The questions, discussion topics, historical background, and author biography are designed to enhance your group’s reading and discussion of Dorothy Dunnett’s eight bestselling novels in the House of Niccol?. We hope this guide will enrich your experience of these intriguing and adventuresome works of historical fiction.
The year is 1471. Within the circus of statecraft, where the lions of Burgundy, Cyprus, England, and Venice stalk and snarl, Nicholas wields a valued whip. Having wrested his little son Jordan from his estranged wife, Gelis, he embarks on the greatest business scheme of his life–beginning with a journey to Iceland. But while Nicholas confronts merchant knights, polar bears, and the frozen volcanic wastelands of the North, a greater challenge awaits: the vengeful Gelis, whose secrets threaten to topple all Nicholas has achieved. Here is Dorothy Dunnett at her best. Robustly paced, prodigiously detailed, To Lie with Lions renders the quicksands of Renaissance politics as well as the turnings of the human soul, from love to hate and back.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. For Discussion: To Lie with Lions
What are Nicholas de Fleury and Katelijne Sersanders to each other, really? What does each offer to, or release in, the other? What do you think the future holds for them?
2. What are the various motives for which his well-wishers persuade Nicholas to throw himself into designing the great Miracle Play at the novel’s center? What are Nicholas’s motives? Can you contrast Jody’s response to the play with Gelis’s eventual response? Why, of all the possible Miracles in the medieval playbook, is the Nativity such an appropriate story for the novel, and for Nicholas?
3. The journeys of Nicholas, since he first left his home in Bruges years ago, have up to this point been to the far East, or the far South. The most memorable and exotic journey in To Lie With Lions is to the far North. How does Dorothy Dunnett exploit the territory of Iceland–its geography, its history, its economics, its symbolic resonance–in the novel?
4. "A good man is as a tree, sheltering those of his blood whom he loves." Nicholas hears this brief allusion to family and future from the great scholar Cardinal Bessarion, and stricken, wishes it were true (ch. 36). Is it not true? Of his sons? Of the older men he believes are also of his blood? How do these shelterings deepen the potential for a tragic outcome under this "tree"?
5. Nicholas’s behavior to the king and country of Scotland causes the moral catastrophe that ends the novel: do you see any similarities or differences between this and the Emperor’s behavior to the Duke of Burgundy at the end of the novel? What grounds does Kathy have for hope at the end of the novel?
6. For Discussion: The House of Niccol?
Throughout the eight books of the House of Niccol? series a picture emerges of Sophie de Fleury, the mother of Nicholas, and of her centrality in the life of her son. Can you put this picture together now –the Sophie of rumor and gossip, the Sophie of Nicholas’s slowly revealed memories, of his maturer judgement, of Andro Wodman’s reporting? Are there still some mysteries and obscurities in this portrait?
7. The House of Niccol? series offers a sustained and in many ways highly sophisticated version of the changes in intellectual , political and psychological structures which mark the transition from the medieval to the modern world. But like any good set of historical novels it abounds too in individual scenes and characters of great emotional, dramatic, and visual power, or stylistic verve, "set pieces" which hang in the memory even longer, perhaps, than the plot or the author’s philosophy of history. What are some of your favorites here–scenes of comic impact or tragic illumination? Best-drawn villain or victim, most vexatious female adolescent? Most breathtaking fight or chase? Most engrossing moment of romance? Most stunning surprise?
8. At the opening of the second volume of the series, and at the closing of the last volume, the voice of an astrologer-character replaces that of the novelist-narrator. What do you make of this–some invitation to compare and contrast those two professions?
9. Some readers will have come to the Niccol? series after reading the Lymond Chronicles, to which they are a ‘prequel’; others have now finished the Niccol? series and will go on to the sequel, the Lymond Chronicles. What are some of the dividends of doing it the first way? The second way? How (after a reading of both) are these two heroes, these two worlds, these two intricate plots, alike and different?
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.