The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett

Cassell, 1962, 541 p. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

The Game of Kings cover

This novel is set in the times of what the father of the historical novel Sir Walter Scott dubbed the “Rough Wooing” (a phrase Dunnett never uses in the book) which started when Henry VIII of England wished for a marriage between the infant Queen of Scots, Mary, and his son Edward (VI of England) in order to unite the two kingdoms and so prevent any military threat through England’s back door. The Scots, longtime allies of England’s perennial enemy France, were somewhat unwilling to oblige Henry in this regard, and so a series of wars and invasions began, which in the novel are being promulgated in Edward’s name by Lord Seymour, Duke of Somerset, England’s Lord Protector during Edward’s minority.

Our hero is Francis Crawford of Lymond, Master of Culter, a younger son at odds with his older brother, though his mother’s favourite. We find him newly returned to Scotland from enforced exile (not to mention a term as a galley slave,) the leader of a band of border outlaws, the states of both Scotland and England having a price on his head (in particular he is thought to have betrayed Scotland, as a result contributing to the disaster that was the Battle of Solway Moss five years in this story’s past,) as a young red-headed aristocratic lad called Will Scott of Kincurd, heir to Sir Walter Scott of Buccleuch, turns up wishing to join his band.

Lymond is outrageously accomplished, a master swordsman and archer, who litters his speech with Latin epithets and quotations from both French and German, speaks Spanish, has a firm grasp of psychology and can outthink and outdrink anybody – the last being handy when you’re the leader of a band of outlaws. To put it another way, in the words of Chris Tarrant on Tiswas parodying Eamonn Andrews in This is Your Life, he is, “a right clever dick if ever there was one”. He is not unaware of this and neither is Dunnett as at one point she has him say, “‘Nothing arouses suspicion quicker than genuine, all round proficiency.’”

I confess it got a bit wearing in the earlier parts of the book when every mysterious “new” character turned out to be Lymond in some disguise or other (or, in one instance, as an amnesiac.) Whatever, incident is packed on incident, scrape on scrape, as the plot unfolds Lymond’s efforts to uncover the Englishman who might clear his name.

However, Dunnett has, while foregrounding the lives of Lymond and his family, also, almost quietly, ticking away in the background, provided a primer in the politics and strife of the time. This, indeed, is the sort of story nations need periodically to tell themselves so that they keep their histories alive.

And some things never change. An Englishman tells Lymond, “I don’t want to become part of the Holy Roman Empire, and it wouldn’t do Scotland any good either. You’re a threat to three million people out of all proportion to your size. You can’t expect us to leave you alone, to siphon up the dregs of Europe and inject them into our backside.” Substitute EU for Holy Roman Empire and fifty-five for three million and you’ve just about got the present day situation. As a rejoinder Lymond says, “‘You haven’t seen what your late king managed in the way of practical persuasion, with Somerset following ….. abbeys brought to the ground, villages annihilated by the hundred, a nobility decimated, a country brought to poverty which thirty years ago was graced above any other in Europe with the arts of living.” To the suggestions that French domination is inevitable if Mary marries the Dauphin and that the Auld Alliance had done Scotland little good, “‘Look at Flodden,’” Lymond replies, “‘France has too many commitments to spare enough troops to rule Scotland. Good lord, if England can’t do it, then France isn’t likely to.’”

On the subject of patriotism Lymond is scathing. It’s “‘a fine hothouse for maggots. It breeds intolerance; it forces a spindle-legged, spurious riot of colour ….. A man of only moderate powers enjoys the special sanction of purpose, the sense of ceremony, the echo of mysterious, lost and royal things; a trace of the broad, plain childish virtues of myth and legend and ballad…. He wants advancement – what simpler way is there? Patriotism. It’s an opulent word, a mighty key to a royal Cloud-Cuckoo-Land …… a vehicle for shedding boredom and exercising surplus power or surplus talents or surplus money; an immature ignorance which becomes the coin of barter in the markets of power.’” I am with the Lord Advocate, Henry Lauder, who says to Lymond, “‘Preserve us from the honest clod and the ambitious fanatic.’” There are too many of those, in any time.

Dunnett definitely aspires to fine writing. Lymond’s allusions are the least of it. “‘I wish to God,’ said Gideon with mild exasperation, ‘that you’d talk – just once – in prose like other people.’” Many chapter headings refer to obscure moves in chess and the text is littered not only with quotations and epithets but a good dose of uncommonly used or obsolete words (how about aposteme, or concamerate, or escharotic?) but actually not very many Scots ones. When she stops to take breath Dunnett is particularly adept in description of scenery or atmosphere but for me there was not quite enough of that and a bit too much of the swashbuckling derring-do about the project. But her characters are well drawn, the intrigue and politics intricately laid out. It’s a good read if a little over-wordy (but in that it’s not in the class of Sir Walter Scott, novelist.)

Throughout, though, I couldn’t shake off the feeling (and the dénouement only emphasised the thought) that however much Lymond appears to be Dunnett’s vehicle the tale is really that of Will Scott of Kincurd.

Pedant’s corner:- “dead right” (dead is here used in dialogue as an emphasiser to mean completely or absolutely. In the 1400s?) knit (knitted,) vocal chords (it’s cords; vocal cords.) “The progress of Sybilla though a market” (through a market,) “as Flaw Valleys’ near the border” (Flaw Valleys is a farm so, “as Flaw Valleys is near the border”,) “genetically speaking” (in dialogue in the fifteenth century? Imre Festetics was the first to use the term genetic, 300 years later,) Portugese (Portuguese,) peripetia (peripeteia?) Bowes’ (Bowes’s; apart from the one below other names ending in s are rendered …s’s elsewhere,) accolyte (the correct “acolyte” appeared later,) vivesection (vivisection,) Berick (Berwick,) Stokes’ (Stokes’s,) olefactory (olfactory,) insifflating (insufflating?) subsaltive (subsultive?) catachumen (catechumen.)

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