King Hereafter: Dorothy Dunnett’s Writing Style

Dorothy Dunnett, King Hereafter, originally published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1982.

As a post discussion commentary about my 2019 Summer Read book selection, King Hereafter, I offer here a few of my impressions about the writing style of the Scottish author, Dorothy Dunnett. I have not done an exhaustive search to learn more about this author other than perusing some of the information available about Dunnett on sources such as Wikipedia. What I offer here are personal impressions based on my experiences while reading a few of her books.

My strongest impression about the writing style of Dunnett is that it reveals an author with an impressive intellect, a “Renaissance (Wo)man” level of background knowledge, and an extraordinary work ethic. As I explained in my pre-discussion comments about why I chose this book, I was introduced to the novels of Dorothy Dunnett by my late sister-in-law, Jean Gobel, who invited me to join her in reading and then participating in an online discussion of Dunnett’s book, Game of Kings, the first in the series of six historical novels that collectively make up the Francis Crawford of Lymond Series of novels set in 16th Century Europe. I was surprised by the fervor of some of the participants in the online discussion, and soon discovered that Dunnett has somewhat of a cult following. Furthermore, participation in this online discussion forum while reading the novel greatly increased my appreciation of the extensive and meticulous research that Dunnett carried out while writing her historical novels. Unusual phrases, and descriptions of places and events that would have “gone right past me” had I read the book on my own were revealed to be direct quotes or allusions to late medieval and Renaissance manuscripts.

There appears to be a small cottage industry among her most devoted fans that works on annotating her sources. For example:

  • Laura Caine Ramsey, The Ultimate Guide to Dorothy Dunnett’s The Game of Kings (2013)
  • Elspeth Morrison, The Dorothy Dunnett Companion (1994)
  • Elspeth Morrison, The Dorothy Dunnett Companion II (2002)
  • And many others, published and unpublished

After having read the first 4 volumes of Dunnett’s Lymond Series I decided to tackle King Hereafter, her long (over 700 pages) historical novel about Macbeth that is set in the 11th Century, several hundred years earlier than the Lymond Series. The same plethora of allusions to ancient manuscripts is apparent while reading this novel; This time derived from turn of the millennium sagas in many languages including Nordic, Gaelic, Icelandic, and Irish, as well as from manuscripts in Old Scottish, Old English, and various European languages. One could (and some probably are) spend months or even years trying to track down and annotate the quotations and allusions, some explicit, many hidden and only revealed by sleuthing, that can be found on almost every page.

A second impression I come away with is an appreciation for her sense of humor. She includes two kinds of humor in her novels. The first are long(ish) running descriptions of funny scenes. Two that come to mind from King Hereafter are the contest to accomplish the Olaf Trygvasson trick of running on the oars of the boat while it is in motion, and the descriptions of the Icelandic character taking a polar bear cub as a gift for the Emperor. I assume both of these are based (at least loosely) on historically documented events. But for me, Dunnett’s sense of humor is sharpest in the “one-liners” she inserts into the dialogue. Here are three examples:

‘Send to [King Canute’s wife] Emma,’ said Alfgar cheerfully. ‘Winchester is a charnel-house for Emma’s relics: She has one for every day of the week. Who but Emma could cheat the Ascension and show you the milk-tooth of Christ?’

p. 131

‘And my thanks?’ Kalv Arnason bawled. [to Thorfinn expecting to be thanked for assisting in defeating Rongvald]
‘There is his axe,’ said Thorfinn. ‘And it not in your head. Be contented.’

p. 337

[Having taught his mean dog, that is despised by most everyone, to bark whenever he hears the name ‘Thorfinn’, Rognvald is hiding on the beach trying to evade capture. Thorkel, standing on the beach, is trying to find and capture Rognvald.]
‘Thorfinn!’ cried Thorkel Fostrei. And among the rocks of the stack, a well-taught dog barked and went on barking wildly until Thorkel Fostri strode over and lifted his axe and brought it down on the neck of the master, and the neck of the dog.

p. 354

Dunnett also inserts some “poke in the eye” humor aimed at her critics, some of whom were academic historians. As a retired professor myself, I found those passages particularly keen and satisfying. In the course of her extensive research carried out in preparation for writing the novel, Dunnett became convinced that Thorfinn, the Earl of Caithness, and Macbeth, King of Alba were the same person. Academic historians poo-pooed the idea, I suspect more on the basis that they did not want to give credit to this upstart woman author who did not even have a college degree than based on evidence found in historical documents. In one of the interviews I read online, Dunnett explains that she had a choice to make in the face of this criticism — She could either write an academic treatise laying out her evidence and try to get it published in an academic journal, or she could write the historical novel as she had originally planned to do, including the evidence within the novel. She chose the latter. Her literary device for doing that was to use the character Lulach as the voice of prophecy and of history. His words were almost exclusively quotes, paraphrases, or allusions to historical documents uncovered by Dunnett as part of her meticulous research. Here is an example of the kind of thinly veiled, devastating, and wickedly funny, putdowns of her critics that show up regularly in the book:

‘But not Macbeth, King of Orkney,’ Groa had corrected, ‘Macbeth of Alba’.

The clear blue eyes mocked her, gravely, from under the feathered white hair. ‘When I was Cardoc of Llancarvan,’ said Lulach, ‘Macbeth, King of Orkney, is what I called him. Do you want to argue about it?’

p. 369

Dunnett’s writing style also impresses me as being similar in some ways to a mystery novel genre. As in a good Sherlock Holmes novel, all of the clues to figure out what is going on are scattered throughout the story, but the details only make sense to the reader after the fact, and then only if the reader has paid close attention and remembers all of those details, perhaps with the aid of notes. This style of writing in which the reader is often unsure, even confused, about how to interpret what is going on, can be totally exasperating for a reader who does not appreciate a good mystery, or who is unwilling to take the time and effort to take notes and do some diligent mental work while reading.

So given this style of writing, what kind of reader do I think would be a good candidate to appreciate King Hereafter? Probably someone who enjoys learning about historical events and what life was like during the particular historical era being described, enjoys solving mysteries in the plot about what is going on and why, and is smart enough and dedicated enough to put in the time and effort to do so, (and also some other features of the book I have not discussed here — enjoys some elements of passion and romance; strong female as well as male characters; a sympathetic portrayal of both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth that is quite the opposite of the portrayals by Shakespearean Theater and in Opera.)

In terms of Old Retired Men, the category of readers in our book club, here is my image of the ideal reader. He buys the book in October before snow sets in for the winter, places the book on the desk in his study (shelves lined with reference books, or now-days with a computer access to the internet), reads 5 pages a night while taking notes and doing research. By Spring he finishes a satisfying read.

Ron Boothe

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.

2 Responses to King Hereafter: Dorothy Dunnett’s Writing Style

  1. William G. Gambrell says:

    I am old but not retired or male; I began reading Dunnett books while my life was in the process of being up-ended… a move with a toddler and a newborn from the deep South to a desert Kennewick WA USA where the tallest plant in my yard was the summer squash plant. I have never met anyone who relished her novels the way I did. When my husband suggested I write a book [he had a DIY on ground cover in mind] I had a Mitchner and Dunnett [placed in SC Lowcountry over the eons] and [a tale of strong characters in a specific period in history].
    I heard there was a college course on writing in Dunnett’s style but I don’t travel in your circles and am just taking a chance you can help me. Am using my husband’s info. Dolly Stratton Gambrell

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