King Hereafter: Dorothy Dunnett

★★★★½

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.

Buy the book

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.

24 thoughts on “King Hereafter: Dorothy Dunnett

  1. The Idle Woman says:

    Thanks for your comment, Clare! I can completely understand why you would be swept away by it, and even though I thoroughly enjoyed it this time, I think I'll get even more out of it on a second reading (armed with a better knowledge of Macbeth, various diagrams and perhaps the Dunnett Companion. I assume the Dunnett Companion *does* cover King Hereafter as well?). I'm in a similar position to you, in that none of my friends have read Dunnett, nor are likely to – trust me, I've tried to persuade them – and so I love finding other people who've been swept under the spell of these books. 🙂

  2. clarescott says:

    Great review of my favourite book ever(confess I prefer it to the Lymond Chronicles)Thanks for writing this, wonderful for me to see someone elses perspective, no-one I know has read it,so much appreciated.

  3. Anonymous says:

    The Dunnett Companions do NOT cover King Hereafter.

    They don't even cover the glancing references in HUNT – I just checked.

    I agree on the dynamism; I've noticed it is there in many first works, and missing in later ones, not just Dunnett's work.

    My favorite character is KH is Thorkel, I think. Not that I'm not fond of Groa and Sulien and Lulach and all, but Thorkel's efforts and inability to really grasp Thorfinn makes a connection with me as no other character does.

    Rognvald I only get Thorfinn's relationship to intellectually, I don't feel it. I see him, though as a first try at a Simon st Pol character.

    Elaine T.

  4. Jean Gobel says:

    I read King Hereafter six months ago, when I was still new to Dunnett. Thanks for your wonderful review of my favorite of her heroes, who left a big hole in my heart. I still can't bring myself to read Shakespeare's farce, and I haven't been able to get any of my friends to try Dunnett, either. Frustrating, no one to mull things over with. From what I can see of my copies of the Companion I and II, they cover only LC and HN. I'm starting over on the Chronicles, now on Queen's Play — I was missing a Lymond “fix”!

  5. maryb says:

    Excellent review. The first time I read it (being familiar with Shakespeare) I cried through the last 20 pages of the book. I knew she couldn't change what happened to him but I really was hoping that somehow the Thorfinn side of him would win and he'd just retire to Orkney and give up the throne.

    I was watching the first season of The Vikings on The History Channel and I kept thinking that someone should make King Hereafter into a series.

  6. The Idle Woman says:

    Hello Elaine! – Re. the Companions, oh jeepers, does that mean I have to go and find all the references myself? 🙂

    I do agree that Thorkel is a particularly 'relatable' character and I wonder if it's because we spend much of the first part of the book in his mind. We 'meet' Thorfinn through his eyes, after all, and see yet another of these relationships which are so characteristic of Dunnett, in which devotion is blended with utter incomprehension… As for Rognvald, as you can probably tell, I actually thought he was a well-written character: things seemed to brighten up considerably when he came on the scene (even though he got away with everything for much too long). I felt that, for Thorfinn, he wasn't just a charismatic nuisance, but also an embodiment of the Viking lifestyle that Thorfinn was going to have to give up: the summer sailing; the cult of personality; the golden leader whose deeds are lauded by the skald… And so I felt that Thorfinn clings to him a lot longer than he should, out of some sense of nostalgia, as if he can keep the past alive alongside the present where he knows he has to change. So there was actually quite a lot of poignancy there for me. Plus, Heloise and I had a good time speculating about him. 🙂 Incidentally, Thorkel's final solution to the Rognvald problem was *utter* genius.

  7. The Idle Woman says:

    Ha ha, I completely understand, Jean! I finished King Hereafter and thought, “You know what? I feel like just going right back to the beginning of Game of Kings and starting all over again.” But I can't. There are many, many other things in my To Be Read pile that I have to tackle first! Lymond must wait.

    Funnily enough I didn't feel a sense of loss with Thorfinn. I think part of it is that I spent less time, overall, with him than with Lymond or Nicholas, but I also think (you may not agree) that the book plays slightly less on your emotions than Lymond, in particular, does. In Checkmate, for example, I was completely drained by the final page. This was a tragic story, but funnily enough I saw some hope in the end. Thorfinn may die, but the land he has created will endure, and I believe he sacrifices himself to ensure that Scotia won't collapse in on itself. And the end really is a sacrifice. There's something ritual about it, and a sense of continuation in the way that Groa then accepts Malcolm's suit (whatever that must have cost her). It's a very noble end.

    I've now read a synopsis of the play and it's funny, because I keep seeing links (like Birnam Wood moving to Dunsinane) and thinking, “Aha!” So now I'm in the rather odd position of feeling that Shakespeare's referring back to Dunnett. Which is rather amusing. 😀

  8. The Idle Woman says:

    Hello maryb! How are you?!

    First question: what is 'The Vikings' like, as a series? Is it a drama or a documentary? There are lots of posters around London at the moment inviting me to watch this 'hit series', with lots of fur-swathed men swarming all over them, but the funny thing is that I haven't seen *any* reviews of it at all and have no idea how good it is. I am a little wary.

    Moving on… yes, Heloise and I were having the same conversation about the screen treatment. I said that the tone of the end reminded me a bit of Gladiator, but Heloise quite rightly implied (very politely) that Ridley Scott would probably mess it up a bit, and said that she thought Kurosawa would have done a great job and it was a shame he was dead. A series might well be better than a film in order to fit everything in – I don't think I've ever read anything by Dunnett which could be comfortably fitted into the two-hour mark. Don't suppose anyone has a direct line to the commissioning editor of HBO?!

    I'm sure there's a Dunnett casting board somewhere (can't remember which one) where someone had come up with some ideas for who should play Thorfinn in a film. For some reason I had a mental image of Richard Armitage while reading the book, which I would *never* have thought of by myself, so someone must have touted him at some point… I think you might need someone a bit younger, though, but at the moment I can't think of any actor who has the right 'look' along with the right kind of presence. And of course you wouldn't want someone who was conventionally good-looking (in a matinee-idol sort of way) in the role. Well there we go: that's a distraction to amuse myself with today. Anyone else have any long-cherished casting ideas? (Don't shout at me, but there were moments when I kept seeing Groa in my mind as a red-headed Lena Headey…)

  9. The Idle Woman says:

    Very interesting point about real vs invention, and I can thoroughly see why that would be so. You got me thinking, because, being the contrary person that I am, I felt that it was easier to relate to Lymond – as a 'magnificent invention' (and what a lovely phrase that is) – than it was for me to relate to the historical Thorfinn… I think the very fact that Thorfinn *is* a real person, and thus constrained by the historical record, gives him a kind of stateliness – whereas in her purely fictional characters Dunnett was occasionally able to give way to a kind of bubbling irreverence which I find very attractive.

  10. Jean Gobel says:

    I think my sense of loss with Thorfinn/Macbeth stems from the fact he was a real person with a heartbreaking ending, while Lymond, much as we love him, and I do, is still just DD's magnificent invention, hopefully living happily everafter. The DD Society should love your last sentence above 😀

  11. Helen says:

    What a great, thorough review of this book, Leander. We do seem to have had a lot of the same thoughts about it. I have seen and read Macbeth, though (in fact, of all Shakespeare's plays it's the one I'm most familiar with) and while Dunnett's story is certainly very different from Shakespeare's it was still interesting to be able to pick up on some of the references. I think it did add something to the experience of reading the book.

    Lymond is still my favourite of Dunnett's heroes and I think Philippa is still my favourite female character, but I did love Thorfinn and Groa and I agree that their relationship was the most equal and balanced. The other relationship that really fascinated me was the one between Thorfinn and Rognvald. And I'm glad you mentioned the confusing religious negotiations as I found that aspect of the book difficult to follow too. Actually, I'm impressed that you were able to follow the story at all without looking at the family tree – I would really have struggled without it, so I just had to risk the spoilers!

  12. The Idle Woman says:

    Thank you Helen! I couldn't believe it when I got the email about your post on this – I was about halfway through, and although I was desperate to see what you thought, I managed to hold off until the end. 🙂 Yes, when I read that you'd been confused by all the continental negotiations as well, I felt very relieved: it wasn't just me! I don't know whether Dunnett was assuming a level of understanding that people of our generation just don't have, or whether this is one case where she just needed to be that tiny bit clearer in explaining the significance of what was going on. I'm sure that my overriding memory of that whole section shouldn't be a bear cub running amok in a fishpond…

    Heloise and I had quite a long discussion about Rognvald and what his purpose was, and the nature of his relationship with Thorfinn. As I said to Heloise, it strikes me that all three of Dunnett's heroes have the kind of charisma that leads other men to compete for their attention – sometimes in a way that drives a band of followers to excel in their leader's service, like Thorfinn's army or Lymond's company; but sometimes in this other, more ambivalent way. I felt that Rognvald was very much like a child who was unwilling to share attention or admiration with anyone else, and that much of what he does could be understood as a result of that. It's not a relationship that Dunnett needed to include, and the fact she chose to include it is something that I found very interesting. I'd love to know more about your take on the subject. If you like, you can either comment here, or drop me an email – it'd be good to get another point of view.

    (Yes, someone advised me to steer clear of the family tree. I'm glad I did, otherwise I would have seen the Malcolm victory coming a long way off – instead, not knowing the play, it was something that slowly dawned on me as the inevitable end…)

  13. maryb says:

    I was surprised by how much I enjoyed The Vikings. It takes place earlier than King Hereafter and follows the saga of Ragnor Lothbrok. It's somewhat violent but not gratuitously so … after all they ARE Vikings. What I found most interesting was the depiction of religion and also Norse law. I admit I was hesitant when I heard that the writer was the guy who wrote The Tudors – but there isn't gratuitous sex in The Vikings. I heard an interview with him and he said that was part of the rules of The History Channel. I recommend it.

    With the popularity of Game of Thrones, I think television is the way to go. They could take their time and not even do it in one year series but do a couple of years.

    I'm terrible at casting because I never “see” people when I read. But I have a very clear idea of what characters SOUND like. I hear their voices clearly. But you are right, the person could not be conventionally good looking.

  14. The Idle Woman says:

    Hmm, it sounds as though I might have to give it a go, especially if it is actually based on a specific historical source. And if it's been commissioned for the History Channel, it must be pretty accurate as well. Coincidentally I was reading the paper this morning and they had a feature on forthcoming historical dramas, and The Vikings was mentioned there. So thanks for flagging it and I will see whether I can track it down; no doubt it'll be out on DVD soon anyway. (I smiled at your comment about gratuitous sex in TV dramas: I think Game of Thrones took the crown from The Tudors a long time ago) 😀

  15. The Idle Woman says:

    Yes! Heloise was telling me which ones I needed to look up. I just – yesterday – found a copy at the library of the enormous Penguin Classics edition of “The Sagas of Icelanders”, which she recommended as a general introduction to the field, and which I'm looking forward to dipping into. Unfortunately our Thorfinn apparently doesn't crop up in that selection, but once I've finished it, I'm going to see if I can find the saga which *does* mention him. It'll be so interesting to compare it to Dunnett's version of the story. 🙂

  16. maryb says:

    Lol. There is no sexposition in The Vikings.

    There are sagas about Thorfinn too … Dunnett stuck to them pretty closely. It's where she got Rognvald.

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