A few days ago I picked Dorothy Dunnett’s The Ringed Castle off my bookshelf to look up a particular scene and ended up not just reading to the end (again) but following up with a reread of the next novel in the Lymond Chronicles, Checkmate.
I didn’t actually read every word — these are books I have read so often and so intensely over the years that I sometimes feel entitled to pick and choose the scenes I focus on. This is not in any way a comment on Dunnett’s prose — it is not a hint that I think the novels somehow do not need to be as long as they are. She’s a wonderful writer: she has spoiled me, really, for most other historical novelists, who with very rare exceptions show little of her style or profundity — of her commitment to making historical fiction much, much more than melodrama in period costumes. It’s more a sign that I have the kind of relationship with the Lymond books that I’ve learned many viewers have with Buffy the Vampire Slayer: there are episodes and sequences that are particularly resonant to me, that immediately remind me, when I turn to them, what it is about these books that has made them magic to me since I first read The Game of Kings in 1979. Just as Buffy afficionados might mention, say, “Becoming Part 2” or “Innocence” or “Graduation Day” as exemplary of what makes the series special, so I might pick out the final scenes with Christian Stewart in Game of Kings, or the chess game in Pawn in Frankincense, or the “Languished Locked in L” improvisation in The Ringed Castle, or the flight across the rooftops of Paris in Checkmate (or almost any other scene involving Philippa, who is hands-down one of my favorite literary characters of all time) and expect other Dunnett lovers to know both what I’m talking about and why I’m talking about it.
One of the treats of rereading any book, but perhaps especially books you’ve loved for decades, is seeing how they change when you see them in new lights. Middlemarch, for instance, once seemed to me an uplifting story of young love finally triumphing (oh, to be 18 and read it that way again!) — now it seems to me a melancholy lesson in learning to live with disappointment and lowered expectations. The Lymond Chronicles are no exception, though they have changed less for me than many books because my relationship with them has always been intensely personal — I haven’t ever wanted to step back and consider them analytically. I still don’t! But that doesn’t mean my readings are totally static: different things do stand out over time. This time, quite unexpectedly, I found myself thinking about Buffy as I read about Lymond. I say “unexpectedly” because really, can you imagine any two works that superficially have less in common, from the media they were created in to their tone, setting, and overall style? And yet they have at least two things in common.
First, they are both fundamentally about leadership, and particularly the cost it exacts on “the chosen one.” Francis Crawford, of course, is not chosen in the supernatural way that Buffy is — though there are many hints through the novels of forces and purposes beyond the understanding and control of individual human actors, through characters like the Dame de Doubtance and the recurrent appearances of Nostradamus and John Dee bearing astrological charts and prophesies. Even setting aside fate or destiny as factors, though, Dunnett emphasizes that extraordinary gifts such as Lymond’s bring responsibilities: to be both extremely talented and highly charismatic is to invite discipleship, and much of the drama of the series turns on Lymond’s struggles to find the right use of his exceptional self. For him as for Buffy, leadership means isolation, risk, and hard choices — which we watch him make over and over, often amid the burden of other people’s misunderstanding, jealousy, or hatred. Morally, he is a much more complicated figure than Buffy, but beneath his often flamboyant disregard for conventional propriety or morality, there’s an absolute integrity that we come, as readers, to trust as much as Archie Abernethy does. And Archie isn’t the only one: there’s a parade of people across the novels who end up giving Lymond their loyalty, even their love, as they learn to see past the distracting sparkle of his brilliant, ruthless surface. (Did I mention Christian Stewart? That relationship establishes something absolutely vital to the rest of the series.) For Lymond, as never really for Buffy, the question is whether he can remain worthy of his own rather extraordinary Scooby gang, or whether his excesses will finally destroy it, and him.
The other thing I found myself thinking about is how far both series rely on the power of storytelling and especially of great characterization to get us to accept features that might otherwise seem ridiculous. I’ve been watching these very interesting episode guides to Buffy, and one point that gets made repeatedly (and, I think, rightly) is that both the specific monsters and many particular plot points aren’t, if you look at all closely, that convincing. Once you’ve been won over to the series, however, none of that really matters: what does matter is that Joss Whedon and his team (including, of course, the actors who portray them) have created people we utterly believe in and care deeply about. Maybe in an ideal world you wouldn’t have to shrug anything off, whether it’s giant reptile creatures that look completely fake or strangely illogical curses that, when reversed, put homicidal sadists back in business. If you can admit that these are indeed wobbly bits but simply not care, however, that’s surely a sign that something else extraordinary is going on. I think the same is true of the Lymond Chronicles. There are many elements in them that, looked at in the cold analytical light of day, seem a bit … well, let’s just say far out there. The chess game I already mentioned, for instance: really? How stagy and melodramatic is that? But also, how terrifying, and tragic — and also, how apt, as a way to literalize the drawn-out competition between Lymond and Gabriel in which so many people have been used as pawns. The whole family scandal that motivates huge swathes of the plot, especially, finally, in Checkmate: really? How is that secret sufficient to the catastrophes it causes? Yet in the moment I never question that Lymond, or Sybilla, or Marthe, or anyone else would act or feel as they do. (I realize that my care to avoid overt spoilers makes this kind of inside baseball: sorry. But if you haven’t read the Lymond books already, I don’t want you to lose your chance to discover all of their secrets for yourself.)
I’m not saying it’s just the people and the stories that matter in either case. Buffy (as those episode guides nicely bring out) has lots going on thematically — mythologically, even, and the Lymond Chronicles are rich with historical and political contexts, and driven by a vision of what it meant to be alive and thinking at a particular moment in time. It does seem to me, though, that a lot of the powerful forward momentum both series have comes from the investment we make in their characters’ lives: it’s not just that we want to know what happens next (in itself, I think suspense is often a cheap device, one that doesn’t stand up to much rereading or rewatching) — it’s that we want to be with these people as it happens to them. The characters Dunnett creates are particularly rewarding to spend time with: they have many facets, they are flawed, they feel deeply, they think hard, and they talk wonderfully. Now that I think of it, that’s a third thing the series have in common — great dialogue!
What do you think: are these comparisons convincing at all? Can you think of other works that achieve greatness, as I’ve argued these do, almost in spite of themselves?
A side note: those are the covers I have on my editions of the Lymond Chronicles. They have so little to do with the novels it’s ridiculous. For starters, there is no blonde woman at all in The Ringed Castle (most of which is set, though you’d never guess it from the illustration, in Russia) and no redhead in Checkmate. Is that supposed to be Mariotta on the cover of Game of Kings? If so, what is she up to? Much as I love my battered old copies, I do sometimes wish for the more elegant Vintage editions.