“More Than You Could Understand”: Dorothy Dunnett, Race of Scorpions


What would a truthful man say? You are too honest to be trusted with some secrets. One slip of the tongue would have betrayed all I was working for. There are more threads in this web than you even know yet; more than you could understand; more than you would ever forgive.

I wonder how far I would have persisted with the ‘House of Niccolò’ books if I hadn’t already been convinced when I started them that Dorothy Dunnett is a great historical novelist. I wonder, now, how far that conviction will carry me — because the books themselves have so far failed to grip or move me. That’s not to say they haven’t interested me, or that I’m not impressed, over and over, at Dunnett’s remarkable ability to weave her intricate plots, to make deep research read like lived experience, to imagine people of great complexity. They are just demanding a kind of patience from me that, for all their own intricacies, the Lymond Chronicles never have.

I described both The Spring of the Ram and Niccolò Rising as having a slow burn, and the same is certainly true of Race of Scorpions — one of the reasons I do keep reading is that I know there will at some point be a pay-off for my attention. All three House of Niccolò books so far have paid off in climactic action, but I particularly appreciated that Race of Scorpions also paid off more personally, finally giving me more of a sense that I understand its wily and enigmatic protagonist and his motivations. In Race of Scorpions his vexed relationship with Katelina van Borselen, for instance, recovers its intensity and then reaches a poignant climax; and the introduction of Diniz Vasquez adds a dynamic that reminded me of Lymond and, say, Will Scott. More than the military campaigns and political maneuvers that make up the bulk of the novel, these threads woven through it seemed like signs of the kind of overarching pattern in Nicholas’s own development that could motivate me to read the rest of the series.

And I do need a bit more motivation, a bit of an incentive to go through another 500 pages of this kind of thing five more times. I already know, after all, that Dunnett can write passage after passage like this one, vibrant with sensory details:

The pods of the carob trees dangled, black and leaking rank gum, ripe for cropping. There were pomegranates in baskets and gourds drying on roof-tops. In every village, it seemed, a donkey circled its trough of crushed olives, and the press thudded down, helped by many brown arms, as the mash yielded its oozings through wicker. Where the scent of orange had deadened the senses in March, the resinous odour of olives weighed down the humid, hot air of this journey. Instead of flower-infused silence, the air was filled with the clamour of autumn; the cries, the chaffing, the folk-songs, the team-songs of the villages; the chinking of blades; the rumble of flint-studded boards driven over the threshing ground. The objecting bray of working donkeys. The shuddering tramp of the oxen spinning the Persian wheels set over every deep well, so that the jars came up, roped with pomegranate wood withies, and tossed their icy water into the stone channels that fed the fields and the housewife’s wood buckets. Vines and almonds, lemons and oranges, pomegranates and sugar.

scorpions2I love that, but I’ve also seen it before, or very nearly. This time it’s Cyprus, but before it has been Bruges, or Venice, or Trebizond. The particulars vary, but the effect doesn’t, really. And we also get many examples of another kind of passage that to me is a lot less inviting — the kind that traces out the loyalties and lineages and special interests that are the warp and woof of Dunnett’s plots. I’ve admitted more than once that these very complicated plots are hard for me to follow. In the Lymond books, that has never bothered me much because the melodrama carries me along and because they are dominated by a few highly charismatic figures: Lymond himself, of course, Margaret Lennox, Gabriel, Philippa, Sybilla, Guzel. The supporting cast in Nicholas’s life is appealing, but not one of them really stands out to me at this point. (Greater familiarity with the series would probably change this perspective, as, perhaps, would reading the books closer together. I had trouble recalling who everybody was when I began Race of Scorpions, never mind what exactly they had been up to before.) By the end of this book, I had stopped even trying to grasp what exactly Nicholas is up to and why, besides whatever was immediate and obvious in the moment.

But that’s why the ending of this book felt so significant to me. For several pages, we are inside Nicholas’s head, intimate to an unusual degree with his thoughts and intentions — even his feelings. “He had chosen war, and had been oppressed by what he found,” Dunnett tells us, and he has experienced both love and loss; he has also found “responsibilities from which he couldn’t escape.” The literal explanations of convolutions in the action (that, characteristically for Dunnett, it turns out her protagonist has known all, or almost all, about all the while) are helpful in a practical way, but it was the orientation in Nicholas’s point of view that I valued the most. If I do read on in the series, it will be because I am curious to see where Dunnett takes him, what he grows into as this long, slow process of development and discovery continues.

scalesThis is not to say there weren’t some great, even thrilling moments in Race of Scorpions: Katelina and the moths, for example, which is a scene I’ll remember for a long time, or, in a more violent register, the long-deferred confrontation with Tzani-Bey (who did what, exactly, to Nicholas, by the way? am I right to infer that his “mistreatment” was sexual?). I was also struck — not for the first time — by the ease with which Dunnett’s world incorporates a range of sexualities. This is something that’s very prominent in Race of Scorpions, because of Zacco, but the variety and fluidity of desire is a feature of the Lymond books too. It’s certainly not typical of other mainstream historical novels I’ve read set in the Renaissance: they tend, overwhelmingly, to be organized around heterosexual romance plots, without even a hint of other possibilities. And something else that Race of Scorpions has in common with the Lymond series is an emphasis on powerful women — here, Marietta of Patras or, as she is less elegantly called, “Cropnose” (because hers has been bitten off), and her foil, at least in beauty, Primaflora. So often in Dunnett’s books, while it’s the men out in front taking action, seemingly in charge, it turns out to be the women who, behind the scenes, are pulling the strings, plotting — like Dunnett herself.

So: next up is Scales of Gold — or will be, if I read on. Once again I expect I will, though I don’t feel breathlessly impatient (as I did when first reading the Lymond books) to get my hands on it. Dunnett still hasn’t let me down — she’s too smart and skilled for that — but at this point in this series I’m also not feeling hooked.

Weekend Reading: Dorothy Dunnett via Buffy

ringedcastleA 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.dunnett

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.

checkmateFirst, 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.

FullSizeRenderThe 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.) Buffy-the-Vampire-Slayer-TV-Series

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.

“They had Nicholas”: Dorothy Dunnett, The Spring of the Ram


The truth was, Tobie supposed, that some of them wanted more than a leader, so that disappointment came hard. Toys; toys for the pillow. It was true; they were wrong. A team was one thing; a family was bound by something quite different. What they had was, indeed, enough to be thankful for. Whatever it meant, they had Nicholas.

The Spring of the Ram is the second in Dorothy Dunnet’s ‘House of Niccolò’ series. After I read the first volume, Niccolò Rising, last summer, I wondered how far it was my fault that “I was so incapable of following the multiple threads that make up Dunnett’s incredibly intricate pattern.” I had even more trouble with that this time: indeed, it seemed to me that Dunnett was being more opaque and enigmatic even than usual, tossing out teasers and hints, having the characters share knowing glances or experience moments of insight that were not explicated on my behalf until the end of the novel. As I also realized reading Nicola Griffith’s Hild, though, in the hands of a skilled story-teller comprehension isn’t always necessary to appreciation: Dunnett has a genius for making the individual crises rise above the contextual chaos, so that even though I couldn’t grasp the nuances of motivation or political machination that lay behind Nicholas’s actions, my interest in their outcome rarely flagged. Like the “reveals” at the end of a Sherlock Holmes mystery, Dunnett’s denouements show us the hand and the mind of the master that has been at work the whole time — hers, and her protagonists’.

Like Niccolò Rising, The Spring of the Ram has a slow burn: Dunnett takes her time setting up her pieces, and she also luxuriates in detailing the world through which they will make their moves. For the patient reader, there are abundant readerly delights in this process. Open to almost any page in The Spring of the Ram and you’ll get vivid, tactile description that brings to life a foreign world — unfamiliar in color, sound, smell, texture, distant in both time and place — in this case, particularly Trebizond, center of the fading Byzantine Empire, its glories on display here for the celebration of Easter:

The standards were made of crimson satin, heavily fringed, and the standardbearers and musicians wore the same colour. The horses had manes white as silk, bound with ribbons and tassels; and golden harness and beaded caparisons, and saddles studded with silver. The riders wore crowns and diadems looped and strung and fringed with fine jewelled chains, and had shining hair in every colour from bright gold to black. Their robes, narrow as grave clothes, were armoured with precious stones; with gorgets and belts and bands of ancient gems, thick as crabs. Their backs were straight; their bodies were slender as dancers’; their faces were masks of symmetrical beauty. They reached the plateau of the monastery and began to pass round its walls, while the murmuring silence was pierced by the abrupt clamour of trumpets. There was a pauses. A body of scent began to move through the air, displacing the incense. Where it came from, you could see the gleam of cloth of gold, and a sparkle where drifts of jewels fathered in shadow. . . .

Heralds and standards came first; and then young boys and maidens throwing yellow spring flowers. A golden-haired boy of a beauty she had never imagined walked next, dressed in ivory silk, a gilded bow in his hand. Behind, pacing slowly between his confessors, was the Emperor. In the crook of his right arm the Imperial crosier lay like a lily. Over his left was wrapped a swathe of the long, elaborate pallium. Above the tunic, the dalmatica, the silken eagles woven in purple and gold, she saw a noble profile, calm and resolute beneath the tall stiffened gold of the mitra. From the rim of the crown, strings of light pearls fell to the jewelled yoke on his broad shoulders, and mixed with the loose curling gold of his hair and his beard. Behind him, the train of men and women and youths, of officials and nobles and churchmen stretched far off through the trees.

The action of the novel rises to its climax with the Siege of Trebizond by the Ottomans in 1461. This provides the ultimate occasion to display the emergent power of our hero Nicholas, who began the series as a raw, unruly apprentice but who by the end of this novel is taking a confident place among Dunnett’s pantheon of charismatic leaders. In some respects The Spring of the Ram is an intensely personal story about this development, played out against the malevolent will of the nasty scheming Simon St. Pol, who may be Nicholas’s father, as well as against the quietly moving story of Nicholas’s unlikely love for his wife, Marian de Charetty, left behind while he risks everything for her company and also for her wayward daughter. But Dunnett’s people are also always agents, or representatives, of historical forces, and by the end of The Spring of the Ram we understand that the decisions Nicholas has been making about where to bestow his loyalty, his gifts, and his trade affect not only himself, his business, and his family, and his allies, but also the rise and fall of empires and faiths. “For a few weeks he had the power to choose,” says one of his company, once the hand has been played;

The future of the last Roman emperor of the East. He was forced to put a value on one of the world’s great civilizations. The blend of Rome and the Orient and the Hellenes that will never happen again. The Byzantine world that preserved Roman government and classical culture all through the ages when the Latin empire lay in ruins and was reduced, now, to one small, silly court with its beauties and its bath boys and its philosophers. And against that, the Turcoman horde. And stronger than both, the Ottoman Empire, enemy of all the Christian Church ever believed in.

This is Dunnett’s vision of history: extraordinary individuals inexplicably and exultantly of their moment, embodying “the spirit of the age” and yet, in her expert handling, never seeming anything less than human. In getting to know them, in getting caught up with them in commerce and battle but also in poetry, art, and philosophy, we are caught up in the excitement of the Renaissance as Dunnett feels it: as she says in her Author’s Note, “the explosion of exploration and trade, high art and political duplicity, personal chivalry and violent warfare in which a young man with a genius for organization and numbers might find himself trusted by princes, loved by kings, and sought in marriage and out of it by clever women bent on power, or wealth, or revenge — or sometimes simply from fondness.”

gameofkingsIt’s an exhilarating vision, and sometimes also an exhilarating reading experience, but I have to admit that the pay-off for persisting through my confusion wasn’t as great with The Spring of the Ram as I’d hoped. We are repeatedly reminded that Simon’s agent, Pagano Doria, is a short man, which eventually seemed too pat for me as a signal that (clever as he is) he lacks Nicholas’s stature — he is not the fearsome antagonist that, for example, Gabriel Reid Malett is for Francis Crawford in the Lymond series. And Nicholas himself still seems lesser – paler, duller — than Lymond: he lacks the dangerous charisma and mercurial brilliance that make Lymond so fascinating to watch. We have to take Nicholas’s exceptionality much more on faith, so far: he carries out nearly as many tricks as Lymond, but without nearly as much conspicuous melodrama, and without displaying nearly as much passion (however vexingly conflicted), for truth, for honor, or for other people. The characters surrounding Nicholas also seem less distinct and less exciting than Lymond’s supporting cast: than Will Scott, or Jerott Blyth, or Archie — or Christian Stewart, or Oonagh O’Dwyer, or, especially Philippa. With four volumes to go in the series, there’s time for the ensemble to live up to my expectations, but at this point (and I readily admit this may be an unavoidable side-effect of my 30-year love affair with the other series) for all Dunnett’s manifest gifts ‘The House of Niccolò’ still feels a bit flat, my reading of it a bit forced, in ways I never experienced with the Lymond Chronicles.

“The Light of the World”: Nicola Griffith, Hild

hildI found Hild shelved in the Fantasy and Science Fiction section at Bookmark, which means I almost didn’t realize they had it in stock, as I don’t usually browse that section. (I was poking around in case they had John Crowley’s Little, Big, which Tom had got me interested in.) I can see why the staff had put it there: the front cover blurb compares it to The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. But it isn’t fantasy: it’s historical fiction, if based, Griffith says in her Author’s Note, on a particularly scanty record: “We have no idea what [Hild] looked like, what she was good at, whether she married or had children.” “But clearly,” Griffith goes on, “she was extraordinary,” and that’s certainly true of the protagonist Griffith has created from the sparse materials available.

Maybe, though, considering Hild “fantasy” is not altogether a category mistake. “I made it up,” Griffith says about her story, while explaining that it is also deeply researched: “I learnt what I could of the late sixth and early seventh centuries: ethnography, archaeology, poetry, numismatics, jewellery, textiles, languages, food production, weapons, and more. And then I re-created that world . . . ” — that is, she engaged in “worldbuilding,” which is a fundamental (perhaps the fundamental?) task of the fantasy or science fiction author. Of course, her world is built out of real pieces, but it’s an artificial construction nonetheless. I suppose this could be said of any historical fiction, or any fiction at all, so maybe I’m trying to blur a line that’s already indistinct. But there’s something about Hild — the strangeness of its world, but also  of Griffith’s evocation of it — that makes it haunting and uncanny, as if we are not so much in an earlier version of our own world but in an alternative version.

It’s mostly Hild herself who’s responsible for that sense that we’re looking through, rather than at, the world: she is the king’s “seer,” the “light of the world,” and thus it is her job, her destiny, her “wyrd” or fate, to perceive the world differently than others. She is constantly seeking patterns, in nature and in the shifting relationships of the court and the kingdom. Her powers of perception set her apart: she is admired, revered, and feared. Her gifts are not necessarily supernatural, though: her “visions” are the results of long thought and sharp intelligence, and sometimes they are also simply predictions shaped to suit what her listeners (especially the King) want most to hear or do. Signs and omens must be interpreted, and that too requires political savvy and deft diplomacy more than any preternatural insight. Hild’s status as the King’s “light” defines her from birth and shapes both how she is treated and how she must behave: it is a burden, a responsibility, a terrible risk and a great liberation, because it exempts her from the ordinary constraints of a woman’s life.

Hild is an extraordinary character: strong, charismatic, intelligent, intensely physical, remarkably whole and convincing. One of the most interesting aspects of her characterization is the novel’s certainty about her woman’s body: it’s a central fact of her life and Griffith makes that clear without apology, voyeurism, or special pleading. I can’t think, for instance, of another novel in which starting to menstruate is a plot point in quite the way it is here — incorporated with perfect naturalness into the ongoing story of the heroine’s physical and psychological maturation, experienced as an initiation into an alliance of other women, associated with independence from authority rather than readiness for male sexual attention. That’s not to say that sexuality isn’t also an important part of Hild’s story, but though there is a love story of sorts running through the novel, her desires are hers, physical feelings she can satisfy on her own, or with women: they are not (or not just) ties that bind her emotionally to a man, and they certainly do not define her ambitions or determine the arc of her story.

The shape of that story is only partially revealed by the end of Hild. (Griffith is working on the sequel now, but I almost wish she’d waited and published one epic novel, as Hild so obviously stops rather than concludes.) Hild eventually becomes Saint Hilda of Whitby, but she isn’t there when we leave her this time. What we have seen to this point, though, is her development from an uncanny child into a fierce woman. The overall trajectory of Hild is all upward in that way: not just Hild herself, but the world she lives in is taking on a different form over the novel. The most important change is the rise of Christianity, which is gradually replacing the old forms of worship which Hild, as a seer, initially represents and serves. The transition is an uneven and not entirely welcome one. For one thing, people are reluctant to give up their old beliefs, and the representatives of the new God are not altogether persuasive. The God they represent, too, is very different from the old gods, who were more personal and more fun. “They don’t like jokes,” says one of Hild’s women about the Christians; “I don’t think their god does either.” And the new God is demanding in unfamiliar ways, insisting on obedience and reverence, and preoccupied with the unfamiliar notion of original sin. He’s also “squeamish,” inexplicably hostile to women’s bodies: “No blood in the church. No woman with her monthly bleeding. It makes no sense,” says Hild’s friend.

Will this new God diminish or invalidate Hild’s power, as a seer or as a woman? Will He punish her, perhaps, for the evils she has committed as a warrior or a prophet of other gods? Hild approaches her own baptism with trepidation, but then feels renewed courage:

She breathed deep. She was Anglisc. She would not burn. She would endure and hold true to her oath. An oath, a bond. A truth, a guide, a promise. To three gods in one. To the pattern. For even gods were part of the pattern, even three-part gods. The pattern was in everything. Of everything. Over everything. . . .

Her heart beat with it, her tears fell with it, her spirit soared with it. Here, now, they were building a great pattern, she could feel it, and she would trace its shape one day: that was her wyrd, and fate goes as ever it must. Today she was swearing to it, swearing here, with her people.

I wondered (given that she becomes a Christian saint) whether Hild’s baptism would stand as an epiphanic moment of faith — as a revelation. While the language and the mood here is uplifted, though, the strongest sense is one of continuity: “she was still herself,” the scene concludes. Christianity never seems to be the one right way: it’s just another way, and one that is as prone as the old ways to express the will, greed, and ambition of its adherents rather than any divine plan. Hild’s strength continues to be herself — her limbs, trained for fighting, and her mind, astute and endlessly observing.

The other thing that’s rising in the world of the novel is literacy. This is tied to Christianity, in that it’s the priests who are usually the most ‘lettered’ of the characters. But Hild quickly perceives the value of writing as a way of maintaining networks across distances. Her ability to read and write is valuable to her politically, as her success and survival as a seer depends on good and abundant information. But it means most to her personally, as the typical fate of women is to be sent far from home and family in their roles as “peaceweavers,” cementing alliances as wives then securing kingdoms with their heirs. Hild realizes that if she could write, for instance, to her married sister Hereswith, Hereswith “wouldn’t be lost to her”: for someone in Hild’s anomalous and therefore lonely position, letters would be a lifeline, bringing her news and also preserving her own private identity while living among those to whom she is “the maid who killed, the maid who felt nothing. The maid with no mother or sister or friend.”

kinghereafterThe novelist Griffith most reminds me of is Dorothy Dunnett. She luxuriates in tactile details the way Dunnett does, for one thing, as in this description of a waterfront marketplace:

Rhenish glass: cups and bowls and flasks. Wheel-thrown pottery, painted in every colour and pattern. Cloth. Swords — swords for sale — and armor. Jewels, with stones Hild had never seen, including great square diamonds, as grey as a Blodmonath sky. Perfume in tiny stoppered jars, and next to them even smaller jars — one the size of Hild’s fingernail — sealed with wax: poison. . . . A six-stringed lyre inlaid with walnut and copper, and the beaver-skin bag to go with it. A set of four nested silver bowls from Byzantium, chased and engraved with lettering that Fursey, peering over her shoulder, said was Greek. But Hild barely heard him: Somewhere a man was calling in a peculiar cadence, and he sounded almost Anglisc. Almost. Instead of the rounded thump of Anglisc, these oddly shaped words rolled just a little wrong. Not apples, she thought. Pears. Heavy at the bottom, longer on the top.

The extraordinary complexity of the created world is also reminiscent of Dunnett — the intricate family trees, the tangled web of alliances, the unfamiliarity of the names and vocabulary, and thus the associated down side of such authorial mastery: our (or at any rate, my) difficulty keeping track of who’s who, of who’s doing what to whom and why. Like King Hereafter, for example, Hild is full of passages that perplex rather than clarify the action:

As the weather improved, messages began to come in from all over the isle. Two, from Rheged and from Alt Clut, said the same thing: Eochaid Buide of the Dál Riate was sending an army to aid the Cenél Cruithen against Fiachnae mach Demmáin of the Dál Fiatach, and chief among the Dál Riatan war band were the Idings — though the man from Rheged thought two, Oswald and Osric, called the Burnt, while the messenger from Alt Clut thought three, Oswald, Osric the Burnt, and young Osbald.

Or how about this one;

The murdered Eorpwald had been the godson of Edwin. Sigebert was of a different Christian lineage. he had spent his time across the narrow sea at the Frankish court of Clothar, and now Dagobert. If Sigebert was bringing threescore men, they would be Dagobert’s. If he won with their help, he would be obliged to align himself with the Franks. What would that mean for Edwin? Where was Dagobert in relation to the growing alliances of the middle country and the west — Penda and Cadwallon — and the men of the north: Idings, Picts, Scots of Dál Riata, Alt Clut, perhaps Rheghed?

Where was Dagobert, indeed? It helped a bit when I found a partial guide to pronunciation in the back of the book, and a glossary, and there’s a family tree too, but my experience reading Dunnett helped the most, particularly my conclusion that I don’t need to keep up with all the details to stay interested. Both authors are good enough story tellers that the necessary drama rises above the morass of confusing specifics. If I didn’t always know exactly why Hild was fighting someone in particular, it was enough to know that she had her reasons: the heat and blood of the battle was no less intense because I had to suspend, not disbelief, but my desire for perfect comprehension. The absolutely key characters — her mother Breguswith, her best friend, sparring partner, half-brother, and eventual husband Cian, or her “gemaecce” (“female partner”) Begu, for instance — are wholly distinct, and above it all is always Hild herself, “the pattern-making mind of the world.”

“Is it genuine?”: Dorothy Dunnett, Niccolò Rising

niccoloInspired by my excitement about King Hereafter, I have finally started reading Dorothy Dunnett’s other big series, The House of Niccolò. I’ve actually owned Niccolò Rising for many years, and I’d started it a few times before, but it is another story with a slow burn and I’d never made it past Chapter 2. If I hadn’t been schooled in this trick of Dunnett’s so recently, I think I would have bogged down once more, and it did take a bit of determination to keep on. I remembered, this time, that I have to trust her and that if I do, I won’t be disappointed.

I wasn’t disappointed in Niccolò Rising — but mostly I wasn’t enthralled either, though I was almost always interested or curious. There are certainly sporadic sequences (as in King Hereafter) that are exciting or dramatic.  Then, a lot happens in the last 50 pages, and I was reminded that while King Hereafter stands on its own, Niccolò Rising is just the beginning of a much longer saga, so the real pay-off for her elaborate set-up (and it really is a tangled web she and Niccolò are weaving) is yet to come. I’ll certainly pursue it! Though I haven’t quite given my heart to anyone in this book the way I lost it so completely to Lymond, Claes / Nicholas is a really intriguing figure. Pobably the best thing about Niccolò Rising, in fact, is watching him transform from the wide-eyed, powerless, good-natured boy Claes into the much more poised man Nicholas and wondering, as his friends and associates do at the end of the novel, if I really know him at all. “He’s won the good will of everyone who has ever beaten him,” observes the doctor Tobie,

‘by being cheerful, placid, long-suffering, and, above all, by bearing no grudges. It makes him attractive to work with. For me, it would make him attractive to work for. But I’ve begun to wonder about this submissive role. Is it genuine?’

Julius grinned. He said, ‘Have you seen Nicholas putting up with a beating? It’s genuine.’

‘Oh, he puts up with it, at the time,’ Tobie said. ‘But what if he doesn’t immediately forget it, as you seem to think? What if every slight, every punishment is being quietly registered, because he is really a different sort of person altogether?’

‘I’ve wondered,’ said Gregorio.

‘Yes. So have I,’ said Tobie. ‘Is he what he seems? And then, from wondering, I started to notice things. The chief being this: whom friend Nicholas dislikes, it seems to me, friend Nicholas kills.’

“I started to notice things”: that’s Dunnett’s recipe, isn’t it, that we should notice things, and from there, do our best to connect them, as Tobie, Gregorio, and Julius proceed to do. They are much better at it than I am, though, and that is something that is starting to bother me, not so much about Dunnett as about myself as a reader. Is it my fault that here too I was so incapable of following the multiple threads that make up Dunnett’s incredibly intricate pattern? Is the pattern really so intricate, or am I not working hard enough, as a reader? I imagine that the pleasures of her books are greater for those who can keep track of the allegiances and loyalties and double-dealings, overt and covert, actual and possible, the way her heroes do. What makes them heroes, of course, is that they can do this, so maybe we aren’t expected to be in the know: as a device, it keeps us both surprised and impressed as she pulls out her version of the detective’s “reveal.” Other Dunnett readers: do you follow the game as it’s played, or wait, as I mostly do, for the outcome and the laying down of the hands? I grasp enough to appreciate the human confrontations, but that’s also mostly what I’m reading for, and maybe that’s a sign of weakness.

In any case, I do want to read on: she populates her novels with characters who provoke complex responses, which I really enjoy (here, so far, Katelina van Borselen is a particularly tricky one, and Marian de Charetty is particularly appealing) and there are worse expectations than that I will be consistently outsmarted even as I’m entertained and moved.

“On some book my name will be written”: Dorothy Dunnett, King Hereafter


“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.

Dorothy Dunnett, The Game of Kings and Queen’s Play

Reviewing these first two books in the Lymond Chronicles, I have confirmed both that they are exceptionally convincing and vivid historical novels and that it is nearly impossible for me to approach them with anything like critical detachment. Part of the reason is just how well-known they are to me after all these years; another part is how almost wholly concerned they are with historical context, plot, and character. If there are broad “themes,” they arise from these fairly concrete elements, I think, rather than from abstractions or philosophies. One idea they explore through the protagonist is what I might call the burden of excellence, the expectations and responsibilities that arise for the possessor of extraordinary gifts, such as those with which Lymond himself is endowed. In their own quite different styles, Dorothy Sayers’s Peter Wimsey novels and George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda also investigate the challenges faced by people of outstanding abilities who sometimes resent the leadership or guidance others want from them. In this age of Forrest Gump and books “for dummies,” we seem much more at ease withweakness and stupidity than with brilliance, but these protagonists show there is plenty of drama (and perhaps even more significance) in intelligence and strength.

The Lymond books do also engage with other ‘issues’ that are somewhat less personal or less tied to the main character, though he is the agent for their examination. Nationalism, for instance–the costs and benefits, beauties and absurdities–of love for country is a major problem in The Game of Kings and also, through the Irish connections, in Queen’s Play, which also picks up questions about aesthetics and morality. But though I have not done a patient analysis, I would not consider any of these ideas central to the ‘aboutness’ of the novels. They seem more part of the cultural context of the characters, which is a world in which these ideas are being given new urgency (as borders and allegiances shift) and new forms. That is, it seems to me at this point that the characters debate because they need to, to be themselves at their time in history, not because Dunnett has a larger agenda about Scottish identity or the role of art in life.

But it’s the charisma of the novels themselves that overwhelms me: they are remarkably wide-ranging, as daring as any of Scott’s in their insistence on informing us about history and politics, and allusive beyond any other novels I’ve read–and yet all of this never oppresses or overwhelms. It also transforms plots that are improbable, melodramatic, and grandiose into narratives that (to me, anyway) never feel that way. It’s remarkable, actually, how tawdry the novels can sound even in some of the blurbs that are meant to market them. Here’s the cover copy from my old Popular Library edition of Checkmate:

Against the splendor and squalor of the dissolute court of France…amid the crosscurrents of political intrigues and passionate liaisons…through a labyrinth of danger and deceit…a bastard nobleman searching for his heritage, and the beautiful virgin bride he married but could not bed, move toward the climax that will mean greatmess and fulfillment, or else disgrace, destruction and damnation…

Any reader of Checkmate knows that in a way, that’s an accurate description, but it is entirely unfaithful to the tone and quality of the novel, which is not at all the kind of bodice-ripping pathos-soaked costume drama evoked. I suspect that the publishers figured nobody would buy the book if it were described more accurately!

Follow-Up: Historical Fiction

Since I don’t currently own a copy of The Eagle and the Raven, I’ve been looking around at other historical novels which I have found compelling over the years. As historical fiction was one of my earliest passions (according to my mother, I took my copy of Jean Plaidy’s The Young Mary Queen of Scots to class with me in first grade) I have a number of sentimental favourites still in my collection. Yesterday I browsed through about half of Child of the Morning, the other Pauline Gedge novel that used to enthrall me. It certainly looks a lot better than The Linnet Bird, and one reason is that Gedge seems to have tried hard to make her people not just act but think like Ancient Egyptians (I think that was actually the draft title of the Bangles song…). Hatshepsut really considers herself the daughter of the god, and this belief drives her actions and shapes her character, including what in a different telling might have been a false pseudo-feminist assertion of her right to the power usually accorded only to men. The novel teeters on the brink of romantic cliches in the central love story (some might think it falls over that edge) and it does not strike me as terribly literary or at all innovative in its form, but OK, for the most part, I was willing to say yes to it (see previous post).

But the real touchstone in 20th-century examples has to be Dorothy Dunnett‘s Lymond chronicles, and I don’t know that I’ll be able to resist turning this inquiry into why some historical novels work and others don’t into an excuse to reread the whole set–something I have not done for too many years. I took my old copy of The Game of Kings down this morning and realized it is more than 25 years since I first read it (I know because it is inscribed to me on my birthday in 1979). I had not realized until recently that my enthusiasm for these novels is actually part of a much wider phenomenon. I have still never met anyone else who has read them. Here’s a testimony from Scottish novelist Linda Gillard (you’ll notice I have learned how to use the ‘insert link’ function):

The Chronicles are my literary Forth Bridge. I re-read the cycle perpetually and when I come to the end of Checkmate, the final volume in the series, I always feel a need to return to the beginning again. With every re-reading I admire Dunnett’s achievements more, marvel at how she dared to write books that could not be appreciated fully in one reading or even two. She didn’t care if you couldn’t immediately grasp a point of plot or motivation. She refused to simplify. She expected you to work hard and knew that many readers enjoy working hard

Just starting The Game of Kings has quickened my reader’s pulse, but also I realize that these novels are among those that I’m reluctant to approach in a critical or technical way. Still, that’s how many of my students feel about Pride and Prejudice or Jane Eyre and I always assure them that such an approach won’t spoil the fun.