“They had Nicholas”: Dorothy Dunnett, The Spring of the Ram
The truth was, Tobie supposed, that some of them wanted more than a leader, so that disappointment came hard. Toys; toys for the pillow. It was true; they were wrong. A team was one thing; a family was bound by something quite different. What they had was, indeed, enough to be thankful for. Whatever it meant, they had Nicholas.
The Spring of the Ram is the second in Dorothy Dunnet’s ‘House of Niccolò’ series. After I read the first volume, Niccolò Rising, last summer, I wondered how far it was my fault that “I was so incapable of following the multiple threads that make up Dunnett’s incredibly intricate pattern.” I had even more trouble with that this time: indeed, it seemed to me that Dunnett was being more opaque and enigmatic even than usual, tossing out teasers and hints, having the characters share knowing glances or experience moments of insight that were not explicated on my behalf until the end of the novel. As I also realized reading Nicola Griffith’s Hild, though, in the hands of a skilled story-teller comprehension isn’t always necessary to appreciation: Dunnett has a genius for making the individual crises rise above the contextual chaos, so that even though I couldn’t grasp the nuances of motivation or political machination that lay behind Nicholas’s actions, my interest in their outcome rarely flagged. Like the “reveals” at the end of a Sherlock Holmes mystery, Dunnett’s denouements show us the hand and the mind of the master that has been at work the whole time — hers, and her protagonists’.
Like Niccolò Rising, The Spring of the Ram has a slow burn: Dunnett takes her time setting up her pieces, and she also luxuriates in detailing the world through which they will make their moves. For the patient reader, there are abundant readerly delights in this process. Open to almost any page in The Spring of the Ram and you’ll get vivid, tactile description that brings to life a foreign world — unfamiliar in color, sound, smell, texture, distant in both time and place — in this case, particularly Trebizond, center of the fading Byzantine Empire, its glories on display here for the celebration of Easter:
The standards were made of crimson satin, heavily fringed, and the standardbearers and musicians wore the same colour. The horses had manes white as silk, bound with ribbons and tassels; and golden harness and beaded caparisons, and saddles studded with silver. The riders wore crowns and diadems looped and strung and fringed with fine jewelled chains, and had shining hair in every colour from bright gold to black. Their robes, narrow as grave clothes, were armoured with precious stones; with gorgets and belts and bands of ancient gems, thick as crabs. Their backs were straight; their bodies were slender as dancers’; their faces were masks of symmetrical beauty. They reached the plateau of the monastery and began to pass round its walls, while the murmuring silence was pierced by the abrupt clamour of trumpets. There was a pauses. A body of scent began to move through the air, displacing the incense. Where it came from, you could see the gleam of cloth of gold, and a sparkle where drifts of jewels fathered in shadow. . . .
Heralds and standards came first; and then young boys and maidens throwing yellow spring flowers. A golden-haired boy of a beauty she had never imagined walked next, dressed in ivory silk, a gilded bow in his hand. Behind, pacing slowly between his confessors, was the Emperor. In the crook of his right arm the Imperial crosier lay like a lily. Over his left was wrapped a swathe of the long, elaborate pallium. Above the tunic, the dalmatica, the silken eagles woven in purple and gold, she saw a noble profile, calm and resolute beneath the tall stiffened gold of the mitra. From the rim of the crown, strings of light pearls fell to the jewelled yoke on his broad shoulders, and mixed with the loose curling gold of his hair and his beard. Behind him, the train of men and women and youths, of officials and nobles and churchmen stretched far off through the trees.
The action of the novel rises to its climax with the Siege of Trebizond by the Ottomans in 1461. This provides the ultimate occasion to display the emergent power of our hero Nicholas, who began the series as a raw, unruly apprentice but who by the end of this novel is taking a confident place among Dunnett’s pantheon of charismatic leaders. In some respects The Spring of the Ram is an intensely personal story about this development, played out against the malevolent will of the nasty scheming Simon St. Pol, who may be Nicholas’s father, as well as against the quietly moving story of Nicholas’s unlikely love for his wife, Marian de Charetty, left behind while he risks everything for her company and also for her wayward daughter. But Dunnett’s people are also always agents, or representatives, of historical forces, and by the end of The Spring of the Ram we understand that the decisions Nicholas has been making about where to bestow his loyalty, his gifts, and his trade affect not only himself, his business, and his family, and his allies, but also the rise and fall of empires and faiths. “For a few weeks he had the power to choose,” says one of his company, once the hand has been played;
The future of the last Roman emperor of the East. He was forced to put a value on one of the world’s great civilizations. The blend of Rome and the Orient and the Hellenes that will never happen again. The Byzantine world that preserved Roman government and classical culture all through the ages when the Latin empire lay in ruins and was reduced, now, to one small, silly court with its beauties and its bath boys and its philosophers. And against that, the Turcoman horde. And stronger than both, the Ottoman Empire, enemy of all the Christian Church ever believed in.
This is Dunnett’s vision of history: extraordinary individuals inexplicably and exultantly of their moment, embodying “the spirit of the age” and yet, in her expert handling, never seeming anything less than human. In getting to know them, in getting caught up with them in commerce and battle but also in poetry, art, and philosophy, we are caught up in the excitement of the Renaissance as Dunnett feels it: as she says in her Author’s Note, “the explosion of exploration and trade, high art and political duplicity, personal chivalry and violent warfare in which a young man with a genius for organization and numbers might find himself trusted by princes, loved by kings, and sought in marriage and out of it by clever women bent on power, or wealth, or revenge — or sometimes simply from fondness.”
It’s an exhilarating vision, and sometimes also an exhilarating reading experience, but I have to admit that the pay-off for persisting through my confusion wasn’t as great with The Spring of the Ram as I’d hoped. We are repeatedly reminded that Simon’s agent, Pagano Doria, is a short man, which eventually seemed too pat for me as a signal that (clever as he is) he lacks Nicholas’s stature — he is not the fearsome antagonist that, for example, Gabriel Reid Malett is for Francis Crawford in the Lymond series. And Nicholas himself still seems lesser – paler, duller — than Lymond: he lacks the dangerous charisma and mercurial brilliance that make Lymond so fascinating to watch. We have to take Nicholas’s exceptionality much more on faith, so far: he carries out nearly as many tricks as Lymond, but without nearly as much conspicuous melodrama, and without displaying nearly as much passion (however vexingly conflicted), for truth, for honor, or for other people. The characters surrounding Nicholas also seem less distinct and less exciting than Lymond’s supporting cast: than Will Scott, or Jerott Blyth, or Archie — or Christian Stewart, or Oonagh O’Dwyer, or, especially Philippa. With four volumes to go in the series, there’s time for the ensemble to live up to my expectations, but at this point (and I readily admit this may be an unavoidable side-effect of my 30-year love affair with the other series) for all Dunnett’s manifest gifts ‘The House of Niccolò’ still feels a bit flat, my reading of it a bit forced, in ways I never experienced with the Lymond Chronicles.