Monday, December 10, 2012

The Wider Picture

In the opening chapters of The Game of Kings we are not only introduced to a majority of the most important characters of this and the following novels, but we are constantly being asked to focus on intricate and remote details while also needing to understand the wider world that was at play in Dunnett's background. Dunnett has the series open in 1547 and it goes without saying the 16th century was a tumultuous period for all parts of Europe - as it was "poised delicately over a brand-new board, wait[ing] for the opening gambit." [1]

I admit this with a fairly high degree of blushing (I am not a chess player), but it did take me some time to also realize many of Mrs. Dunnett's 'clues' were embedded in the titles and chapter headings that were all alluding to chess - known as the game of kings due to its level of skill, resemblance of military tactics and political maneuverings. One must not forget that Dunnett is also, at some level, writing an historical novel alongside her adventure. She is not simply using history as a convenient backdrop where her characters are airbrushed into scenes, but they are intricately woven and bound to the societal mores and dictates of the 16th century. Can we expect our hero to be anything more or less than the product of his time for all of his high learning and capabilities?

(photo credit: Wikipedia)

History will teach us that the political, social, educational and economic world was changing in the 16th century and new definitions were emerging for what it meant to be an 'in man' - one who is dashing and cosmopolitan. And while Lymond sneaks back into Scotland with dramatic and fresh Continental European flair, with an emerging Renaissance style and attitude, he is still wrapped up in a political climate that has not yet adjusted or moved forward. Henry VIII in England is dying, yet the idea of absolute monarchy has reached a high in England (reminding all staunch Parliamentarians how close to tyranny a monarchy can get) and he has made a last-ditch effort to bring Scotland into the fold. We are not yet arrived at the days of revolutions or civil wars that show monarchs to be less than divine, though it is certainly beginning to be questioned.

Linlithdow Palace where Mary of Guise gave birth to Mary Queen of Scots 
(photo credit: Wikipedia)

France sits across the Channel with her secured dynasty and tightly-controlled courtiers, laden with money, unencumbered by religious turmoil and happily ensconced within the arms of the Roman Catholic Church - a mighty foe, indeed. More troublesome is the closeness that continues to be fostered between France and Scotland. It has been a long relationship between the two nations that had its beginnings long before Edward I turned his conquering eye in that direction back in the late 13th century. And Mary of Guise, of an old and powerful French nobility, has managed to give Scotland a baby girl that will one day be ruler. Isn't it a happy coincidence that Henry VIII finally managed to get himself a son that could unite the two countries, eventually strong-arming France out of the island nation's immediate political sphere?

A young Edward VI - one might question how he felt about his prospective Catholic family. 
(photo credit: Wikipedia)

Without a doubt, Europe is a bit tetchy. We can realize the familial drama beginning with Lymond's arrival in Scotland would be a headache, but when we combine that with the wider world at the time we can better understand why Richard Crawford is less than pleased to see his younger brother. It is a time all over Europe when alliances are strained, trust is always in doubt, double-dealing is an art and familial bonds are only secure as long as it is prudent. France, Scotland and Spain are watching as England moves from tyrant to boy-king, the Holy Roman Emperor is bogged down with troubles at home and in the East while trying to keep a pulse on the new situation and France is about to make an alliance with a wealthy but teetering Italian family, the Medici. And Rome is up-in-arms because an alliance between Protestant England and any iffy Scotland would mean one more country succumbing to the wickedness outside the Catholic Church. It is enough to make a modern researcher dizzy, but to have lived through it must have raised someone's blood pressure.

Scottish Lowlands - the area hotly contested between the English and Scots during this period
(photo credit:

The game of kings, indeed. One can fall into the lure of focusing on Lymond's course and behaviors and attempt to let the political backdrop become just a prop; but if we step back once in a while and realize the broader implications than the Lymond Chronicles can be an even bigger adventure. It is certainly possible to read and enjoy these books without all the background knowledge, but is much more fulfilling - in my mind - if we can achieve both a narrow and broad perspective.

Until next time..

1. Dorothy Dunnett, The Game of Kings (New York: Vintage Books, 1997): 31.

No comments: