Book: King Hereafter - Livre d'Or








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Book: King Hereafter
Sunday, 03 October 2004 at 10:05 pm
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Author: Dorothy Dunnett

Details: (c) 1982 Dorothy Dunnett; Pub Vintage Books 1998; ISBN 0-375-70403-5

Verdict: I found King Hereafter overly didactic for my taste, but worth reading even if a little slow.

Reasons for reading it: lethargic_man raves about it.

How it came into my hands: lethargic_man lent it to me.

King Hereafter is breathtakingly well-researched; the level of historical detail is such that it made me want to read the 'making of' version as much as the book itself. Sadly, the story doesn't quite work well enough as a story to avoid the impression that it's one those history lessons thinly disguised as stories that used to annoy me as a kid. It's partly the subject matter; politics and war are not subjects that readily fill me with enthusiasm, but it's also other technical weakness. The viewpoint jumps about all over the place, which makes it hard to engage emotionally with the story unless the characterization is exceptionally good. In fact, I didn't get any strong sense of any of the characters (which is particularly off-putting with such a large cast).

From my point of view, what's cool about KH is not the hook that the protagonist is supposed to be 'the real Macbeth'; it's the detailed portrayal of 11th century Scotland, with the religion, the internal situation, and the wider geopolitical context (including the build-up to the Norman conquest in England and the beginnings of the Holy Roman Empire on the continent). And the linguistic background! The sense of Britain as a multilingual melting pot is just incredibly vivid; the way Dunnett casually drops in words and phrases of Norse, Saxon, various kinds of Gaelic, Welsh, Northumbrian and so on almost makes up for the book's other flaws. I'm also really interested in what it's doing with religion, the portrayal of the Church becoming a political power, but not quite an absolute one yet, and the struggle for influence between various bits of the Church (ties in very interestingly with a conversation I was having with rysmiel a while back about Celtic versus Roman Christianity).

It occurred to me that KH could almost be a riff on Lord of the Rings. But where most books that are trying to be LotR take Tolkien's world more or less wholesale and throw an assorted bunch of representatives of Tolkien's races, more or less thinly disguised, into a Grand Quest, KH takes the elements of Tolkien that most imitators ignore completely. It builds a solid world with devastatingly detailed history and linguistics and makes its characters just little people who happen to be caught up in big history (while largely leaving out the fantasy aspects). Of course, this 'world' is based on reality, so it's not surprising that the setting is detailed, but most historical fiction doesn't actually foreground this much detail. I started imagining reading LotR as told from the point of view of, say, Theoden: the political future of Rohan and prosperity of his people would be the central themes, with all the grand theological stuff about the battle between good and evil and the inevitable decline of Middle Earth as a backdrop rather than being the point. I think the real weakness of KH could be couched in terms of a lack of hobbits: real, 'ordinary' people who make the bridge between grand historical themes and the reader's engagement with the story on a human level (The Silmarillion, incidentally, has exactly the same problem).

One thing that's very odd about KH is the way that love works in it. It seems to appear out of nowhere, as if a completely external force. Various kinds of love are depicted rather well, but there seems to be absolutely no reason for the people who love eachother to do so. It's fairly predictable that a book like this would want to portray Lady Macbeth in a really positive light, and does so successfully in Groa who if anything is too perfect. But while the deep, sustaining love between her and Thorfinn (Macbeth) is described very poetically and movingly, this love arises out of absolutely nowhere, after several years when Thorfinn would rape her (stated explicitly, I'm not just reading this in) and then completely ignore her for several months. And then they randomly (and very suddenly) fall in love with eachother and spend several decades in a state of ultimate marital bliss. Somewhat less inexplicably, but still rather startlingly, the Banquo character, Rognvald, develops a consuming passion for the hero on the basis of seeing him once at the age of 10 and then living in a completely separate country for the succeeding decade.

It's a pity that KH is such slow going, because it has a lot of elements which would otherwise make it very cool. I have a feeling neonchameleon would get on exceptionally well with it, but I'd be hesitant in recommending it to anyone else, I think.


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rysmiel: words words words
From:rysmiel
Date:October 7th, 2004 12:52 pm (UTC)
22 hours after journal entry, 08:52 am (rysmiel's time)
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This is fascinating enough that I've bumped King Hereafter up several notches on my to-read pile. [ Where it has been lying fairly low, largely because of how long it is, when I also have System of the World sitting there, and am going to have to re/read 1.25 million word of the D'Artagnan Romances soonish if I'm to finish the "D'Artagnan and the Great Detective on Mars" book ]
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lethargic_man: reflect
From:lethargic_man
Date:October 11th, 2004 06:07 am (UTC)
4 days after journal entry, 07:07 am (lethargic_man's time)

King Hereafter

(Link)
Reasons for reading it: lethargic_man raves about it.

I think I'd agree with you that it has good features and bad features (though disagree about which features are which). I rave about the good features rather than that it's an excellent book...

If anyone's reading this I haven't wibbled to about the relationship of the novel to the historic record, and how Dunnet did what she did in identifying Macbeth king of Scotland with Thorfinn earl of Orkney, I can wibble on about it again here...

In fact, I didn't get any strong sense of any of the characters (which is particularly off-putting with such a large cast).

Well, I did, FWIW. My primary criticism is that the conveying of what characters are thinking and how they are reacting to things is done at a level too subtle for me. I had the same problem with The Dragon Waiting (and this is one reason why I think rysmiel might like this book). I often had to simply let things flow over me rather than stopping to try and work out why characters were reacting the way they did.

In some cases it might have been clearer, I suspect, if I had read or seen Macbeth, knowledge of which the author takes somewhat for granted. (E.g. Thorfinn thinking, when seeing the soldiers camouflaging themselves with branches, "What did it matter which wood they were from?")

From my point of view, what's cool about KH is not the hook that the protagonist is supposed to be 'the real Macbeth';

Now I haven't read or seen Macbeth, so I can't really argue much about it; but from the bits that I do know I did like the way Dunnett adapted them to a non-specfic historical novel setting. For instance, splitting the role of the witches into two: the prophesying bits going to Lulach, and the supernatural meddlers in fate being attributed to the Norns. (Anyone know what the significance was of Luloecen being renamed Lulach, btw?)

it's the detailed portrayal of 11th century Scotland, with the religion, the internal situation, and the wider geopolitical context (including the build-up to the Norman conquest in England and the beginnings of the Holy Roman Empire on the continent).

Absolutely. It really brought it home that these were Interesting Times to live in. Starting, indeed, with the very first sentence: "When the year one thousand came, Thorkel Amundason was five years old, and hardly noticed how frightened everyone was."

And the linguistic background! The sense of Britain as a multilingual melting pot is just incredibly vivid; the way Dunnett casually drops in words and phrases of Norse, Saxon, various kinds of Gaelic, Welsh, Northumbrian and so on almost makes up for the book's other flaws.

Also agreed. I think part of this is Dunnett highlighting, through the use of the Gaelic term "mormaer", just how inappropriate Shakespeare's use of the Anglo-Saxon "thane" is.

I have one slight criticism with the linguistics, though: If she's using contemporary forms of personal names, she should have been using contemporary forms of place names too, rather than the modern ones -- Winteceastre rather than Winchester, for example.

I think the real weakness of KH could be couched in terms of a lack of hobbits

:-D :-D :-D

It's fairly predictable that a book like this would want to portray Lady Macbeth in a really positive light, and does so successfully in Groa who if anything is too perfect.

And what happens to her at the end was really moving, and cast in a new light the way we had read when this happened to her the previous time.

And then they randomly (and very suddenly) fall in love with eachother and spend several decades in a state of ultimate marital bliss.

It's probably not realistic, but the novel does attempt to justify it; it's not completely random.
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From:(Anonymous)
Date:April 15th, 2005 10:12 am (UTC)
190 days after journal entry

Re: King Hereafter

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Amusingly enough I found your livejournal post about this book because I was trying to find out more about the significance of the Luloecen character to explain some of the complexities of _King Hereafter_.

I just wanted to throw in my two cents about the Thorfinn-Groa romance.

>>And then they randomly (and very suddenly) fall in love with eachother and spend several >>decades in a state of ultimate marital bliss.

>It's probably not realistic, but the novel does attempt to justify it; it's not completely >random.

No, it's not random at all. Thorfinn marries the widow of the enemy-cousin he kills in order to secure his claim to the province she and her son claim. Thus we have two people who have married each other sight unseen, and without even the consent of Groa-- she has no choice whatsoever about Thorfinn marrying her, and in fact he rapes her beforehand to "make certain of her" and scare off any other contestants who might steal her to get her lands. At their marriage, they bargain: he offers her desirable and politically important lands in return for refraining from having him assassinated. Her counteroffer is to require that he share the governing of all his lands with her, and he surprises her by replying that at least in a large part of those lands the policies will all be hers-- being married to him amounts to the job of ruling.

They fall in love with one another in the next five or ten years because they get to know one another and admire each other's characters. Initially Groa's beauty is just an irritating problem to him-- the fact that she is the most beautiful woman anyone has ever seen just means, to him, that there is a possibility that men will cause problems to him falling for her. But he falls in love with her for her courage, her wit, her uniqueness, and hides that fact from her because it would just cause problems-- the purpose of their marriage is supposed to be the securing of property and military rule, not love. Plus, he is afraid se will scorn him and feels unworthy of her. There is a scene where he quotes poetry to himself: "she is beautiful, and skilled at many crafts..." and concludes that to such a woman one cannot offer dross such as himself-- an ugly man, a northern axe-wielding barbarian, a rapist who killed her first (unloved) husband.

She falls in love with *him* when Godiva, the Lady of Mercia, points out that they have a working partnership-- that their marriage in fact is a structure which enables her to rule her province, to exercise such power as she is capable of, and that he trusts her to do it and do it well, and will and does support and defend her. That, in fact, they have been working together for years to rule what is now Scotland. She in fact has his trust and respect as a competent, even excellent co-ruler. Then she starts payig attention to what kind of man he is, how grand his real goals are, how he in fact works himself half to death for the benefit of the lands under his rule-- and how alone he is, having no intimacy with anyone and no love to support him. It is after he is wounded, and defeats his half-brother Duncan in single combat over the lordship of the north, that she breaks down and betrays her feelings, and only because she is the only one there to care for his wounds and the only one he trusts to know that he is wounded, and therefore weak, vulnerable to defeat by any of his many enemies and rivals.

After caring for his wounds she weeps in the dark, and he asks why she cries; she replies "Compassion", which is partly true, but not the whole truth. Only the fact that he is holding her hand, and thus can feel her pulse, tells him that there is something else besides compassion at work in her. He says she can tell him, that he would nver allow her to be harmed and that no matter what she says, no harm will come to her from it, because he loves her. "Did you not know it?"

So, there is a distinct development of their love for one another that can be traced; it's not random, and not even really a surprise, if you've been following carefully.
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