What I’m Reading: Dorothy Dunnett – King Hereafter

Reading King Hereafter was a first for me – not, as it happens, the novel itself which was actually the first novel by Dorothy Dunnett I read, many, many years ago (when my English can’t really have been up to it, not even to mention my historical knowledge), but the way I did it, as a joint reading project with fellow blogger Leander from the excellent The Idle Woman where she writes not just about books but also about art exhibitions, theatre performances and movies (among other things) and all in a way that is both lively and informed, personal and analytic.

The shared reading turned out to be a great success and I not only enjoyed reading the novel considerably more than I already would have done on my own but also came out of it with a greatly enhanced understanding of what was going on. I strongly encourage you to go over to Leander’s blog and read her brilliant take on Dunnett’s novel here, as it is both more entertaining and more insightful than the following post is going to be – trust me on this. I’ll be around if you still want to return after reading it.

If George Mackay Brown’s Vinland was the kind of historical  novel that uses history to make a statement about the present, then King Hereafter is the kind that attempts to immerse its readers as fully as possible in the past,  not just by describing historical events but by trying to recreate the mindset of their chosen period, by making their readers think, feel and see the way their characters did, ideally without having a present point of view intrude on the scene at all. Nobody (at least nobody I have read so far) does this type of historical novel better than Dorothy Dunnett: her novels grab the reader and dunk them up to their eyebrows in the sights, sounds and smells of a distant epoch, barely letting them come up for air. This can prove quite challenging for readers who find themselves often called to actually work at understanding what is happening in her novels, retracing an intrigue from casually dropped hints or piecing together hidden conflicts by following up apparently innocuous references. King Hereafter is particularly dense even for Dorothy Dunnett and some parts (like the ecclesiastical factions and their power-games at the beginning of Part 3) proved particularly impenetrable to both Leander and myself.

In fact, this complete immersion seems to me to achieve for the historical novel what the stream of consciousness technique did for the modernist novel (most famously, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf), namely a radical perspectivism that abstains from all obvious auctorial intervention, leaving readers with no outside frame of reference and forcing them to puzzle things out and construct that frame on their own. Of course, that effect of immediacy – of an individual mind in stream of consciousness, of a historical period in Dunnett’s case – needs to be arranged, requires in fact a great deal of artifice and considerable skill to pull off successfully. And while she might not be quite up with the likes of Joyce and Woolf, Dorothy Dunnett without any doubt deserves to be considered among the greatest historical novelists of the twentieth century.

King Hereafter is somewhat unusual among Dunnett’s novels – for one thing, it is not part of a series but a stand-alone, for another, it is her only novel that has an actual historic figure as its main character. Or possibly two, for the novel has also something like a thesis, namely that Thorfinn, Earl of Orkney was identical with MacBeth, King of Alba (best known from Shakespeare’s play, of course). Apparently, that view is not shared by all historians, but whatever its historical plausibility, Dunnett makes it work for King Hereafter – work on several levels, even. Thorfinn does come across as a convincing, well-rounded character – he does remind one somewhat of Lymond at the start, but I suppose that was unavoidable even though Dorothy Dunnett goes out of her way to make him look different and keeps reminding her readers that he is dark-haired and not particularly good-looking. I would not even put it beyond her that she made the characters intentionally similar, just to then be able to show how they are changed by time and circumstances into two very different people – Thorfinn is changed by being a ruler (this is even one of the themes of the novel) and while the whole of the Lymond saga encompasses only a couple of years, events in King Hereafter span several decades so that we follow Thorfinn as he matures with age.

But even as she merges her two historical originals seamlessly into a single, convincing and fascinating character, there is a split running through King Hereafter – but one that is quite intentional and in fact constitutive for the novel’s basic structure. King Hereafter is divided into four parts, but is really two-part in structure – the first part is about the protagonist’s rise until he becomes secure in his position as King of Alba, the second part describes his rule and eventual downfall; one might say that the first one is about Thorfinn, Earl of Orkney, and the second about MacBeth, King of Alba. At first sight, one might suspect that it is here that the seams where Dunnett stitched her protagonist together become visible, but far from that, for as it turns out the novel is precisely about the movement from small, tribal communities to larger, centralised societies as well as (hardly a coincidence of course) from Pagan polytheism to Christian monotheism. Thorfinn embodies that shift – you really have to read the novel to appreciate just how wonderful a job Dunnett does with this – even though we see him consistently from an outside perspective the novel conveys how he is not so much torn as rather stretched between two epochs and two ways of living, both an earl and a king , a pagan at heart but still trying to come to terms with rising Christendom. And even though it costs him his life, he does in way succeed in the end, achieving the both the opposing goals of managing to keep Orkney an independent earldom while forging Scotland into a kingdom that will endure even after his death. By having its protagonist have a leg in both periods, so to speak, King Hereafter manages to impressively show what is gained and what is lost by the shift from one to the other. And it mirrors it on a formal linguistic level as well – while the first part of the novel is clearly modelled after Icelandic Sagas, telling about heroic deeds and single combat in a language that is both simple but flexible and highly rhythmic, the second part resembles more a historical chronicle, recording diplomatic maneuvers and battles between armies in a language that seems visual rather than verbal, written rather than recited – sound and rhythm being replaced by sight and colour.

I seem to remember reading somewhere that Dunnett herself considered King Hereafter her best work, but I’m inclined to take that as an author’s fondness for her least popular work. As I’m writing this, I have yet to read her House of Niccolo series, but I think overall this novel falls somewhat short of the Lymond Chronicles at their best. King Hereafter certainly has a grander, by far more epic sweep than the earlier series, but precisely because of that lacks somewhat in the fine details that made the Lymond novels stand out so brightly and vividly. Having said that, I hasten to add that King Hereafter is a splendid novel, and worth several dozen minor novels on Vikings, Scotland or medieval history in general. As is usual with Dorothy Dunnett, the novel boasts several unforgettable set pieces, the oar-walking at the beginning alone – breathtakingly exciting and wonderfully exhilarating – is sure to remain in every reader’s memory. I really, really need to start on her Niccolo series soon.

(This post is part of my Iceland and Beyond reading project.)

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3 comments

  1. Hurrah! The post is here! And thank you so much for the kind words – but really, what you say is not true. You’ve got such an interesting stylistic take on the novel, which I simply haven’t read enough to attempt. With your formal analysis and my barely-controlled enthusiasm (“Vikings! Oar-dancing!”), I think we make a good team. 🙂

    Some things that I found completely fascinating here: your point about the two halves of the novel each representing one of the historical source figures. Absolutely true – and even more interesting to identify the complementary subtle change in style from saga-form to chronicle-form. That totally bypassed me at the time. Even more interesting to suggest that Dunnett deliberately made Thorfinn and Lymond similar so that she could show how their different circumstances led them along different paths – perhaps a writer’s exercise of her own imagination rather than something she expected her readers to pick up on, I wonder?

    I’ve been waiting for this post a long time, and am so happy to finally read your considered thoughts on the book. It was such fun reading it with you.

  2. Thank you! 🙂 It took long enough, it’s really embarrassing how far I have fallen behind on my reading.

    And you’re really too kind on my post – it’s really all subjective impression rather than formal analysis – that would for example have required that I actually take a close look at the verbs used in both parts of the novel, possibly even making a quantified comparison by actually counting how often Dunnett uses which kind – something I’m far too lazy to do. 😛

    I seriously think your posts are at least as analytical as everything I scrape together here, yours just have the added advantage of being enjoyable to read, which I can’t always say of mine. 😉

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