For the last week or so, I’ve been lost in another world – in the sea-spray glinting off a longship’s figurehead, and the sheen of sunlight on helms and spears. It is the dawn of the 11th century. Viking culture, with its pillaging, sagas and piratical leaders teeters on the edge: and, falling, begins to assume the Christian values and the lineaments of the world we know today. It is also the moment when one man, by chance or the will of the Fates, finds himself in a position to begin unifying the disparate earldoms of Alba, Caithness and Orkney into a political entity that will assume the more familiar name of Scotia. That man is here most often given his pagan, Norse name: Thorfinn. History knows him by a much more famous name. Macbeth.
This was a joint reading with Heloise, who is considerably more familiar with the historical and literary context than I am: she’s currently engaged on a reading project called Iceland and Beyond, tackling the histories and sagas of the Norse world. You can find her very thorough take on the book here, offering a fascinating stylistic appreciation of the novel along with some perceptive comments on structure and aspects of the characterisation. Please do take the time to pop over and read it. It was great to be able to share my thoughts and favourite passages with her and, in fact, I think this book was ideal for a joint reading. Even by Dunnett’s standards, it’s a particularly dense and challenging novel, and it helped to puzzle things out as we went. In fact, I should make a confession before I go any further – one which, considering my love of Shakespeare, is rather embarrassing. I haven’t yet seen Macbeth; and so I came to this book with no knowledge of what might happen and no preconceptions. I’ve judged it as a historical novel, rather than being tempted to compare it to the play. (I was, however, looking out for the three witches. Only at the very end did I realise that here they’re represented by the Norns, the Norse Fates: ‘the three ladies’.)
Thorfinn is born of a mixed heritage: the son of the Norse Earl of Orkney and the grandson of the Gaelic King of Alba (who grants him the title of Earl of Caithness). His estates, at the northern extent of Alba’s landmass, are both spiritually and politically linked to the kingdom of Norway, whose reach stretches across the North Sea to Iceland and the coasts of Ireland. At the outset of the novel, Thorfinn’s estrangement from his grandfather’s people in Southern Alba and from the magnates of Mercia and Northumbria, is not only one born of distance. Dunnett does a great job of suggesting the fragmented nature of a Britain in which a man is defined by the language or dialect he speaks, as well as the overlord to whom he owes allegiance, and the gods to whom he prays. We enter this world at a time when a man takes what he can get and, if he is strong enough, can keep it. But Dunnett’s characters will witness the turning of the tide, as the adherents of Thor and Odin dwindle, and rulers turn to Christianity, with its benefits of political allegiances on the Continent, and the chance to build the kind of infrastructure that will support and unite a kingdom.
As a young man, however, Thorfinn lives as his ancestors did before him, spending the summers raiding with his hird, and the winters closed in his halls, drinking and gaming. Although he is awkward and ungainly, he proves himself a courageous leader and quietly sets out to strengthen his hold on all of Orkney – including those parts originally held by his half-brothers – as well as on the mainland of Alba itself. Over time, he wins the respect and affection of those around him, from his taciturn foster-father Thorkel to the priest Sulien and, most significantly of all, Groa: the courageous and beautiful woman who becomes his wife. Philippa is still my favourite of Dunnett’s female characters, but Groa’s relationship with Thorfinn is (for me) the most equal, the most balanced and the most moving of the partnerships Dunnett created. You feel that Thorfinn achieves what he does because of Groa’s support, whereas I sometimes get the feeling that both Lymond and Nicholas achieve their ends regardless of the women who love them.
As ever, Dunnett’s writing can take the breath away. There are some genuinely exhilarating battle-scenes, shot through with a real sensitivity for the rhythm and language of the sagas. Having a bit of a weakness for a good battle, I thought the section below, with its lyrical alliteration, was blood-stirringly magnificent:
The shield-wall came up. The spears rose, hefted, ready for throwing,
and the smooth swords slid singing out of the scabbard. Then
above them all Thorfinn’s right arm rose, with the sword-blade barring the sun,
written over with copper and silver. Then the long horns raised their thick voices
and the air darkened as the birds of the land and the sea rose, alarmed, and circled.
Now I want to home in on a few things and so there may be spoilers. Please be careful. Dunnett was obviously aware that Thorfinn would be compared to Lymond and she insists upon his physical differences at every opportunity. In fact, she gives him a direct foil in the novel in the form of his half-nephew Rognvald: golden where Thorfinn is dark; frivolous where he is serious; as beautiful as Baldur where Thorfinn is ill-favoured; and as carelessly alluring as Thorfinn is discreet and inscrutable. I found the scenes between Thorfinn and Rognvald just as interesting for what was left unsaid and unexplained, as for the spark of competition between them. Was I alone, I wonder, in being reminded of Nicholas’s uneasy relationship with James of Lusignan?
Nevertheless, despite the physical differences, Thorfinn’s manner of thinking, his charisma and his inspired stratagems are closely akin to those of Lymond and, in fact, those of Nicholas as well. Having now met all three of Dunnett’s great protagonists, I’m even more beguiled by her unique take on what makes a hero (and I wish there were more characters with this level of complexity). For all his tactical brilliance, Thorfinn is a tragic figure and his tragic flaw, it seemed to me, is that he is excessively merciful. Such a quality, ironically, is far more admirable in the (new) Christian value-structure than it would be in the (old) Norse. Even Sulien, at one point, admits that Thorfinn may have been more successful if he had ruled with the axe, as his Viking forebears had done.
This book is a very different proposition from the Lymond Chronicles and the House of Niccolò. First, of course, it’s a standalone novel; and, secondly, we follow Thorfinn through a much longer period of his life than we do Lymond or Nicholas. Despite the restrictions imposed by a single volume, Dunnett nevertheless plunges into her subject with the same verve and complexity that she employs in her series, supported here by a truly impressive substructure of research. The result is something that occasionally feels much more like fictionalised biography than conventional historical fiction, although all the hallmarks of Dunnett’s writing are present and correct. Her characters quote fragments of poetry. There are prophecies and hints of mysticism, mainly in the form of Thorfinn’s stepson Lulach, whose visions of the future prepare Thorfinn for what must eventually come to pass. Plot developments are, characteristically, alluded to rather than explained and this can sometimes be an issue when (as happened here) the reader isn’t already familiar with the history.
And then, of course, there is Dunnett’s glorious, ever-welcome taste for set-pieces. The scene in which Thorfinn and Rognvald spend a night gaming on a heap of bones is rich with symbolism; and the wonderful oar-race at the beginning of the book immediately shot up my personal list of favourites and now lingers just underneath Queens’ Play‘s iconic dash across the rooftops. But one of the other moments that lingered in my mind’s eye was much less vigorous, evoking not the frenzy of battle or competition, but the powerful sense of connection these characters feel with their land. Here, more than in any of the other books, I felt that the landscape was almost a character in itself, and I was particularly moved by Groa’s silent, solitary vigil as she surveys the breadth of her husband’s lands and waits for him to come home:
Then she rode west to where the biggest headland of all stood
dark red against the afternoon sky… and climbed to where
the pony could not go but 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, pointing to the way her husband’s ships had sailed.
King Hereafter is not, for me, as searingly brilliant as the Lymond Chronicles, which have a dynamism that sometimes seems to be missing here. Nevertheless, it’s vastly superior to much of the historical fiction I’ve read in the past, even if it’s so dense and rich that I occasionally felt as if I had to chew my way through it. Perhaps not all of the elaborate scheming and manoeuvring (especially in the third part) was strictly necessary, and personally I found it tough to follow the religious negotiations in the Holy Roman Empire. It’s probably only when reading a Dunnett novel that, finding myself baffled and lost, I concede that the reader rather than the writer is at fault… It demanded an incredible level of concentration and, when I read it again, I’ll do so with the aid of the family tree (since I no longer have to worry about spoilers). I’d also like to get hold of a film of Macbeth first, as I’m sure that King Hereafter will give me a rather different perspective from the one I’d have had before.
The thing I really loved about the novel, especially in the aftermath of Neil Oliver’s Vikings book, is that it shows me my ‘sceptred isle’ at a very unfamiliar moment. The shadowy Norse age (of pagan gods, oral history, bards, reaving, sea battles and warlords) undergoes its transformation into a recognisable early-medieval world (of Christian worship, written chronicles, monk-scribes, motte-and-bailey castles and dynastic kingship). It’s an historical moment of thrilling uncertainty, and that feeling pulses through every page of King Hereafter, along with the excitement of watching a nation being formed. I can think of no better epitaph, both for the book and for its hero, than something which Sulien says to Thorfinn as they contemplate the work ahead of them:
Men will look back and see a king who strove to build for his people; and although the gales may still blow and the flood come and cover it all, the foundations will stand… The name each man leaves is a small thing compared with the mark he puts on the world.
P.S. To my surprise and delight, I found that Helen has just read King Hereafter as well. When I finally allowed myself to read her review, after finishing the book, I found we were of the same mind on many things. You can read her post here.