord of the Flies, but he was primarily a historical novelist, his works ranging from The Inheritors, which is set far back in the mists of prehistory (and is in my opinion one of the greatest novels ever written), through The Scorpion God, set in ancient Egypt, The Double Tongue, his last novel, set in classical Greece, to the wonderful Rites of Passage trilogy, set in the 18th century. His one novel set in medieval times is The Spire. (I shall post reviews of all of these in the coming weeks - starting with The Inheritors.)
Jocelin, Lord Dean of the cathedral, has a dream, a dream based on a vision, for he is above all else a mystic, a dream of adding a soaring spire to the great cathedral.
The dream becomes an obsession: he will not listen to words of warning and advice from such as the sacrist, Father Anselm, who voted against it in Chapter and was overruled (and now refers to it as Jocelin's Folly), and Roger Mason, the master-builder, who tells the Dean there are no proper foundations and is told in return to have faith and believe in miracles.
At first, he knows that he must not focus on the spire to the exclusion of all else. "And I must remember that the spire isn't everything! I must do, as far as possible, exactly what I have always done." But this becomes impossible as the drama builds up.
There is human drama, too, a personal drama also approaching a terrible climax. This revolves around Goody Pagnall, an orphan and ward of the cathedral chapter, Jocelin's "daughter in God" (as he puts it), now a red-haired beauty who has become "entirely a woman". There is a small affair, a small tragedy; and yet in a sense it is the greater tragedy, for can there be one greater than love, and the death of the beloved?
Golding poses the question, should a God-obsessed mystic be entrusted with temporal authority, be thrust into a situation where people depend on the decisions he will make – and suddenly tells us how Jocelin really came to be appointed Lord Dean in the first place.
Beautifully written, of course, a wonderful novel, a classic, Golding at his best, and to be read by everyone interested in the Age of Belief, when the great cathedrals which still have us craning our necks backwards in awed disbelief, were built by hand and on faith.