The Lymond Chronicles: Book VI
In the last half an hour, traversing the final few chapters of the book, my emotions have been masterfully manipulated. I’ve swerved from denial to triumph, followed by shocked immobility, and then a cool, tingling spread of realisation; finally, I have to admit, I actually cried (mainly with relief). I should say, first and foremost, that if you have any intention of reading this series – and by God, if you enjoy good books you should – then you shouldn’t read this post. There is no way on earth that I can write this without spoilers. So stop reading this now and, for goodness sake, go buy the first book and start the series for yourself!
Over six books, whatever my initial reservations about The Game of Kings, I have come to care very strongly about the dramatis personae in the Lymond Chronicles and that is a testament to Dorothy Dunnett’s powers of characterisation, her superb writing and an intricacy of plotting that would put Shakespeare to shame. This final instalment brought all the threads of Lymond’s various adventures together and the remaining characters converged on France, like filings to a magnet. In light of that, I feel I should publicly state my pity for Jerott Blyth: when I said last time that I imagined Marthe was ruthlessly tormenting him off-stage, I was speaking tongue-in-cheek and had no idea how accurate my guess had been.
Channelling the gleeful humour of Queens’ Play, Dunnett begins the book with a series of playful scenes – foremost among them, in my opinion, Philippa’s irreverent but rather wonderful first entrance to the Maréchale’s house and then her rampage through the fogs of Lyon with Lymond. For me, that section was just as enjoyable as the race over the rooftops of Blois, if not more so. In Lyon we aren’t asked to sit back and watch one man’s superior skill, but to admire two very able characters pooling their wits and talents, and benefitting each from the other. (And, if this book proves anything, it’s that Philippa can live up to the pace set by her husband – the difficulty only comes when she takes her duty further than he would ever ask her to.)
However, it is precisely the light-heartedness of these scenes which increases the impact of the rather eerie episode, nestling between them, in which Lymond enters the chamber of the Dame de Doubtance. Before I realised what was happening there, that scene brought me closer to terror than I’ve been for a long time when reading a book (I was tired; it was midnight; I live alone and have, occasionally, an inconveniently active imagination). But this rapid change of tone – and the fact I was so easily swept along with it – is yet another sign of how perfectly-pitched Dunnett’s writing is.
Someone has already noted, rather teasingly, that perhaps I am so fond of Philippa because I see some elements of myself in her – these, I hasten to add, would be the fact of being an only child and the stubbornness, rather than the harem education (which was missed off my syllabus). With this in mind, I was particularly touched by a part of the book which perhaps most people wouldn’t have noticed: the section immediately after Philippa’s romp through foggy Lyon, when she exults in the sense of comradeship that she has found:
A heady experience, for an only child accustomed to single-thread happiness, and not to the moment of creation that occurs when the warp is interlocked with the weft. When the singer is matched with the sounding-board; the dream with the poet. When the sun and the fountain first meet one another.
This is so very perceptive. I thought this was a splendid way of allowing Philippa to gradually understand what her future might hold, if she allowed it to; and of course it emphasised, as Dunnett always has, that Philippa and Lymond would suit so well because they would be an equal partnership. Of course, it takes time for them to realise that: the book would have been considerably shorter if they hadn’t been competing in magnanimity, each trying to set the other free from a supposedly unwelcome bond (I am not, however, complaining). When the moment of truth eventually comes it is – as usual – handled with exquisite understatement: ‘Kate is my friend. That is true. But the songs were for her daughter.’ Blissful. But, characteristically of Dunnett, the moment comes and goes and then is left to do its silent work as the rest of the tumult rages round.
Throughout the series Lymond has grown used to acting alone – to drawing in others when he needs them and dismissing them as summarily. It is his way of protecting them: to take all the strain and responsibility onto himself; and it has worked well, though in this book we see the physical cost of that. It is only really in Checkmate (and at the very end of The Ringed Castle) that his friends determine to break down his walls and, with or without his permission, to stop him destroying himself. The one who takes this to extremes is, of course, Philippa, who almost destroys herself in the process but who manages, thereby, to reach Lymond’s inner self in a way that no one else could have managed.
For all my admiration of Philippa, I did wonder whether it was quite plausible that she should be so deeply affected by what she had done, for so long. One might argue that many of the more desperate events at the end of the book could have been moderated, or averted, if she hadn’t allowed Lymond to once again build an emotional wall between them – which of course he did only to protect her. I don’t criticise the characterisation and I wouldn’t dream of suggesting how long it might take to overcome such a thing – perhaps it is never possible. What does strike me is that Philippa was aware of what she was going into, even if she couldn’t anticipate the revulsion she might feel. She knew that such a thing was a contract, to save the man she loved. And then, having herself been rescued by that man, who understood what she had done and had the good sense to see the desperation and nobility of soul that drove her to it… might she not have been able, bit by bit, to overcome her trauma with his help?
I don’t know. It is a difficult problem. And perhaps it is once again explained by the fact that until this point, as an only child, she has been secure in the knowledge that those around her (generally speaking) wish her no harm. This section does at least allow us to see the depth of connection between these two and Lymond’s genuine sensitivity. And of course it makes the conclusion of the book all the more powerful.
Marthe… what to say about Marthe? Many thanks to the kind person who left me a link to Bill Marshall’s blog, which finally I shall allow myself to visit, since I have no more fear of Lymond spoilers. Before I read that, though, I want to try to sort out my own imperfect thoughts. My sympathy for Marthe waned radically at the start of this book, when I assumed that her actions were designed to wound for no better reason than to see Lymond suffer from his supposed illegitimacy, as she had suffered. She certainly didn’t endear herself to me in her treatment of Jerott; but then again, one could argue that Jerott is hardly the right man to understand a cultured, intelligent woman like Marthe.
Towards the end, though, I began to feel sorry for her again (and not just for the obvious, bitterly ironical reason). It seems that Marthe’s whole life has been spent as a tool, being used by other people: as a helpmeet for the Dame de Doubtance, whose prophecies she feels bound to promote and safeguard; and perhaps even by Güzel, whom she loves but who (as far as I remember) never mentions her. And everything in this unsatisfactory life seems to revolve around Lymond, who has her grandmother’s attention, her grandmother’s bequests and Güzel’s attentions; none of which, Marthe must feel, he appreciates as much as she would. She is another mirror, as Gabriel was, of what Lymond’s brilliant mind might only too well have become. And, at the end, I still can’t make up my mind if she finally came bearing those papers to Lymond as a way to finally make peace, or simply because Danny Hawkins forced her to. Of course, her unexpected arrival was one of the most brilliantly-played moments in the whole series, and the one which accounted for the emotional turbulence described at the start of this post.
It has been a dizzying few weeks, as I’ve rushed through these books in just over a month. But it has been an unparalleled treat, not only because I’ve lost myself in some of the best writing I’ve ever had the pleasure to read, but also because it has enabled me to make contact with all of you. When I started out on the Lymond Chronicles, I had doubts about whether I would ever understand what was going on and whether I would ever actually like the protagonist. Fortunately both fears dissipated very quickly. Everyone who reassured me after The Game of Kings is correct. This is a remarkable series and a real benchmark of how to write historical fiction. As for Lymond himself, I can only echo what other people have said: he is one of the most complex, charismatic and interesting characters I have come across. Little did I imagine, when I checked The Spring of the Ram out of the library a year ago, without knowing Dorothy Dunnett’s name or anything about her, that it would lead me to such a great experience.
There is much more Dorothy Dunnett to be read, of course: I’ve only read three of the House of Niccolò series and so, in time, I shall no doubt go back and tackle that with renewed vigour (although I fear that Nicholas van der Poele may have been supplanted in my affections). And then of course there’s King Hereafter, which several people have recommended. But I can’t shake off a slight sense of bereavement, that I can never again have the sense of discovering these books for the first time.
Last in this series: The Ringed Castle
P.S. I now understand the indignation of one reader on the Dunnett Central Facebook page, who took exception to my idea that The Game of Kings would make a good film. She pointed out that she had an idea of Lymond in her mind and didn’t want it to be ruined. I now see her point. I’ve been avoiding all the editions of these books which show the characters on the cover, because they don’t look ‘right’; and I daresay there are no two readers out there who have the same image in their minds…