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The River Clyde

The River Clyde
The River Clyde Near Midculter in Lanarkshire

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Opening Gambit

Opening Moves
August 1547

I love the opening sentence. This is, to me, DD's three-word "Melville" opening ("Call me Ishmael.") She has a definite "Jane Austen opening" to a later book. 

Francis Crawford is "back," but from where and from what? We get some hints here in the first chapter that there is quite a back story for our man. We learn early on that he is  an outlaw and rebel facing a death warrant.

Even so, his own men are waiting for him inside a walled city "without concern," merely wondering among themselves how, not if, he'll get to them. When he does, he rapidly assimilates two months' news "in voracious detail." 

His first spoken word in the book is "I." Not surprising...Francis definitely has an Ego. He immediately speaks in literary allusions, invoking classical mythology. He comes across as more than a little precious. In fact, when we first meet him he reminds me of The Scarlet Pimpernel. DD said that she liked the writings of the Baroness Orczy, and I think FC owes more than a little to this character. 

What is important to remember about this brief introductory scene with Lymond is how little he says and what little he he does say is decorated with verbal rosettes around a core of plain, practical speech: "Tell me again, precisely, what you have just said about Mungo Tennant." Francis can be a verbal magician, distracting us with the linguistic equivalent of sleights of hand while he pulls not a rabbit but a scorpion out of his hat. He's created a persona to disguise who he is, and language is the most important part of that disguise.

Edinburgh Castle

Erskine, Buccleuch, & Mungo

The discussion between Tom Erskine and Wat Scott of Buccleuch (pronounced Buck-Loo): Richard Crawford, Francis's older brother, is under suspicion by "the court" and every landowner in the area because of Francis. Francis has done something (maybe a lot of somethings) to bring discredit to his family. Richard will potentially suffer because of little brother's "rieving and ruttery and all manner of vice--And treason." Oh my. Robbery and fornication are bad enough, but the really worrisome accusation is treason. This is the crux of the matter.

Still, Richard thus far has refused to participate in hunting Francis down. 

Lymond's way of "introducing" himself to Mungo, Erskine, and Buccleuch is by way of "a sneeze outside the door." Was the sneeze intentional or accidental? I am confident it was part of Francis's plan because consider what happens after the sneeze: it draws the three men out of their chamber and two doors down to Mungo's bedroom. In short, he uses the sneeze to draw them to him where he confronts them on his terms, not theirs.

Notice the first thing Francis says to Mungo, Erskine, and Buccleuch. It's a quotation. Throughout GoK, much (maybe most?) of what comes out of Francis Crawford's mouth are someone else's words. He spouts quotations, he employs literary and mythological allusions, he does almost anything to avoid speaking in his own voice. It's all part of his deliberate dissembling, the reasons for which will only slowly be revealed.

I've read that some people cannot get past the pig incident. If it bothers you (which I really don't understand), consider this: Francis has a devilish sense of humor and is a notorious trickster. His devices for success and survival (often one and the same) are never the expected approaches. He thinks of stratagems no one else would imagine, drunk or sober, which helps account for his still being alive and a free man. The drunk pig incident is an insight into his off-beat sense of humor, his love of the theatrical, and his unique approach to problem-solving. 

Here, the problem he needs to solve is how to create such chaos in Mungo's house that he, Francis, can slip away with all of Mungo's booty (except the heavy barrels of wine). Also, Francis wants Buccleuch and Erskine to know that he is indeed back in Scotland, on the loose, and unreformed.

At this point, we know Lymond is definitely a thief because he stole Mungo's property, which, however, was contraband in the first place. Notice Francis held the men at sword point and the only person who got hurt was a servant who was knocked out. No one was killed or seriously injured. 

Pay attention to colors: you will see Francis's eyes described as "cornflower blue" many times. There will be others with the same color eyes. Important clue. So is the color and texture of his hair. Look, this man is gorgeous. Really gorgeous. People play the "casting" game trying to find a worthy FC, but I haven't seen one yet. A very young Peter O'Toole comes close, but still isn't quite the Lymond in my mind's eye. This is the closest image I've seen, but it really only hints at the man whose face we can't quite see...But the hair is definitely right!

In the encounter with Mariotta, Francis refers to the "family coloring." Richard doesn't have it. Richard's eyes are gray; his hair is brown; in fact, he is often associated with the color brown. Richard is stocky, solid, large. Think Russell Crowe. Francis (and Sybilla) are delicate, slender, rather small. Although Francis is not short, he is definitely not a tall man.

The Reformers

Any novel set in Europe in the mid-16th century is inevitably going to deal to a greater or lesser degree with the Reformation. What was happening to the church and thus to the entire fabric of society was as significant as the Pope crowning Charlemagne Emperor more than 700 years earlier. This was upheaval of the first order. It changed everything. The importance of these religious figures will become more evident in later books. For now, it's worth paying attention to who they were and why the break with Roman Catholic church was so monumental. 
Like Francis, she has the cornflower blue eyes, fair skin, and elegance of speech and demeanor. I think it's interesting that she "effaced herself as well as she could," which tells me she and her rascal of a younger son probably have a lot in common, including more than a slight tendency to show off. Sybilla is older and more experienced; she has learned more self-control than Francis (she has had longer to practice).

Sybilla is revealed to be much like Francis by other things in this section. Before he and his men invade the Hall, Sybilla is the middle of a long, grave story provoking much mirth (Francis is a great story teller). She remains completely unruffled during and after the attack on Midculter, something very few people could pull off. She verbally assaults Francis while he holds her and her guests at sword point (Francis is known for his viper's tongue).

And Lymond's mother keeps her own council. We do not know at this point what she thinks of her roguish younger son or even if she has had any communication with him since he returned to Scotland. Or before. Everything she says about Francis seems strangely detached, as if she were speaking about a specimen under a microscope instead of her son: "this criminal has cheated his way out of favour with every party in Europe." In short, he's burned every bridge, perhaps even the last one to his family. We just don't know.


The scene on the wheel staircase with Mariotta--oh, so interesting. Mariotta has never seen Francis nor has he seen her. Both are known to each other by reputation only, and Lymond has quite the reputation as a rogue and a scoundrel. He is the classic "bad boy" and she is married to the classic "good man"--reliable and honorable but staid and a bit boring; handsome but certainly not gorgeous.

Mariotta is black-haired, young, and beautiful. Francis is golden-haired, young, and beautiful. Both are fully aware of their appeal. There is a lot of sexual tension between these two from the moment they meet. He even asks if she believes in having two husbands at once (polyandry). 

So what the heck is Francis up to flirting shamelessly with his brother's bride? He comes off as a offensive, narcissistic ass. She comes off as more than a little juvenile (she almost simpers). Lymond is using his excessive charm to attract Mariotta to him while at the same time harassing her. He is behaving very, very badly. The question is why?

One more note on Mariotta: why on earth did Richard Crawford, the third Baron Culter, scion of an old, noble Scottish family and a strong Scottish nationalist marry an Irishwoman? There will be a bit more about the circumstances of the marriage in later books, but there is no answer to this question as far as I can tell. I read somewhere that the original draft of GoK included Sybilla traveling to Ireland with Richard, possibly with the express purpose of finding him a bride, but why, I have no idea. Why wouldn't Sybilla, with her passionate love of country, want Richard to marry a Scot? I've never read any answer to this question.

Richard & Christian

Now we meet the elder brother, who has to listen to Wat Scott harangue him about the feared coming war with the English and how Richard needs to dispel the doubts about his loyalty by turning on his brother. 

Thanks to Wat Scott, we learn that Lymond was accused of treason against Scotland five years ago and ever since has been living the life of a criminal across Europe. Buccleuch also gives us a good if biased overview of the current political scene. In short, the English want to control Scotland and they have co-opted (at least temporarily) a number of Scottish lairds with money and land. The fondest hope of the English is the marriage of the "baby" queen of Scots to the boy King Edward VI as a way of linking Scotland to England and severing once and for all the Scottish alliance with France. Scott also introduces the Douglases, who will be important throughout the books. "George Douglas's loyalty is to his own house and the devil." That's a pretty neat summary of the Douglases, I'd say.

Christian Stewart is introduced to us as a sensitive, intelligent, and highly intuitive woman. She listens to the opprobrium ladled on Lymond with "concern and understanding." After absorbing all that Buccleuch has to say to Richard, she descends the stairs "with debate in the unseeing eyes." She is not sure what to think. Her innate intelligence and keen judgment are important at critical points in the story. Much will turn on the choices she makes.

Drama Enters

The scene where Lymond enters the Hall at Midculter is pivotal. Now we see him at his outrageous worst (or best, depending on your point of view). What happens in this scene:
  • FC enters with drawn sword.
  • He announces he and his men are here to rob the castle and the ladies and threatens them ("your lives or your jewels").
  • Janet Buccleuch throws a pudding at one of FC's men and takes his dagger. Janet is Walter Scott of Buccleuch's wife.
  • FC throws his own dagger across the room and hits Janet in the shoulder.
  • FC's men set fire to the castle.
Throughout the robbery, Lymond keeps up a steady flow of commentary, primarily about himself. In fact, he reinforces his already frightful reputation as an outlaw and villain beyond redemption and above fear. He does everything he can to portray himself as fully deserving of censure and condemnation. Except for the injury to Janet, which only occurred because she grabbed a dagger, no one is injured.

We get an interesting insight into Mariotta as she rises to the occasion by trying to touch "some frail nerve" in Francis: "Long ago instinct told Mariotta he was fully aware of one thing": his mother, whom he will not look at. Sybilla remains remarkably cool for someone who supposedly has not seen her reprobate son for years and whose home has been invaded and guests robbed by sword-wielding (and probably inebriated) ruffians. 

Is she deceiving with the truth when she says, "What we see is acting, isn't it Francis?" Sybilla also claims, when Richard arrives to save Midculter, that Francis is "magnificently drunk," but is he or is that part of the deception?

What has happened as a result of Lymond's attacks, first on Mungo Tennant and then on his own home? Richard Crawford is now convinced to join the effort to hunt down his brother and bring him to justice, but only after the latest conflict with the English is past.

Last Thoughts

By the end of Opening Gambit Francis Crawford comes across as arrogant, dangerous, self-centered, audacious, outrageous--and hilariously funny. The entire exchange with Mariotta is extremely comical: "Watch carefully. In forty formidable bosoms we are about to create a climacteric of emotion. In one short speech--or maybe two--I propose to steer your women through excitement, superiority, contempt, and anger." 

At this point in my first reading of GoK, I didn't know what to think of Francis, but given that the series is about him, I knew there must be more to him than the reckless reprobate we meet in the first chapter.

Questions to Ponder

  1. How old do you think Francis Crawford is?
  2. Why won't Francis look at his mother during the robbery?
  3. Why does Francis tell his mother to call him Lymond?
  4. Why does Francis rob the ladies at Midculter and set fire to the castle?
Favorite Line

"Lucent and delicate, Drama entered, mincing like a cat." Meow!

Words that Describe Lymond in Opening Gambit
  • acerbic
  • sarcastic
  • charismatic
  • willful
  • audacious
  • arrogant
  • clever
  • witty
  • narcissistic
  • erudite
  • obnoxious
  • devious
  • gorgeous
  • duplicitous


  1. Argh no! I can feel the web of obsession tightening. These books will be the death of me, I swear.

    That aside, I adored reading this <3
    Isn't the opening allusion great? I don't have the book here, but from memory it was something like, "I," said Lymond, in the honeyed voice that was distinctly his, "I am a Narwhal looking for my virgin."
    The Narwhal is of course the unicorn whale, unicorn being a symbol of scotland, which is something of an obscure announcement as to his true loyalties. Unicorns are wild, fearsome creatures, tameable only by virgins. Seems like a bit of a challenge. :)

  2. Yes, you got that quote right! I think is a good place to say "foreshadowing" is also in play, but I really do not want to spoil the series for anyone!

  3. thank you for this blog! Just started reading this book and this will help me quite a bit.

  4. Thank you--it's still a work in progress. I appreciate your comment.

  5. I know this is an old blog, but I am so pleased I found it x Thank you

    1. I'm so glad you did. It's old, but luckily Dunnett will never go out of fashion. Thanks.