King Hereafter

King Hereafter

by Dorothy Dunnett


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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780375704031
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/28/1998
Pages: 736
Sales rank: 171,424
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.60(d)

About the Author

Dorothy Dunnett was born in 1923 in Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland. Her time at Gillespie's High School for Girls overlapped with that of the novelist Muriel Spark. From 1940-1955, she worked for the Civil Service as a press officer. In 1946, she married Alastair Dunnett, later editor of The Scotsman.

Dunnett started writing in the late 1950s. Her first novel, The Game of Kings, was published in the United States in 1961, and in the United Kingdom the year after. She published 22 books in total, including the six-part Lymond Chronicles and the eight-part Niccolo Series, and co-authored another volume with her husband. Also an accomplished professional portrait painter, Dunnett exhibited at the Royal Scottish Academy on many occasions and had portraits commissioned by a number of prominent public figures in Scotland.

She also led a busy life in public service, as a member of the Board of Trustees of the National Library of Scotland, a Trustee of the Scottish National War Memorial, and Director of the Edinburgh Book Festival. She served on numerous cultural committees, and was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. In 1992 she was awarded the Office of the British Empire for services to literature. She died on November 9, 2001, at the age of 78.

Read an Excerpt


When the year one thousand came, Thorkel Amundason was five years old, and hardly noticed how frightened everyone was. By the time Canute ruled England, Thorkel was nineteen and had heard as much about the old scare as he wanted, from the naked lips of men who might be able to read and to write, but who wouldn't know one end of a longship from the other.

He understood that folk had thought the Day of Judgement was coming, because a thousand years had passed since the White Christ was born, in that age when the Romans had conquered the world.

All the world, that is, except for the north.

The Romans had not conquered Denmark, or Norway, or Sweden. They had not conquered Ireland, or his own Orkney islands, or Iceland to his north. They had overcome England, beginning in the toe and pushing north until they stuck on the border of Alba and built their frontier wall there, stretching from sea to sea.

The barbarians who followed the Romans had learned all about the White Christ by the time that Charlemagne and the Pope had formed their big new Empire over the ocean. The Vikings who followed the barbarians liked the old gods.

Thorkel himself had always been partial to Thor. The priests had been amazed, so it was said, at the numbers who became tired of Thor as the year one thousand got nearer. Orkney declared for Christ overnight, followed by Iceland and all those bits of Norway the King could easily get at. Ireland and Alba, of course, had followed the Cross all along.

Alba, that men later called Scotland.

As a child, Thorkel Amundason had touched Alba often enough, on his father's trading-ship going to Dublin, or as part of a young man's crew looking for booty in England.

Alba he never attacked, nor did anyone else from Orkney or Norway. At the height of the Viking invasions, the King of Alba had found a way to buy peace. He had married his only daughter and heiress to the ruler of the Orkney islands, seven miles to his north, which long ago had been settled from Norway. And the baby born of that marriage he had made child-Earl of Caithness, his northernmost province, over which for uncountable years the Earls of Orkney and the Kings of Alba had squabbled.

The Orkney-Alban marriage lasted only six years. And when the Earl of Orkney was killed and his widow went back to Alba and married again, it was Thorkel Amundason who was chosen to train and protect the half-Orkney child, their only offspring. Thorkel was twenty, then.

Twenty, and ambitious. Twenty, and the only son of the greatest household in Orkney next to the Earls'.

For a while, the sight of Thorkel Amundason rearing a foster-son was the talk of Orkney. Girls who had good cause to know Thorkel's precise views on parenthood scoffed to each other over the dye-pots. Their fathers and brothers said less.

Then there came the day when one of the child's three older Earl-brothers died, and the other two suddenly noticed how openly critical Thorkel Amundason had become of their rule, and how keen to mention the rights of his fosterling, their half-Alban brother.

The joint Earls of Orkney did not like it. You might say that Thorkel Amundason was grooming the child for a large share of Orkney. You might even say that King Malcolm of Alba was abetting him. Without warning, Orkney became a dangerous place for Thorkel Amundason.

Thorkel removed himself and the child to Caithness and, from across seven miles of sea, continued his careful campaigning.

When he made his next move, he was twenty-five: handsome, eloquent, energetic-a born leader, men said. They admired the way Thorkel handled his foster-son, not chastising him as some might when the child ran off to Alba from time to time to visit his mother. In any case, Thorkel was not the man to upset the King, the child's Alban grandfather.

Thorkel's next move, everyone agreed, was a predictable one. He removed from life one of the joint Earls of Orkney. The chain of events which led up to the deed was quite complex, and the head of Earl Einar was cut off, in the event, by somebody else; but Thorkel assumed full responsibility, having long before weighed all the consequences.

Earl Einar's tax-ridden subjects, he knew, would hardly blame him. Earl Einar's surviving brother was not a man given to fighting. The King of. Norway, Orkney's occasional overlord, had fallen out with the dead Earl quite recently and wouldn't be hard on his murderer, provided that Thorkel got to court fast and explained himself.

To do so, Thorkel Amundason duly slipped out of Orkney, consigned the boy to his mother in Alba, and took ship for the Norse court at Nadar's, two sailing days to the east, on the north-western fringes of Norway.

Of course, King Olaf of Norway was displeased with Thorkel Amundason. He showed his disapproval in a bluff way all that winter, and forced Thorkel to stay for two months at the home of some cousins before finally granting him guest-room at court.

The reconciliation, when it came, was no more than Thorkel expected. He had worked hard at being agreeable. His cousins the Arnasons were favourites of the Norwegian King. The late joint Earl of Orkney was not a friend the King would feel drawn to mourn. Yule was over and spring lay ahead, and a carefree sail back home, bearing a reprimand and possibly one or two well-chosen gifts to stiffen his loyalty and that of his foster-son, the child-Earl of Caithness and Orkney.

That was the plan, until the brat wrecked it.


But for the Festival of the Spring Sacrifice, it would never have happened.

You could also blame the native stubbornness of the people round about Nadar's. That is, while King Olaf and his court were intoning Easter Masses at one end of the sea inlet, the Festival of the Spring Sacrifice was preparing to get under way at the other.

Hints of forthcoming revelry had come to Thorkel Amundason's ears, but he ignored them. His Norwegian cousins might whisper, but it was no business of his. He had suffered the herring of Lent, and the watery wine and the boredom of Bishop Grimkell's Saxon Latin: atonement could require nothing more. Let the Arnasons whisper: they lived here. In two weeks he hoped to be gone: away from Norway and back to Caithness and his foster-son. Back to plan for the future in Orkney.

Who told the King about the Festival of the Spring Sacrifice Thorkel did not discover, but he suspected his cousin Kalv Arnason. Kalv was short, and red-haired, and had no discretion. Everyone knew what winters in the north were like. After six months with his wife, no man still in his senses would miss the chance of exchanging his longfire for a week of feasting and trading, carousing and horse-fights and wenching, at the host-farm at the end of the fjord. It did no harm and kept everyone happy. Provided the King didn't hear of it.

The King heard of it on his way into church for the first Mass of the day, when he was hungry. Following him with his retinue into the big timber building, Thorkel saw that something was wrong and hoped it need not concern him. Thorkel was ready to go home, although he had been well entertained and lacked for nothing away from the table. He had brought his own women with him, among the slaves of his travelling household, and had not had to lend them out more than he expected. He prided himself, too, on a little success with the wives of the court. Coming from Orkney, he was well travelled, and had better manners than some of their husbands.

A wife was something he had never troubled to acquire for himself. No marriage, no legitimate sons could vouchsafe him such power as might this cross-bred Earl he was rearing for Orkney.

At the end of Mass, the King got up like a fish on a line, and everyone rose. The King was thickset for a man of twenty-seven, and of no very great height, but he had been fighting since he was twelve years old and was still in the peak of condition. No one knew what his baptismal name had been. That had been given during his roaring Viking days in Spain and Friesland and Rouen until the dream sent him back: the dream that said, Return, and you shall be king of Norway for ever.

And he had been King for four years, and kept his name, Olaf: the name of Norway's first missionary king, who had done his converting, also, with an axe.

The King's guests, considerately attending Mass with him, had no idea what they were about to be let in for. Herded with the rest into the royal drinking-hall, Thorkel Amundason watched as the King strode to the steps of the High Chair and, turning, began to declaim. Then, with well-concealed resentment, he heard what the King had to say.

The King intended that very day, he announced, to mount an expedition of his loyal and Christian subjects against those pagans of Sparbu and Eynar and Vaerdal and Skogn whose devilish rites were an offence against the White Christ and himself, as their overlord.

'With your help, my good Trondelagers,' said the King, 'and with the help of your friends, we shall launch a fleet of the Blessed against the heathen that will give Freya something to weep for.'

Those who didn't have metal about them reached up with their knife-handles and banged the shields hung on the wall. Thorkel applauded by kicking a barrel. Within a week of his escape, he had to risk his life and a blood-feud by helping King Olaf kill farmers at Sparbu.

Kalv his cousin was grinning. Kalv his red-headed cousin said, 'Why the frown, Thorkel? Everyone knows your skill with a sword. The late Earl Einar of Orkney could vouch for it. Enjoy yourself, collect some booty, and earn yourself King Olaf's favour. You may need it sooner than you might imagine.'

Hints from the Arnasons were as good as threats from anyone else. Thorkel said, 'What do you mean? I have the King's favour.'

'So you have,' said his cousin. 'But you don't know whose ship berthed an hour ago. He won't be expected to fight. But he'll be waiting here when the King comes back from Sparbu. Earl Brusi of Orkney is in Nadar's. You remember. You killed his brother last year.'

Thorkel smiled. 'In self-defence. Where is the crime? And with his brother gone, Earl Brusi is richer today by a third share of Orkney. I have no fear of Earl Brusi.'

The eyes of Kalv were round, pale-blue, and candid. 'Then why is he here?' Kalv enquired.

Because, thought Thorkel, that hell-begotten boy has been up to something. I should never have left him so long with his mother. I had to leave him or I should have been outlawed. I had to get King Olaf's pardon. I had to let Earl Brusi settle down to enjoy his two-thirds of Orkney and come to terms with his conscience. Brusi's not a short-tempered man: he'd never harm his little brother in Caithness. His little half-brother, Thorkel's foster-son. The interfering young fool who, instead of leaving everything to his elders, had done something stupid enough to bring Brusi here to complain.

'Why is Earl Brusi here? I can't imagine,' said Thorkel Amundason. 'Another wife perhaps, or a new swordsmith, or some timber? Some men always keep low stocks in Orkney.'

As soon as he could escape from Kalv, Thorkel began to enquire about Earl Brusi of Orkney. But men either knew nothing of him or were not prepared to tell what they knew. When the horns blew from the jetty for muster, Thorkel joined King Olaf's fleet of axe-armed crusaders, knowing little more than Kalv's hint had conveyed. Trouble might await his return. While he could, he should fight well for Olaf.

In the end, the Festival of the Spring Sacrifice had not even been started when five ships, led by King Olaf's own Charlemagne, skimmed noiselessly up the dark fjord and night-landed three hundred men to surround the great farm-house of Maere in Sparbu while the guests slept and the beasts moved in their pens and the wooden barns rustled with mice between the kegs of ale and butter and flour, the barrels of pork and of beef, the crates of salt fish and wadmoll and feathers, of seal oil and squirrel skins and all the other precious goods that the people of the north brought to sell and to barter.

There was an old wooden statue of Thor inside a stone hut, with the timber for a great fire built before it. King Olaf lit the pyre and led the shouting, so that the guests and household of Maere jumped from bed with their weapons and then shrank at the sight of the tightening ring of axe, spear, and arrow about them.

Afterwards, it was said that every one was taken prisoner, and that King Olaf ordered the execution of Ølve of Egge, the ringleader, and of many more besides. Certainly, while the wealth in the barns was loaded on to his ships, the King sent his men-at-arms abroad through the country to harry and plunder wherever a friend of Odin might be suspected.

Kalv Arnason asked for, and was given, Ølve's rich widow to marry, with her young sons and all her fine farmlands.

Thorkel Amundason took back to the ships a sword as red as the rest, having fought with his usual skill, avoiding the eyes of those Maere men with whom he was friendly. Nothing injured him, and he did not fail to congratulate Kalv before leaving.

He did not, like the rest of them, snore on the half-deck throughout the trip back, full of pork and new beer, with gold rings on his arms. Neither did his cousin Finn, Kalv's older brother. Finn said, 'Your little foster-son, the joint Earl of Orkney. Tell me about the boy.'

Tell him about the boy. The oars handed back the cold April air, and Thorkel elbowed his heavy cloak closer. 'Tell you what? You saw him last summer when King Olaf sent for him. He's no beauty.'

'Does it matter?' said Finn his cousin. 'When his mother's a princess of Alba? Do you find the boy difficult?' The front of Finn's tunic was patched like leather with someone else's old blood, blurred where he had tried to scrub it away. He was the most straightforward, so everyone said, of the Arnasons.

Thorkel raised a neatly trimmed eyebrow. Difficult? Are your daughters difficult? They stamp their feet and your nurse lifts her hand to them.'

'I hear he is attached to his mother's third husband,' Finn said, his soft blue eyes round as sea-pebbles. 'The province-ruler she married in Alba. Does the boy really care about Orkney? Will he want his share when you have got it for him? You've fostered him for seven years, but you never trouble to mention his name. What is it? Thorfinn?'

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King Hereafter 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 13 reviews.
BarbieA More than 1 year ago
I had this book in paperback, and it got destroyed when I had a flood in my downstairs room. I have hankered after it for years, and I am delighted to have it again. Dorothy Dunnett is a wonderful writer, and all of her books have a great amount of historical research. This is one of those books that deny Shakespear's historicity. Like Josephine Tey's "Daughter of Time" (I think the title is correct!) it shows that the Bard was limited by his place in time, and his rendering of history was the politically correct story in the Elizabethan and Tudor rulers. This book is a definite keeper. If you like this one, you might join me in requesting digital copies of her six books in the Lymond Chronicles!
BiblioShan More than 1 year ago
This was my entree into some of the best historical fiction out there. It is an amazing retelling of Macbeth that relies on the actual historical king whose legend inspired Shakespeare. Riveting and beautifully written.

Because her books read as though ritten in the in the era in which they are set, Dunnett be a bit daunting at times. For something just as wonderful, but written in a modern voice, check out "I Also Recommend..."
librisissimo on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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.
janoorani24 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
King Hereafter by Dorothy Dunnett is Lady Dunnett¿s exhaustively researched historical novel that postulates that Earl Thorfinn of Orkney and the historical Macbeth were one and the same man. Dunnett reached this conclusion after several years of study of every book she could find on the period (1000 ¿ 1060) as well as source documents found throughout Europe. The novel took six years to complete, and tells the story of the Viking leader of Orkney, Earl Thorfinn, and his eventual rise to power as King of Alba (Scotland). It is also the love story of Thorfinn and his wife Groa. The story tells of Thorfinn¿s consolidation of the Orkney Islands and the northern-most part of the mainland of Scotland, which he inherited from his father, and his eventual conquest of most of the rest of current Scotland. Incredible detail of the history of all of Northern Europe is provided throughout the novel. It¿s like reading a dwell-written history of the late Dark Ages and includes some of the early history of William the Conqueror, who is still only the Duke of Normandy when this story is set. The characters in this book are full of the life you would expect from a Dunnett character. I felt as if I could have reached out and touched any one of them. Perhaps that could be counted as a flaw, since I don¿t believe we would have much in common with a person living at that time in Europe, since they were probably very different from us psychologically. However, one feels a great deal of sympathy with the characters and this made the book very easy to read. Thorfinn and Groa are the main characters, but all of the secondary characters are great, too. It¿s a little hard to keep track of all of them at first, but I found it easier as the book went along and I got to know them better. King Hereafter was written after Dunnett completed the Lymond Chronicles and her plotting skills are well advanced here. She uses a lot of the same elements from her other historical novels, to include the betrayals and extreme loyalties of dear friends, a growing love between the two main characters, well choreographed action sequences, and breath-taking scenic descriptions. It contains all the nuanced delight in language of Dunnett¿s other books. Overall, this book is Dunnett¿s masterpiece. I savored every word and hope to have time to read it again someday. I like the Lymond Chronicles best of all of Dunnett¿s books, but this is an amazing work of scholarship disguised as a great novel.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I had never read Shakespeare's Macbeth, and really didn't know the story, in fact I thought he was just a fictitious character, so this was new territory for me. The book starts with so many Viking names and places I felt lost after a chapter or two. But, I persevered, and must say it was a very satisfying book. Dorothy Dunnett at her best. Reared from the age of 5 by a foster-father in the Orkneys, Thorfinn, the Earl of Orkney lives the hard but adventurous life in the north of early Scotland, surrounded by men of Viking-Celtic heritage. By the time he was 12 he was challenging the other Earl of Orkney, his half brother, and even the King of Norway. Grandson of King Malcome of Alba, we follow him in his late teens as he is held "hostage" by King Canute of England, where he learns of court life, and we learn his baptismal name of Macbeth. Returned home, through war Thorfinn becomes the Earl of Alba, acquires a bride as a war prize, and becomes the King of Alba, Earl of Orkney and Caithness. Groa, his wife and helpmate, remains with him for the rest of his life. The story is of a power struggle between religious and political forces, kings and earls struggling to control land, collect tribute, destroy enemies. The efforts of Thorfinn-Macbeth to unite the separate areas of Scotia by building roads and bridges, establishing a common justice and laws, developing trade centers, establishing farming practices, are what led him to become one of the great kings of history. And I am sorry it took me so long to learn about him.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
Dorothy Dunnett essentially writes swashbucklers for the thinking person, and this one is no exception. Her grasp of period detail and character development are the best I have seen. While the historical detail at times is a little overdone (the research involved in the writing of this- or any- of Dunnett's books is mind-boggling) the political descriptions of dark ages Europe build a background that lends urgency to the action and romance. Dunnett's gift for writing brilliant dialogue and her original and exciting scenarios for joking and fighting are well deomonstrated. Of all the books I have ever read, Dunnett's Lymond Chronicles rank the most highly, but this book shines almost as brightly, although in a different sort of light.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was a great read, involving a story with characters that are really believable and likable. The story isn't lacking in action or romance but unfortunately there is WAY too much detail about the political situations of the various countries at the time and it really hampers the pacing of the story. Otherwise it is a really fascinating look at a time in history (1030's) that isn't written about very often.