Revisiting an old theory on the character, thinking, and development of Nicholas

I’m currently in the process of rebuilding the main website and while considering the structure of the content I realised that I’ve written very little here about the House of Niccolo compared to the substantial amount devoted to the Lymond Chronicles. I then remembered a piece I’d written on one of the email discussion groups many years ago and thought to look it out and see what I was thinking back then. It was in February 2000 and I had only read the first five books through Unicorn Hunt, but hadn’t yet started To Lie with Lions. (I would read that and Caprice and Rondo just in time for the release of Gemini.)

I had been thinking about a discussion thread that revolved around Nicholas as an “innocent”, and while considering some of the various arguments I’d come up with a tentative theory of Nicholas’ life and growth. In some ways this was an alternative to the “compartmentalised” theories that some readers had come up with, although there were aspects of those that I agreed with.
So here is that early theory of Nicholas and how he thinks and operates – wrapped in the chess metaphor that I used to illustrate it.


Nicholas as Chess Player

First of all I rather like the ideas mentioned in the original thread about Nicholas being an innocent in various different ways, and also the idea about each of the characters seeing Nicholas only in a way that they can relate to, but in particular my growing fondness for John Le Grant and his opinions has suggested something else.

I’m going to use a chess metaphor for this theory – it seems somehow appropriate and it’s an area I am obviously comfortable and experienced with and also allows me to relate my own character to Nicholas (hitherto I’ve tended to identify more with Francis – just wish I had his many skills in remotely the same abundance!) So I guess that means I get to make the same mistake as the characters!

To explain to those who don’t play chess in case they don’t get my drift: Different players play in different styles – there are those who are good all-round players but they are rare – usually players fall into two or three different camps.

Firstly there are those who have a natural or acquired feel for the positional side of the game and who naturally set up positions that are structurally sound before doing anything else. Their pieces are usually working in harmony with each other and the pawn structures are usually solid. They are difficult to beat because of this.

Secondly there are the tactical players who are adept at precise and deep calculation and usually adopt a forcing plan of fierce attack and/or strive for complications where their skills will be most use, but often ignore or are unaware of the broader positional aspects. They use a method of thinking that is basically: if I do 1 he can do 1 or 2 or 3, if he does 1 then I can do 1A, 1B or 1C. If I do 1A he can do 1AA, 1AB or 1AC …. etc.

This spreads out into a “tree” of analysis which soon becomes very complex indeed. See the diagram below – even after just 2 moves for each side there are a great many positions which needs to be visualised correctly and evaluated. And there’s another tree for each possible first move that I’m considering playing!

Tree of variations in chess

Tree of variations in chess

Thirdly and related to both in some ways, there are those who plan grand strategies and out-manoeuvre their opponent by stealth and cunning but who usually also require a good positional understanding like the first group to avoid weaknesses and also need calculation skills like the tacticians to finish off their plans.

(In case you’re wondering I am a tactician. Wild romantic attacks are my forte and I’m much less skilled at the positional side.)

It seems to me that like John, Nicholas has a very mechanistic mind. He is wonderful at building toys and machines and at planning long involved sequences of events. Yet John calls him innocent. I suspect that when we see him rising through the first few books he is thinking in a very tactical way – threat and counter-threat and counter-counter threat – but without any firm foundation to build on in terms of understanding of the basic concepts of what he is doing and more importantly why. Indeed as we see him progress he starts to try to act like the strategist, but because he lacks the basic soundness he makes mistakes and finds that his long involved sequences can go disastrously wrong.

Replace “innocent” with “naive” and it all starts to make more sense. He has to think everything through from first principles all the time because he hasn’t that grasp on the positional aspects – the automatic moral grounding that others take for granted – that allow him to start from a more advanced position and develop and learn from there. This is both a delight to his young and agile mind in that he can happily spend hours thinking things through with formidable concentration, and an almost fatal weakness in that he sometimes is so taken with the detail that he misses the bigger picture altogether.

To take the analogy one step further, I was very much like this as a teenage chess player – I calculated everything I could but was often outflanked by those with a better grasp of the whole. As I’ve grown up I’ve developed far more intuition and I’ve been able to build on the lessons of the earlier years – in life as well as chess after I returned to the game after 17 years away from it. I calculate less and trust to experience and judgement more.

In the case of Nicholas, I suspect that his disjointed childhood has left him with some of the moral and social guidelines missing, and he has been left to think through life for himself. But because his natural way of thinking has been mechanistic and he’s been often fighting for survival in one situation after another, he has taken a long time to learn to build the experience and general judgement that he needs.

I believe that one of the many reasons he mourns Umar so deeply is that he had started to provide that grounding and general awareness that was so lacking. Bereft of Umar’s guidance and under the extreme confusion and dislocation of Gelis’ wedding night revelation he reverts to type and undertakes more tactical responses to the events surrounding him.

How does Dorothy get him out of this situation? She brings in the most extreme form of intuition available to her – the divining and psychic episodes that make him cast about for explanations and seek to learn how to use these skills to understand people properly.

There is also the music – he treats it too in a mechanistic way at first but it soon becomes apparent that he has a “feel” for it and this is really another form of intuition. Perhaps one of the reasons he grows so close to Kathi is that she brings out this side of him.


So those were my early thoughts during my first read. Fascinating to watch your old self making tentative connections. I’d intended to elaborate on this as I went through the final three volumes but for various reasons it didn’t happen. I later spent much more time deep-diving into Lymond and only really read all eight of Niccolo as a whole once or twice more during the intervening years. However I have returned to it and recently finished reading Unicorn Hunt again so maybe as I progress again through the remaining three I’ll remember to watch for these themes and will be able to return to add more points to this theory.


Revisiting an old theory on the character, thinking, and development of Nicholas — 2 Comments

  1. I think that is extremely interesting. Naive sounds like a better concept than innocence, but it would have been hard for those around him to perceive what you have seen without knowing all there was to know about him.
    And there is certainly a mechanical strategic game playing quality about his scheming. Essentially heartless, for all he constantly tries to put himself in the other fellow’s shoes. He has a sense of the game, the game board, the pieces and his opponents’ minds that enables him, usually, to prevail.
    I don’t think one should overlook, however, that his formative years were spent with a mother who loved him devotedly and whom he loved in return- he was securely and firmly attached to her. I think he had in him, from her, what he needed to ultimately form the loving relationships that surrounded him in his adult years. Marian provided a loving and structured environment as well but it might have been too late if he had not received so much from his mother. He would not have loved Jordan and Henry as he did had he not himself been loved as a child. And as you note he yearns for the grounding and wider vision he was learning from Umar. The receptors were there, just malnourished and attenuated.

  2. I agree partly with the mechanistic/ naive theory. And as N. grows older
    his family-of-origin pain and events deriving from it drive him to despair and nihilism.
    But his redeeming creativity and memory of his first wife’s generosity save him from a predictable trajectory,
    and he perhaps surprises by pulling himself together.
    One thing I found less believable in Dunnetts HofN series was the
    indestructability of N.’s marriage to Gelis. After destroying each other’s
    trust so completely, no couple would seem able to come back together.
    But they do. Why?
    Nonetheless, N’s psycho-emotional character and broad creativity
    is a great creative achievement itself and is what carries the series
    thru so many volumes, imo.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.