“What kings may follow me I do not know, and I do not care. When my day is ended, it is ended. But . . . on some book my name will be written.” — Thorfinn
“All hail, Macbeth, that shall be King hereafter!” – Shakespeare, Macbeth I.iii.50
The first 250-300 pages of King Hereafter are pretty hard going. Here’s why:
‘Eachmarcach is not a young man, and he has been King of Dublin on and off now for seventeen years. What will happen to our interests in Ireland and Man if Dublin falls into unfriendly hands has been something I have been giving a lot of thought to. On the other hand, Diarmaid is fighting-mad and has been ever since he claimed Meath. He wants to make Turlough Ua Brian King of Munster, and the present incumbent is giving him trouble. He may recruit Harold and his men to help him attack Munster instead.’
‘He may recruit Harold and his brother and get them killed, which would be best of all,’ said Prior Tuathal with un-Christian firmness. ‘For, while King Edward wouldn’t mind a west-coast alliance excluding the Godwin family, Harold wouldn’t like it at all, if he ever came back from exile. After all, it was to prevent such an alliance between the Welsh and the Mercians and the Cumbrians, presumably, that the Kings of England farmed out Cumbria in the first place. They couldn’t hold it. Cumbria was self-supporting and too far from Wessex to benefit from Wessex protection. Now it’s different.’
Actually, I lied: in the way that this little excerpt suggests, the entire book — all 700+ pages of it — is hard going, and in fact my sample comes from nearly 500 pages in. But by that point the ceaseless cascade of names and details and the bewildering welter of political maneuverings have stopped seeming like interpretive problems and become simply the habitus of the novel. Confused? Adrift? Surprised? Vulnerable? Constantly struggling to keep track and keep up? Welcome to the 11th century, and to the region that would one day become the United Kingdom but which in the time of King Hereafter was neither united nor, mostly, one kingdom. It’s as much as our characters can do to keep abreast of the constantly changing landscape of allegiances and threats: one reason the protagonist, Thorfinn, is such a dominant figure is that he manages the flow of information, and thus the shaping and reshaping of possible outcomes, better than anyone else. Well, better than almost anyone else — or he’d meet a different end.
King Hereafter tells the story of “the historical Macbeth.” I put that in scare-quotes because Dunnett’s identification of Thorfinn Sigurdsson, or Thorfinn the Great (or Mighty), with Macbeth is debatable. (Dunnett has a bit to say about her research and conclusions here.) I’ll just accept Dunnett’s theory, since it’s the novel that interests me and not the (almost certainly unrecoverable) facts. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t possibly recapitulate all the intricacies of the plot, but its main outlines are pretty simple, and (sort of) recognizable if you know Shakespeare’s play: with the support of his wife, Thorfinn overcomes rivals and enemies (including Duncan) and becomes Earl of Orkney and Caithness and King of Alba, only to be overcome eventually himself by yet more rivals and enemies (including Duncan’s son Malcolm). Thorfinn is nothing like Shakespeare’s Macbeth, though: his rise to power is not an exercise in ruthless (if conflicted) self-aggrandizement but a response to political and military necessities (win or die). More important, it is at once a test and a proof of his character: blessed, or cursed, with a great capacity for leadership, Thorfinn sees the possibility of forging a nation that can build on the combined strengths of its disparate parts, rather than persist in endless cycles of destructive rivalries:
He spoke in Gaelic, with which every man was familiar, for uniformity was the theme of the meeting.
Uniformity of justice, with the same rules enforced by the King’s authority through the King’s agents everywhere from Fife to the Hebrides.
Uniformity of worship, so that men might be baptised and buried and shriven on the same terms in the same way . . . and have ready to hand a source of aid for the poor and the sick and the traveller . . .
Uniformity in the way land and rights and property were held and changed hands . . .
Uniformity of aims and ideals, so that no region should plan independently of its neighbour, but each should look towards the rest, as brother to brother, and to the King as a father. So, as in Alba of old, men had brought their token of earth to the Moot Hill of Scone to signify unity, so each region would bring its own excellence and bind it into the country that was neither Alba nor Orkney, but men had begun to call Scotia.
That nation-building can be difficult to distinguish from self-aggrandizement, especially in the heat of the moment, is one of Dunnett’s recurring interests — at any rate, it’s certainly something the Lymond books explore, especially The Ringed Castle. A similar problem emerges at the personal level: what distinguishes an inspired leader from an egomaniac or a charlatan? Like Lymond, Thorfinn has the knack of inspiring loyalty in others, often motivating them to extraordinary feats of courage and self-sacrifice (and, occasionally, self-destruction) in his service. “No one who really knew him,” his wife reflects, “would ever let him down.” With great charisma, Dunnett always emphasizes, comes great responsibility.
Thorfinn has a less tormented relationship with his leadership role than Lymond with his, though, proceeding through the journey from Viking overlord to sovereign of a modernizing European country with no paroxysms of doubt or conscience. His growth in reach and vision seems part and parcel of the changes in the world around him, which is also leaving behind its Viking past of raids and barter and pagan gods. Thorfinn himself still feels the pull of the old ways, as we see especially through his ongoing struggle to accept in his heart the Christian faith which is the spiritual scaffold of the new nation. He gets strength and clarity from time spent in his own territories of Orkney, and is never more completely at peace with himself than when at sea. But he recognizes and never shirks the burden he has taken on with “this tortuous business of ruling.” He accepts it all, even knowing that it means his death:
‘What else were you born for?’
‘Why not happiness, like other men?’ Thorfinn said.
‘You have that,’ said his foster-father. ‘But if you try to trap it, it will change. Why do you resist? It is your right.’
‘I resist because it is no use resisting,’ Thorfinn said. ‘Do you not think that is unfair? I shall be King because I was King; and I shall die because I did die; and did I remember them, I could even tell what are the three ways it might befall me.’
The three ways are foretold in a prophesy that, again, is recognizable to us from Macbeth, and here too they work themselves into reality: Birnam Wood does, for instance, come to Dunsinane. There are no witches, though: it’s Thorfinn’s other-worldly step-son Lulach who sees and “tells you what has already happened, through many eyes.”
Groa, Lulach’s mother and Thorfinn’s wife, is also nothing like Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth. Though she is secondary to Thorfinn in power and historical significance, she is (another common element in Dunnett’s novels) every bit his equal and partner as his wife and as a character. The development of their relationship was my favourite aspect of the novel. The beginning is inauspicious: he kills her husband and then marries her himself to secure his lands and victory. That’s no more than what’s expected, however, by them and by those around them. What’s unexpected is that gradually their rough pragmatic union changes into something more tender and profound, based on both intellectual and sexual reciprocity. Thorfinn calls it “soul-friendship”: it’s not demonstrative, and it is even dangerous, creating potential weakness where they both need to be resolute and fearless, but through everything, “steady and constant, the river ran as ever below,” bringing them comfort.”He knew no one like her,” Thorfinn thinks as the prophesied end draws near; “there had never been anyone like her.” Our knowledge that their marriage has been more than a war-forged necessity makes both her situation and her strength at the novel’s conclusion all the more dramatic.
There is much else to savor in King Hereafter: the battle scenes, for instance, which are tautly gripping and vivid with sound and color. There’s a sea battle in the first part in particular that had me completely caught up in the action. An array of memorable characters bring drama and interest in many different registers, from the glitter of Thorfinn’s beautiful, feral cousin Rognvald to the cunning and strength of Lady Godiva and England’s Queen Emma. If the names and genealogies and politics are sometimes mentally clogging, the scenic descriptions provide the perfect antidote — winter in Orkney, for instance, with
the winds that dragged through land and sea like a scraping-board and flung the green waves and the white against the storm-breach at Skaill until the heathland was salt a mile inland and the night sky was cuffed with pale breakers.
Or on the shores of Caithness, “where the biggest headland of all stood dark red against the afternoon sky,” and
a man or a woman could lean on the wind as into the bosom of God and look upon the whole sunlit world of green grass and blue sea, from the land’s edge that lay towards Norway to the smudged snow-capped peak of Ben Loyal, far to the west. . .
Thorfinn’s travels take him across the sea to Norway and Sweden and even as far as Rome:
Terracotta and white in the sunlight, the slim columns stood; the reeled arcades, the thumbnail arches, the delicate boxes of brick, cross-pleated with stairway and portico. The triangles of pyramid and pediment. The assiduous tooth-comb of the aqueducts, bringing the rivers riding on triumphal arches. The domes; the campanile stalks; the tablets of fluted clay tile or chalked bronze with their feet in drifting blue smoke from the other, invisible roofs of reed and of wood.
There’s a wonderfully tactile quality to Dunnett’s prose, a lavishness, a profusion of specificity. Like A. S. Byatt or Hilary Mantel, Dunnett isn’t afraid of showing her work, and King Hereafter is thick with research. It never has the dreaded “info-dump” effect, though: also like those other great historical novelists, Dunnett understands how to make history palpable through her people.
Facing his defeat and death, Thorfinn wonders if he will be forgotten. His friend Sulien insists that “whatever Lulach may say, men will look back and see a king who strove to build for his people.” This is not the story we now know most readily about Macbeth, but Dunnett offers something monumental to stand beside Shakespeare’s very different story, a book in which, as her Macbeth envisions, his name is written, and in something other than blood.