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Pawn in Frankincense Reader’s Guide

By Dorothy Dunnett

Pawn in Frankincense by Dorothy Dunnett


The questions, discussion topics, book descriptions, and author biography are designed to enhance your group’s reading and discussion of Dorothy Dunnett’s six bestselling novels in the Lymond Chronicles. We hope they will enrich your experience of these imaginative and adventuresome works of historical fiction.

First set in sixteenth-century Scotland following a disastrous war with England, the Lymond novels have as their hero Francis Crawford of Lymond, a nobleman and soldier of fortune possessed of a scholar’s erudition, an elastic sense of morals, and the tongue of a poet. The six novels take this compellingly charismatic figure on a perilous and colorful tour through the glittering courts and power centers of sixteenth-century Europe.

To these novels, Dorothy Dunnett brings an effortless narrative mastery, in-depth human portraiture, and an uncanny ability to reanimate the past. The Lymond novels are works of marvelous intelligence and pure enchantment, adventures for both the heart and mind.


Fourth in the legendary Lymond Chronicles

Lymond cuts a desperate path across the Ottoman Empire of Suleiman the Magnificent in search of a kidnapped child, although finding that child may place the Scots adventurer irrevocably in the power of his enemies.

What ensues is a subtle and savage chess game whose gambits include treachery, enslavement, and torture and whose final move, played within the harem of the Topkapi palace, compels Lymond to make an unthinkable choice–and face the darkest ambiguities of his own nature.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. For discussion of Pawn in Frankincense

  In Pawn in Frankincense Lymond searches the Mediterranean for the child of Oonagh O’Dwyer, using as his cover the delivery of a special "gift" from the king of France to Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. In Chapter Two we see the gift described (among other things) as "grisly . . . sickening . . . revolting." What is the gift? How does it figure in the plot? Does it also serve as a symbolic representation of Lymond himself?

2. This is in some ways the most exotic of the six novels, giving us silkworms, giraffes and leopards, opium, pearls, and "qahveh" (coffee), Algiers, Thessalonika, and Stamboul. What is the novel’s general attitude toward the East? For what covert purposes does the mysterious Kiaya Khátún engineer Philippa’s journey through Greece and into Topkapi? What are the equally mysterious Marthe’s covert purposes in her journey? In what sense, or senses, is the exotic but certainly Western-born Marthe "at home" in the East?

3. Lymond and Gabriel have been opposing "knights": how does it amplify, complete, or even critique their long contention to see them also as chess masters in the novel’s climactic human chess game? What are the implications of Lymond’s tragic last move? How does this moment recall some of the Dame de Doubtance’s statements and prophecies to Lymond in Chapter Two?

For discussion of the Lymond Chronicles

1. The hero of a long series of historical novels, like the hero of a crime or detective series, lives properly in a milieu of struggle and physical violence and is likely to be the object of this violence over and over. Yet, of course, he must survive it if the series is to continue: "Popular resurrections are a tedious pastime of Francis’," says Lady Lennox in Queens’ Play, trying to recover from yet another reappearance by the handsome nemesis she had thought was dead. What are the most interesting or important examples of the deaths and resurrections of Francis Crawford in the series? How and for what purpose do such scenes play with the feelings of the reader?

2. In its various travels and stories, the Lymond Chronicles encompass several religious systems–Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Russian Orthodox Christianity, as well as several forms of the Islamism of the Ottoman Empire. What is the series’ attitude toward religion, religious institutions, and authentic spirituality? What do figures like the Dame de Doubtance, John Dee, and Michel de Nostradamus–astrologers and scientists, mystics and psychologists–represent in this respect?

3. Over the length of the Lymond Chronicles the protagonist must withstand the attacks of three powerful antagonists–Margaret Lennox, Graham Malett, and Leonard Bailey. How do these figures of evil differ in their reasons for wanting to possess or destroy Francis Crawford? Does the manner of their deaths or downfalls seem particularly appropriate to their characters?

4. As the secrets of the Crawford family structure surface one by one, through the very last few pages of the last novel, the questions raised in the first novel about Francis Crawford’s relationship with his father, his brother, and his sister acquire disconcerting new dimensions. What new father, brother, sister does he need to integrate into his understanding of his family? One thing never changes, however–the centrality of his relationship to his mother for his psyche, his sexuality, even his politics. What by the end do we think of Sybilla Semple Crawford?

5. The essence of a good historical novel is its capacity to create colorful scenes for pure entertainment value, while also offering shrewd characterization, complex plot evolution, and acute political and social insight. Is the comedy of a scene like the feast and fight at the Ostrich Inn in Part II of The Game of Kings, for instance, a good balance for the pure thrill of the swordfight and chase into Hexham in Part IV? How do these scenes illuminate character, plot, and relationships?

About this 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 has published 20 books to date, including the six-part Lymond Chronicles and the ongoing Niccolo Series. Also an accomplished professional portrait painter, Dunnett has exhibited at the Royal Scottish Academy on many occasions and has had portraits commissioned by a number of prominent public figures in Scotland.

She has also led a busy life in public service. In the past, she has been 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 has also served on numerous cultural committees, and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. In 1992 she was awarded the Office of the British Empire for services to literature. She lives in Scotland and has two sons and one grandson.
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