Monday, August 8, 2011

Past Perfect: King Hereafter

I haven't posted anything new for a while because I've been living in genre fiction. This world has fierce creatures and fiercer warriors; beautiful, intelligent, cunning women; seers and mystics; religious conflict between an established northern religion and a more recent transplant from the East; and a web of shifting and occult political alliances that stretch over vast geographic terrain.

No, I'm not talking about A Dance with Dragons. I'm talking about King Hereafter.

King Hereafter (by Dorothy Dunnett) is about the historical figure of Macbeth. Not that rash, greedy, murdering general from the Scottish play, but the medieval King of Alba (Scotland). Dunnett's book is based on several years of archival research in multiple languages and countries, and was intended to be a non-fiction account of the biography of Macbeth. She put her research to the service of historical fiction (of which she is the undisputed master). Macbeth is Thorfinn, the Norse-Celtic Earl of Orkney, who becomes Earl of Caithness and eventually King of Alba before [SPOILER ALERT] his defeat at the hands of his nephew, Malcolm, and Siward of York, his cousin by marriage.

This is at least the third time I've read this book and it only becomes more compelling each time I revisit it. Dunnett is an elliptical writer--something mentioned in passing will turn out to be important many pages later. The complexities of plot and characterization repay careful reading and rereading. But Dunnett's books also have in them swashbuckling adventure and bookish humor. In KH, a tense political negotiation between kings, complete with hostages, turns into an exhilarating and humiliating race run along the tops of oarshafts in a royal barge. Even better, it's clear that Dunnett completely understands the period she's depicting, so that it becomes possible for the reader to inhabit it fully.

KH is the best book I have ever read about viking culture, and the gradual Christianization of that culture. The book is set at the apex of northern influence: Canute is king of Denmark and England. Norsemen with strong ties to Norway and Sweden rule in the north of England, the north of Scotland, and eastern Ireland. Exiled Norse princes command the Varangian Guard, in Byzantium, and take up positions at their cousins' courts in Kiev. And Normandy is in the ascendant. In the midst of this is Thorfinn, half Viking and half Christian Celt, who gradually decides to forsake sailing for sowing and reaving for reaping as he tries to knit together a disparate group of cultures, ethnicities, and religions into something larger. He prefers Thor's hammer to the cross of the White Christ, but promotes and uses the Church in the interest of nation-building. The saddest element is Thorfinn's willing alienation from his Norwegian family to rule a country that doesn't yet exist and whose people don't yet trust him.

And, just in case you've forgotten:

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