Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett

If you’re a logophile, a lover of words, you’re bound to like this beginning book to a five volume series, set in sixteenth century (1547) Scotland. The hero/villain of the tale, Francis Crawford of Lymond, is a veritable fount of words, a repository of language, a giddy young man with a facile and garrulous tongue. Here are just a few of the beguiling, beauteous, buxom words I descried in the course of reading this historical fiction adventure:

Enteric: of or pertaining to the enteron; intestinal.
Decorticating: to remove the bark, husk, or outer covering from.
Damascened: of or pertaining to the art of damascening (to produce wavy lines on Damascus steel).
Decumbiture: Confinement to a sick bed, or time of taking to one’s bed from sickness.
Peripetia: a sudden turn of events or an unexpected reversal, especially in a literary work.
Yaffle: another name for green woodpecker, imitative of its cry.
Parure: a matching set of jewels or ornaments.
Sphacelate: To develop or produce gangrenous or necrotic tissue.
Hebetude: the state of being dull; lethargy.
Bauchly: in an inferior or substandard way
Cibation: The act of taking food; (Alchemy) The process or operation of feeding the contents of the crucible with fresh material.
Predicant: preaching.
Talion: lex talionis; exaction of compensation in kind.
Thrawnness: twistedness; crookedness; distortion.
Snib: a bolt, catch, lock, or fastening on a door or window.
Encysted: to enclose or become enclosed in a cyst.
Frangible: easily broken; breakable.
Corium: Anatomy, Zoology , dermis. (skin?)
Probang: a long, slender, elastic rod with a sponge, ball, or the like, at the end, to be introduced into the esophagus or larynx, as for removing foreign bodies, or for introducing medication.
Roulade: a musical embellishment consisting of a rapid succession of tones sung to a single syllable.
Crapulence: sick from gross excess in drinking or eating.
Fossa: a pit, cavity, or depression, as in a bone.
Hackbut: harquebus; any of several small-caliber long guns operated by a matchlock or wheel-lock mechanism, dating from about 1400.
Squab: a nestling pigeon, marketed when fully grown but still unfledged.
Calx: the oxide or ashy substance that remains after metals, minerals, etc., have been thoroughly roasted or burned.
Columbarium: a sepulchral vault or other structure with recesses in the walls to receive the ashes of the dead.
Pannage: pasturage for pigs, esp in a forest; acorns, beech mast, etc, on which pigs feed.
Sudorific: causing sweat; diaphoretic.
Insifflating: (insufflating?) to blow or breathe (something) in; to breathe upon, especially upon one being baptized or upon the water of baptism.
Canescent: covered with whitish or grayish pubescence, as certain plants.
Barghest: a legendary doglike goblin believed to portend death or misfortune.
Fugitation: Scots law, a judicial declaration of outlawry; the act of fleeing.
Escharotic: producing a scab, especially after a burn
Limmer: chiefly Scottish, scoundrel.

Yes, Mr. Crawford and I are both a little drunk on words. But there’s a story here, too, a plot just as labyrinthine and inscrutable as the conversation and the literary allusions that the characters strew about with merry abandon. And some intriguing characters, especially Mr. Crawford of Lymond himself. If you love Scotland and its history, if you love language, if you’re fond of old-style romantic adventures like The Three Musketeers or The Scarlet Pimpernel, if you like dashing young rakish heroes, medieval conspiracy and intrigue, and literary and philosophical allusions galore, you might very well relish The Game of Kings.

By the way, I wondered throughout the book if the words themselves were actually historically accurate: in other words, could a man living just after the death of Henry VIII in Scotland use all of the words that Crawford of Lymond uses? It would be difficult for a writer of historical fiction to be completely, historically accurate in terms of language, and sadly I figured out that Ms. Dunnett is not. At one point Master Crawford sarcastically tells his brother who is handling his poor, wounded body rather roughly, “I enjoy sadism, too.” Unfortunately, in a strike against historically accurate language, Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade, from whose name the word “sadism” is taken, didn’t live until the latter half of the eighteenth century. And several of the words that are defined above were dated in the online dictionary as coming into the language after 1600. Oh, well, you can enjoy the inundation of words and story in this novel anyway, without worrying about whether each word or phrase that Francis Crawford of Lymond uses would have actually been available to him. Lymond is a regular Shakespeare: he makes up his own appellations when the common tongue of the time period fails him.

I’m planning to proceed to the reading of the second book in the series, Queen’s Play, just as soon as I can get a copy from the library. It’s about the child, Mary, Queen of Scots, in France, as Lymond of Crawford works to guard Mary’s and Scotland’s interests in the court of French King Henri II and his queen Catherine de’Medici.

4 thoughts on “Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett

  1. I’ve had a couple of people recommend Dunnett’s series to me. Unfortunately I can’t find it at any of my local (small town) libraries (3). Is it weird I don’t want to spend money on fiction? Anyway, I will keep looking, fingers crossed for a good kindle deal, maybe? :)

  2. It’s actually a 6 book series. And yes, there are severel uses by characters of words that would not be known at the time. But then, most of the characters in GoK would have been speaking Scots rather than English anyway. I hope you enjoy Queens’ Play.

  3. With regard to accuracy, you need to look beyond online dictionaries as they are not always good. For example, the word thrawn. In context I think you’ll find it means being stubborn or perverse. It is a word that is still in use today…

    Enjoy the remaining 5 books.

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