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King Hereafter by Dorothy Dunnett

King Hereafter (1982)

by Dorothy Dunnett

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Possibly Dunnett's greatest work, this masterful reimagining of Macbeth's life is dense, gripping and eminently rereadable. ( )
  Kirstie_Innes-Will | Apr 18, 2014 |
A retelling in an historical context of the story of MacBeth. Telling of his start of the Earl of Orkney named Thorfinn, he then wars with King Duncan and kills him and becomes King of Alba. He then rules for 15 years and is overthrown and killed by Malcolm III also known as Canmore. It was slow going at first and I got stalled 200 pages into it. However, once I picked it up again it went enjoyably enough. I enjoyed it overall ( )
  stuart10er | Sep 27, 2013 |
If George Mackay Brown’s Vinland was the kind of historical novel that uses history to make a statement about the present, then King Hereafter is the kind that attempts to immerse its readers as fully as possible in the past, not just by describing historical events but by trying to recreate the mindset of their chosen period, by making their readers think, feel and see the way their characters did, ideally without having a present point of view intrude on the scene at all. Nobody (at least nobody I have read so far) does this type of historical novel better than Dorothy Dunnett: her novels grab the reader and dunk them up to their eyebrows in the sights, sounds and smells of a distant epoch, barely letting them come up for air. This can prove quite challenging for readers who find themselves often called to actually work at understanding what is happening in her novels, retracing an intrigue from casually dropped hints or piecing together hidden conflicts by following up apparently innocuous references. King Hereafter is particularly dense even for Dorothy Dunnett and some parts (like the ecclesiastical factions and their power-games at the beginning of Part 3) proved particularly impenetrable.

In fact, this complete immersion seems to me to achieve for the historical novel what the stream of consciousness technique did for the modernist novel (most famously, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf), namely a radical perspectivism that abstains from all obvious auctorial intervention, leaving readers with no outside frame of reference and forcing them to puzzle things out and construct that frame on their own. Of course, that effect of immediacy – of an individual mind in stream of consciousness, of a historical period in Dunnett’s case – needs to be arranged, requires in fact a great deal of artifice and considerable skill to pull off successfully. And while she might not be quite up with the likes of Joyce and Woolf, Dorothy Dunnett without any doubt deserves to be considered among the greatest historical novelists of the twentieth century.

King Hereafter is somewhat unusual among Dunnett’s novels – for one thing, it is not part of a series but a stand-alone, for another, it is her only novel that has an actual historic figure as its main character. Or possibly two, for the novel has also something like a thesis, namely that Thorfinn, Earl of Orkney was identical with MacBeth, King of Alba (best known from Shakespeare’s play, of course). Apparently, that view is not shared by all historians, but whatever its historical plausibility, Dunnett makes it work for King Hereafter – work on several levels, even. Thorfinn does come across as a convincing, well-rounded character – he does remind one somewhat of Lymond at the start, but I suppose that was unavoidable even though Dorothy Dunnett goes out of her way to make him look different and keeps reminding her readers that he is dark-haired and not particularly good-looking. I would not even put it beyond her that she made the characters intentionally similar, just to then be able to show how they are changed by time and circumstances into two very different people – Thorfinn is changed by being a ruler (this is even one of the themes of the novel) and while the whole of the Lymond saga encompasses only a couple of years, events in King Hereafter span several decades so that we follow Thorfinn as he matures with age.

But even as she merges her two historical originals seamlessly into a single, convincing and fascinating character, there is a split running through King Hereafter – but one that is quite intentional and in fact constitutive for the novel’s basic structure. King Hereafter is divided into four parts, but is really two-part in structure – the first part is about the protagonist’s rise until he becomes secure in his position as King of Alba, the second part describes his rule and eventual downfall; one might say that the first one is about Thorfinn, Earl of Orkney, and the second about MacBeth, King of Alba. At first sight, one might suspect that it is here that the seams where Dunnett stitched her protagonist together become visible, but far from that, for as it turns out the novel is precisely about the movement from small, tribal communities to larger, centralised societies as well as (hardly a coincidence of course) from Pagan polytheism to Christian monotheism. Thorfinn embodies that shift – you really have to read the novel to appreciate just how wonderful a job Dunnett does with this – even though we see him consistently from an outside perspective the novel conveys how he is not so much torn as rather stretched between two epochs and two ways of living, both an earl and a king , a pagan at heart but still trying to come to terms with rising Christendom. And even though it costs him his life, he does in way succeed in the end, achieving the both the opposing goals of managing to keep Orkney an independent earldom while forging Scotland into a kingdom that will endure even after his death. By having its protagonist have a leg in both periods, so to speak, King Hereafter manages to impressively show what is gained and what is lost by the shift from one to the other. And it mirrors it on a formal linguistic level as well – while the first part of the novel is clearly modelled after Icelandic Sagas, telling about heroic deeds and single combat in a language that is both simple but flexible and highly rhythmic, the second part resembles more a historical chronicle, recording diplomatic maneuvers and battles between armies in a language that seems visual rather than verbal, written rather than recited – sound and rhythm being replaced by sight and colour.

I seem to remember reading somewhere that Dunnett herself considered King Hereafter her best work, but I’m inclined to take that as an author’s fondness for her least popular work. As I’m writing this, I have yet to read her House of Niccolo series, but I think overall this novel falls somewhat short of the Lymond Chronicles at their best. King Hereafter certainly has a grander, by far more epic sweep than the earlier series, but precisely because of that lacks somewhat in the fine details that made the Lymond novels stand out so brightly and vividly. Having said that, I hasten to add that King Hereafter is a splendid novel, and worth several dozen minor novels on Vikings, Scotland or medieval history in general. As is usual with Dorothy Dunnett, the novel boasts several unforgettable set pieces, the oar-walking at the beginning alone – breathtakingly exciting and wonderfully exhilarating – is sure to remain in every reader’s memory. I really, really need to start on her Niccolo series soon.
  Larou | Sep 5, 2013 |
Substance: The "biography" of Thorfinn aka MacBeth, according to research and theories of Dunnett. Ties together multiple strands of genealogy and history. Chock-full of names and events (too many, in fact, hence the deduction of a half-star). A great story of a man who really wanted to be a good king, and came very close to succeeding. I think Thorfinn is the Dunnett protagonist I like the best.
Style: Rich description, superb research, interesting characters at all levels. ( )
  librisissimo | Aug 9, 2011 |
King Hereafter is the story of Macbeth, king of Alba. That’s right, Macbeth of the three witches, Birnam Wood, and “Is this a dagger I see before me?” Except that Dunnett’s version of this man has very little in common with Shakespeare’s ambitious murderer.

Dunnett’s version of this 11th-century king is actually the same man as Thorfinn, the Earl of Orkney. I know next to nothing about the history of this period, but I understand that she arrived at this conclusion after doing extensive research into the period. I can’t speak to the likelihood of her being correct, but I can tell you that her version of the man is an exciting figure whose story took my breath away when I first delved into it years ago.

Even better is Dunnett’s version of Lady Macbeth, Groa, a Norwegian beauty previously wed to one of Macbeth’s political rivals, Gillacomghain of Moray. Thorfinn initially takes Groa as a war prize after he defeats Gillacomghain, but she soon becomes a full partner of his mind and his heart. The scenes between the two of them are the heart and soul of the novel. Although I love this relationship, and it’s the thing that stands out most clearly from my first reading of the book, I don’t want to give the idea that this is a historical romance. Far from it. Political machinations, battle plans, and religious transformations also get ample page time.

As much as I love this book, I must warn potential readers that it can be hard going. In fact, on this second read I found myself wondering several times in the early chapters why I loved it so much on the first read. Aside from a rip-roaring footrace along the oars of a longboat, I didn’t find much to excite me in the first 200 pages, and at times I felt utterly lost. Dunnett just throws readers into this entirely new and alien world of 11th-century Scotland without much in the way of help. I have learned with Dunnett that sometimes the best thing to do is to figure out who the central figures are and just worry about them.

So with this in mind, I read on, and at about page 200, it clicked. I remembered what I loved so much, and I started to see patterns that I hadn’t noticed on the first read, when the close relationships were my main interest. Not every section is equally interesting, and there are plenty of things I still don’t quite get, but I think that’s a testimony to the richness of Dunnett’s narrative, rather than to any muddiness in the storytelling.

See my complete review at Shelf Love. ( )
1 vote teresakayep | Dec 31, 2010 |
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Wealth dies.
Kinsmen die.
A man himself must likewise die.
But word-fame
Never dies
For him who achieves it well.

Wealth dies.
Kinsmen die.
A man himself must likewise die.
But one thing I know
That never dies--
The verdict on each man dead.
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When the year one thousand came, Thorkel Amundason was five years old, and hardly noticed how frightened everyone was.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0375704035, Paperback)

Back in print by popular demand--"A stunning revelation of the historical Macbeth, harsh and brutal and eloquent." --Washington Post Book World.

With the same meticulous scholarship and narrative legerdemain she brought to her hugely popular Lymond Chronicles, our foremost historical novelist travels further into the past.  In King Hereafter, Dorothy Dunnett's stage is the wild, half-pagan country of eleventh-century Scotland.  Her hero is an ungainly young earl with a lowering brow and a taste for intrigue.  He calls himself Thorfinn but his Christian name is Macbeth.

Dunnett depicts Macbeth's transformation from an angry boy who refuses to accept his meager share of the Orkney Islands to a suavely accomplished warrior who seizes an empire with the help of a wife as shrewd and valiant as himself.  She creates characters who are at once wholly creatures of another time yet always recognizable--and she does so with such realism and immediacy that she once more elevates historical fiction into high art.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:34:54 -0400)

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