I don’t know why I never read any of Dorothy Dunnett’s books. I was aware of her as an author – I had noticed a set of books set in 15th century Italy, but it was not a period that interested me. It was only once I started to write myself, and take notice of what other authors thought, that I realised that many writers of historical fiction revered her. I wanted to find out why.
Two years ago I bought a copy of King Hereafter. I started reading and knew that this was something special. It is a long book, over 700 pages, and I was busy. I wanted time to savour it, so I put it to one side. Recently I came back to it and last night I got to the end. I am still held in its spell and want to get down my thoughts while they are fresh.
For those who have never read it, this is the story of Macbeth, but not Shakespeare’s Macbeth. This is the real man, Thorfinn, Earl of Orkney, who might have become King of Scotland, if Scotland had existed at that time. Because of him, it nearly did. It is the story of one man’s life, but also the story of a whole world.
The Macbeth we think we know is set in Scotland, a country north of England. This book opens out to reveal the whole world; of the interconnections between countries when borders were fluid, of families connected by blood and marriage, where who you married was sometimes more important than who your father was and cousins could be friends or enemies depending on circumstances.
Thorfinn is sent to England, to the court of King Canute and his wife Emma, who controls events like a spider in a web. He meets Earl Leofric of Mercia, and his wife Godiva (who had ever considered that Macbeth probably met Lady Godiva?). Thorfinn is an heir to Orkney, he must fight for his share. Later, he gains Alba, by battle and keeps it by marriage to the widow of the previous king. It becomes a great love story.
Movement is central to the story. The action moves, with Thorfinn, not just across Scotland and the isles, but to Norway and Denmark. There is a long journey to Rome to meet the Pope. Always Thorfinn, plans, makes alliances. It is only towards the end of this trip that you realise that one reason for the journey is to bind together the young men who will be the leaders of the future, the heir of his ideas, if not his body.
The book is about religion. Not just the conflict between Christian and Pagan, but the different branches of the church. It is important that the bishop that controls your priests, is consecrated by the right person, for whichever king controls him has power over you, and your country.
I was astounded by the authors breadth of knowledge, how could she know so much about the period. I had occasion to look up some fact (I think it was the date the “historical” Macbeth died.) and found that there are little known facts about his life. In fact, the merging of the characters Torfinn of Orkney and Macbeth the king is only speculation. But the world she has created, is so real that you believe it happened as she tells it, or if it didn’t, it should have. It explains so well the state of the world in the mid-eleventh century, the rise of Harold Godwinson in England, the battles of William for possession of Normandy, the arrival of that other Harold from the east, to take over the throne of Norway. Men who would meet a few years later, in 1066, to decide the direction history would take.
But enough of history. If all the characters were fantasy, it would still be worth reading, so beautifully is it written. There are great set pieces; The firing of the hall at Ophir where Thorfinn and his wife nearly die and the storm, again on Orkney which acts as the trigger for the final downfall.
And the battle which ends at Dunsinane, four chapters, sixty odd pages of frantic action, fighting, riding across the landscape of Scotland, moments, only moments, of rest. The plot twists, from success to failure and back, as allegiances change or fade away, there is bluff and double bluff, treachery on every side. But still, there is time for beauty. From page 616, but I could have picked an example from almost any page. Siward waits outside Dunsinane:
Above, the sky hung, changing colour like fine China silk, with homing birds on its surface like powder. Here, emptied by space of all texture, men’s voices spoke and called and were thrown back from hill to hill, as every channel glinted with spears and with acorn helmets of dulled steel or leather and shields like shells on a necklace. Behind, when he twisted round, he saw that the black smoke obscuring the sun had been joined by another burst, this time of pure flame, rising over the river. He said, “It looks as if Perth has gone…”
It then continues, for a page with practical discussion on when to attack. The section ends:
Ligulf was smiling. The black moustaches opened like pincers. “No indeed,” Ligulf said. “So what were you thinking of?
And smiled all the time that he listened, so that Siward thought the moustache-ends would be hooked on his ears.
I could quote much more, but I haven’t the time, or space.
I was dreading the end. I knew there would be death. The death of a man I had come to love. A man who had started with nothing, achieved so much with his strength and intelligence and lost it through forces he was unable to control. I delayed the last few pages, until I was alone. I knew I would cry, I am close to tears now.
The ending was heartrending, but magnificent, the only way it could end. A man must die but his memory lives on.
A quote from near the end, Thorfinn and his stepson Lulach, who sees things.
“What am I thinking? I was wondering,” said Thorfinn slowly, “what story the river will carry of me?”
Lulach smiled his sweet smile, and his swan-white hair shone in the sunshine. “So many stories,” he said, “that a thousand years from today, every name from this world will have faded save those of yourself and your lady. That is immortality.”
I do not just cry for the death of a man. I cry because I now know that this is the sort of book I want to write – and I know I never shall.
A book like this takes great talent and a lifetime of writing. It is too late for me. If I had read this earlier, would I have started writing earlier, or is it only now that I know a little about writing that I can appreciate it?
Who know? I’ll just have to try my best – it’s all anyone can do.