“Then she said, ‘Thorfinn!’ quickly, and moved to him; but had hardly got to his side before he loosed his fingers and thumbs and plunged them down to the mattress like spear-points.
‘No! Macbeth. Macbeth. Macbeth!’ The name reached her like sling-shot.
Groa said, ‘They are the same man. I should know. I married both.’”
I couldn’t wait to read this book having loved Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles and House of Niccolo series so much when I read them last year. King Hereafter, her only standalone historical novel, is set in eleventh-century Orkney and Scotland (known at that time as Alba) and is based around the idea that Macbeth, the historical King of Alba, and Thorfinn, Earl of Orkney, were the same person – Macbeth being Thorfinn’s baptismal name. Whether that might be true or not, the case she puts forward in this book is very convincing and obviously the result of an enormous amount of research. The novel follows Thorfinn throughout his entire life and along the way there are battles, both on land and at sea, fires, storms, births, deaths, political intrigue and even a race across the oars of a longboat. We also meet other historical figures of the time including King Canute and Lady Godiva – but at the heart of the story, for me, is Thorfinn’s love for his wife, Groa.
I loved this book, although the combination of unfamiliar history, complex politics and intricate relationships between the characters meant that it required a huge amount of concentration and a lot of referring to the centre pages of the book which contained three maps of Orkney, Alba and England, and two family trees. I would have been completely lost without these maps and charts; I found myself consulting them constantly – and even then there were some relationships that still weren’t quite clear to me. Added to the fact that my edition of the book had 880 pages (not the same as the one pictured here, by the way), it seemed to take me nearly as long to read this one book as it did to read the entire Lymond Chronicles! That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though, when a book is as good as this one is.
Before I go any further I should point out that King Hereafter is not a retelling of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and there is really very little resemblance between Dunnett’s story and Shakespeare’s, although she does quote from the play in the section headings and there are some references to events that are also in the play, such as ‘Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane’. Some of the basic plot points are the same – yes, Thorfinn/Macbeth becomes King of Alba after the death of King Duncan, for example, but the circumstances surrounding Duncan’s death are very different from the murder Shakespeare describes. And thankfully, Groa is a far more likeable character than Lady Macbeth. The three witches don’t appear either, though instead we have Groa’s son, Lulach, and his prophecies (I suspect that to really be able to make any sense of most of Lulach’s cryptic comments you need to know how the rest of the story is going to play out and to be familiar with some of the historical sources too).
I loved Thorfinn from his very first appearance. I could see some similarities between Thorfinn and Dunnett’s other heroes, Lymond and Nicholas, but in other ways he is quite different. This is the moment we meet him for the first time as a child, seen through the eyes of his foster father, Thorkel Fostri:
“Not the complaining Earl Brusi. Not the lovely young Rognvald his son. But a scowling juvenile, thin as a half-knotted thong, with a monstrous brow topped by a whisk of black hair over two watering eyes, thick as acorns.
It raised one arm and called. Its voice had not even started to break.
‘Thorfinn,’ said Thorkel, and the word itself was a groan. Here in Norway, here in Nídarós, here on King Olaf’s jetty was the child-Earl of Caithness and Orkney. His foster-son.”
We soon see that Thorfinn’s unattractive exterior hides a shrewd brain, great physical ability, wit, courage and, although we are told that he never laughs, a wry sense of humour too. He is capable of all the plotting, scheming and negotiating that is necessary to keep up with the ever-changing rivalries and alliances between various leaders, while also dealing with the threats from England, Norway and Denmark and trying to do what is best for his people of Orkney, Caithness, Moray and the rest of Alba. As with Lymond and Nicholas we are rarely given the privilege of getting inside Thorfinn’s head; instead we see him mostly from the perspective of the people around him, which can be either insightful or misleading depending on how well these viewpoint characters understand him.
Groa is a great character too and is now one of my favourite female characters in all of Dunnett’s novels. The story of how she and Thorfinn come to love and understand each other is beautifully written and it was wonderful to watch their relationship develop over the course of the novel. Apart from the relationship between Thorfinn and Groa, the other one I found particularly fascinating and complex was the relationship between Thorfinn and his nephew, Rognvald. The encounters between the two of them throughout the first half of the book provided what, for me, were some of the most dramatic and exciting scenes in the book.
Thorfinn does have a lot of ambition, but unlike Shakespeare’s Macbeth, it’s not because he’s looking for personal glory or has been encouraged by his ruthless Lady; his ambition is to improve life in his lands and give his people a strong ruler, uniting the disparate, diverse tribes of Orkney and Alba under a common religion and common laws. On the subject of religion, I did get very confused somewhere in Part 3, where Thorfinn visits Pope Leo in Rome. Actually, a lot of the religious aspects of the story in general confused me and that’s something I would attempt to understand better on a re-read. I tried not to worry too much about the things I couldn’t understand on this first read and instead concentrated on getting to know Thorfinn, Groa and the other characters, and enjoying the beautiful writing. The descriptions of the landscapes of Orkney and Alba are so vivid and evocative. This is one that I particularly loved:
They entered Loch Bracadale with the sunrise, rose-coloured oars laying darkling folds on the rose-tinted pool of the fjord. A dusting of guillemots, asleep on the water, roused and dived with almost no sound, leaving pink and verdigris rings on the surface. A charcoal rock needled with cormorants became suddenly bare, and from the shore came the scalloped cry of an oyster-catcher, joined after a moment by others. Then the longships slid past, and the sounds died away.
Although the Lymond Chronicles are still my favourites, I can definitely see why some people would consider this Dorothy Dunnett’s best book. It’s amazingly detailed and well-researched, as well as being a very powerful and emotional story. The only problem with reading a book like this is that when you know there can only be one outcome to the story and that there’s no chance of a happy ending, it makes the build-up to the conclusion difficult to read. The end of Thorfinn’s story was inevitable but still heartbreakingly sad.
I’m sorry I don’t have any more of Dunnett’s historical novels to look forward to, but I will try her Johnson Johnson mystery series at some point – and like all of Dunnett’s books I’m sure re-reading King Hereafter in the future will also be a rewarding experience!