Summer Read: Dorothy Dunnett’s King Hereafter

This summer our group is going to read a historical novel suggested by me:

Dorothy Dunnett, King Hereafter, originally published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1982. Currently available in both paperback and ebook editions.

Here are a few comments about why I chose this book.

 

I was introduced to the Scottish author Dorothy Dunnett by my late sister-in-law, Jean Gobel. She convinced me to read a few of Dunnett’s most well known books that collectively make up the Francis Crawford of Lymond Series of novels set in 16th Century Europe. I was intrigued with several aspects of Dunnett’s writing style, and with the extensive and meticulous historical research that was evident in reading her novels. Based on that experience I decided, with encouragement once again from sister-in-law Jean, to tackle Dunnett’s 11th Century Historical Novel, King Hereafter, that is based (at least loosely, see below) on the life of Macbeth.

Ever since I completed that first reading of King Hereafter I have been toying with the notion of using it as one of my selections for our book club. However, I considered this option with some amount of trepidation since there are some potential impediments to making this book be a successful reading experience for our group.

First, at over 700 pages, I realize that this book could end up being a long slog, especially for any of our members who are unable to enjoy, or at least appreciate, some of its positive attributes. Nevertheless, I decided this book might be appropriate to use as one of our selections for a summer-read, a time slot where we allow ourselves an opportunity to spend two months reading a book instead of our regular one-book-a-month schedule.

Second, this book has a complex plot and over 200 named characters such that unless the reader takes notes it will probably be impossible to keep the characters straight or appreciate all of the intricacies of the plot. Furthermore, Dunnett does not give her readers any slack, expecting them to remember details about characters and events that are revealed in earlier sections of the book when those details become relevant to understanding the plot in later sections of the book. In order to help alleviate this difficulty I prepared a spreadsheet with my own notes that provides some relevant details about many of the characters. I have posted this spreadsheet as a downloadable and editable file here on our blogsite and encourage everyone to make reference to these character notes, and/or to add their own notes, while reading the novel.

 

Third, the book details numerous interactions, including alliances, conflicts and battles, between dozens of clans, fiefdoms, and emerging countries and empires in the 11th Century that will be difficult to keep track of unless one consults historical maps while reading the novel. I made copies of three maps that Dunnett provides in the original hardcopy version of the text, and I strongly encourage readers to keep these, or similar historical maps, close at hand for consultation while reading.

Fourth, Dunnett incorporates terminology, phrases, and descriptions of activities that are derived from her extensive historical research. This provides the reader with a sense of actually being present as events unfold in the 11th Century, but might require frequent visits to the English Oxford Dictionary, Wikipedia, or other reference sources.

Fifth, Dennett’s narrative style is oblique such that the reader is often unsure about exactly what is going on. For me, reading this novel was often reminiscent of sitting in a public place such as a restaurant where fragments of conversations can be overheard coming from nearby tables. By eavesdropping, one slowly begins to construct hypothetical narratives about what is being discussed in these conversations. Similarly for the reader of King Hereafter. And one of the pleasures for me while reading this novel was the discovery that by sticking with and engaging in the plot, and paying attention to detail, eventually all (or at least much) that seemed totally confusing early on became clearer as I continued to read. However, a caveat — I worry that this style of writing might drive some of our readers to exasperation. My only advice is to encourage readers to engage with the book at whatever level of detail remains enjoyable. And there is much to enjoy and appreciate about this book even for readers who are not interested in putting in the effort that would be needed to follow all of the intricacies of the plot in detail.

Sixth, there has apparently been skepticism by at least some historians as to whether Thorfinn and Macbeth were really the same person as Dunnett assumes in this historical novel. For me, that issue was not important enough to spend time tracking it down. I just enjoyed reading the narrative as constructed by Dunnett based on her own historical research of original documents. However, for any readers who do have an interest in trying to figure out which, if any, of the descriptions of historical events are accurate, my guess is that there is a non-fiction historical literature that can be consulted to compare to the novel.

I will make one last comment about a personal connection I have to the book. My own maternal grandfather, George Green, emigrated from Norway and homesteaded in Montana in the early 1900s. The Green family farm he left behind has been in our family for over 500 years. And given that people of bygone eras did not generally move far from where they were born, this same land was very possibly being farmed by some of my ancestors in the 11th Century when the events in this book took place.

The Green family farm is located in the municipality of Verdal (traditionally spelled Vaerdal or Vaerdalen) so the following paragraph from the book caught my attention.

“[King Olaf of Norway] intended that very day, he announced, to mount an expedition of his loyal and Christian subjects against those pagans of Sparbu and Eynar and Vaerdal and Skogen whose devilish rites were an offence against the White Christ and himself, as their overloard.” (bold added)

King Hereafter, page 7
Me along with two of my second cousins visiting the grave of our great grandparents at the church cemetery in Verdal.

Later in the book we learn that the farmers eventually get their revenge when King Olaf is killed at Sticklestad, a village located near the Green family farm where we had a family gathering of Green cousins when Marilyn and I visited Norway a few years ago.

Marilyn and I at a family reunion with my Norwegian
Second Cousins, held in the village of Sticklestad that is near the Green Family Farm.

This battle at Sticklestad where King Olaf was killed is one of the most famous events in Norwegian history:

https://g.co/kgs/rGrAFj

So for me this book provided an interesting read from several perspectives, including its personal connections. I am looking forward to our discussion of the book in August.

Ron Boothe

psyrgb@emory.edu

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About Ron Boothe

I am a Professor Emeritus at Emory University, currently living in Tacoma Washington USA.
This entry was posted in 2019 Selections, King Hereafter and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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