Duncan McLain

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Duncan McLain (left) and Alaric Morgan (right) on the cover of the revised edition of Deryni Checkmate (2005).

Duncan McLain is a fictional character in the Deryni series of historical fantasy novels by Katherine Kurtz.

Character introduction

Duncan Howard McLain is a Deryni priest and close confidant of King Kelson Haldane of Gwynedd. In addition, Duncan is the maternal cousin of Duke Alaric Morgan of Corwyn, another of Kelson's trusted advisors.

Explanation of the character's name

Although the name Duncan has no established significance within the series, the character's middle name, Howard, is the same as his mother's maiden name.

Character sketch


Duncan is primarily motivated by his vocation as a priest, his loyalty to the House of Haldane, and his love for his family.


Duncan's first goal is simply to help Kelson survive his coronation. As the series progresses, he becomes increasingly focused on the larger sociological and ecclesiastical goals of restoring Deryni to a place of honor and equality in Gwynedd.


The character's primary nemesis is Archbishop Edmund Loris. In Deryni Rising, it is Loris who suspends Duncan and later excommunicates him. By the time of The Bishop's Heir, Loris has come to view Duncan, a Deryni priest and duke, as the embodiment and symbol of everything wrong and immoral with Gwynedd.


Although he hides his Deryni heritage throughout most of the novels, Duncan eventually realizes that being a Deryni and being a priest are not mutually exclusive. Having come to terms with his internal conflict at the end of High Deryni, he presents a much more confident and content personality in the Histories of King Kelson trilogy. He eventually faces a similar internal debate after discovering his son, but, unlike his original moral crisis, he never again questions his vocation or his right to be a priest.

Biographical summary

Prior story

Duncan is born on February 2, 1092, the second son of Earl Jared McLain of Kierney and his second wife, Lady Vera (de Corwyn) Howard. Vera's Deryni heritage has been concealed since her birth, so knowledge of Duncan's own Deryni blood is a closely guarded secret throughout his childhood. From a very early age, Duncan develops a close relationship with his maternal cousin, Alaric Morgan, who is the son of Vera's secret twin sister, Lady Alyce de Corwyn Morgan.

Actions in Childe Morgan

The three-year-old Duncan appears several times in the novel, most often playing happily with his half-brother Kevin and his cousin Alaric. In August 1095, Duncan's and Alaric's mothers perform an ancient Deryni ritual in which they bestow a magical name upon each of their sons. Vera gives Duncan the secret name Phelam, which she claims means "a good person."

Actions in Deryni Rising

In November 1120, Duncan is a priest of rising prominence at the royal court in Rhemuth. He enjoys a close relationship with King Brion Haldane, and he serves as both confessor and tutor to young Prince Kelson. However, Brion is murdered by the Festillic Pretender Charissa Furstána-Festila, leaving Duncan and Alaric to secure the legacy of Haldane magic for Kelson. The night before Kelson's coronation, the cousins attempt to piece together the clues left behind by Brion, and they eventually succeed in completing most of the ritual to activate Kelson's Haldane potential. When Charissa attempts to kill Kelson during his coronation the following day, Duncan and Alaric do their best to protect the young king, but Kelson uses his newly gained powers to personally defeat the Deryni sorceress.

Actions in Deryni Checkmate

Several months after his coronation, Kelson learns that Archbishop Edmund Loris is planning to excommunicate Alaric because of his Deryni heritage. In addition, they plan to suspend Duncan from his priesthood, though they still do not know him to be Deryni. Kelson sends Duncan to warn Alaric of the coming ecclesiastical assault, and the cousins carefully weigh their options over the next several days in Corwyn. Eventually, they decide to travel to the city of Dhassa, where they plan to plead with the Curia of Bishops and explain their actions. However, en route to Dhassa, Alaric is captured by Warin de Grey, an anti-Deryni zealot who has been attempting to raise a rebellion against Alaric. After a brief search, Duncan manages to rescue his cousin, but he is forced to use his arcane powers to secure their escape, thus revealing himself as a Deryni. Shortly thereafter, both are excommunicated for their actions, and they abandon their journey to Dhassa. Instead, they travel to Culdi for the wedding of Duncan's half-brother to Alaric's sister. Upon their arrival, they learn that their siblings have been killed by a magical charm that had been used by a jealous suitor. With his brother's death, Duncan inherits the title of Earl of Kierney, and he becomes the heir to the Duchy of Cassan. Ignoring his suspension and excommunication, Duncan performs the requiem Mass for Kevin and Bronwyn.

Actions in High Deryni

As Kelson gathers his army in preparation for an invasion by King Wencit Furstán of Torenth, Duncan and Alaric decide to attempt another journey to Dhassa. The Curia of Bishops has split over the proposed Interdict of Corwyn, and the cousins hope to appeal to the rebel bishops and secure their support. Upon arriving in Dhassa, they meet with Bishops Thomas Cardiel and Denis Arilan, and they convince the bishops of their innocence. The excommunication is lifted, and Arilan reveals to the cousins that he is also Deryni. They soon rejoin Kelson, and the royal army marches to Corwyn, where Archbishop Loris and Warin de Grey have seized Alaric's capital. Duncan, Alaric, Kelson, and Cardiel infiltrate the castle at night, and they confront Warin. To convince Warin that Deryni are not inherently evil, Duncan allows the zealot to stab him with a dagger so he can witness Alaric's Healing powers, an ability which Warin believes comes from God. After Duncan is Healed, Warin joins with Kelson, and they capture Loris and his followers the next morning. With Corwyn secure, the royal army then marches to meet Wencit's invasion, but Duncan soon learns that his father's army has been betrayed and defeated. As the Gwyneddan and Torenthi forces meet, Duncan's father is executed by Wencit, and Duncan becomes Duke of Cassan. When Wencit then proposes a magical duel to decide the war, Arilan takes Duncan, Alaric, and Kelson to meet the Camberian Council and secure their mediation in the battle. The following morning, Duncan, Alaric, Kelson, and Arilan meet Wencit and his supporters in a Duel Arcane, but Wencit is betrayed by one of his own before the combat begins. Despite the unexpected turn of events, Duncan can only watch as Kelson executes the King of Torenth and claims victory for Gwynedd.

Actions in The Bishop's Heir

The Curia of Bishops meets in November 1123 to choose the new Bishop of Meara, and Duncan is elected Auxiliary Bishop of Rhemuth. While the deliberations of the Curia continue for the next several days, Duncan is attacked by a young boy with a poisoned knife. Despite a bloody injury, Duncan survives the assault and is healed by Alaric. Henry Istelyn is eventually chosen as the new Mearan bishop, and Duncan returns to Rhemuth with Kelson and Alaric a short time later. Upon learning that Archbishop Loris has escaped and captured his boyhood friend, Earl Dhugal MacArdry of Transha, Kelson leads a raid on the Mearan city of Ratharkin. Although Duncan remains in Rhemuth, the raid is successful and Kelson returns to the capital with Dhugal and two of the Mearan Pretender's children. As the political situation with Meara worsens over the next week, Duncan agrees to move up his formal ordination, and he is consecrated as a bishop with Istelyn's episcopal ring. On Christmas Day, Duncan accompanies Kelson as he proposes to Princess Sidana, the Pretender's daughter, a marriage intended to help bring peace between the two lands. Two weeks later, on the morning of the wedding, Duncan recognizes Dhugal's cloak clasp as a gift he once gave to a girl when they were secretly married during his youth. Although she died giving birth several months later, Duncan never knew she had been pregnant. After piecing the entire story together, Duncan realizes that Dhugal is his son, and they share the emotional discovery together. Afterwards, Duncan serves as one of the attending priests at Kelson's wedding, but the ceremony is interrupted when Sidana's brother slays the bride following the vows. Although Duncan and Morgan desperately try to save Sidana, they are unable to heal her and she dies in Kelson's arms.

Actions in The King's Justice

As spring arrives, Kelson is preparing to mount an expedition into Meara to put down the rebellion of the Mearan Pretender, Princess Caitrin Quinnell. In preparation for Kelson's absence, Duncan, Alaric, Arilan, and Richenda assist the king in setting the Haldane potential of his uncle and heir, Prince Nigel Haldane. The following day, Duncan, as Duke of Cassan, departs Rhemuth with Dhugal to raise the Cassani forces and invade Meara from the north. Over the next several weeks, Duncan and Dhugal attempt to track the main Mearan army, but they are unable to locate it. Eventually, the Mearans launch a massive ambush and surround the Cassani forces. Realizing that they have lost, Duncan orders Dhugal to flee the battle and seek help. Although some of the Cassani army manages to escape, Duncan is defeated and captured. Archbishop Loris drugs Duncan repeatedly while torturing him, but Duncan refuses to reveal any information or confess to any heresies. The following morning, Loris straps Duncan to a stake and prepares to burn him. However, as the fire begins to rise, Kelson and Alaric arrive with the rest of the Gwyneddan army and the Cassani survivors. As a sprawling battle erupts, Kelson and Morgan both use their arcane powers to protect Duncan from Loris' archers. Eventually, Dhugal breaks through to the stake and saves his father before Loris can stab the Deryni bishop. The Gwyneddan army wins the day, and Duncan's grievous wounds are treated by Alaric and other physicians. Several days later, the Gwyneddan forces arrive at the Mearan city of Laas, where the last of the Pretender's forces have taken refuge. Caitrin eventually agrees to surrender, and Loris is tried and executed, but not before he publicly reveals that Dhugal is Duncan's son. Afterwards, Duncan is named Viceroy of Meara by Kelson.

Actions in The Quest for Saint Camber

At the beginning of the novel, Duncan is testifying before an ecclesiastical tribunal to determine the validity of his marriage to Dhugal's mother. Although the ceremony was unusual, the tribunal determines that it was a legally valid marriage, and Dhugal is acknowledged as Duncan's trueborn son and heir. Several days later, upon learning that Duncan has never been formally knighted due to his priestly vocation, Kelson bestows the accolade upon the Deryni bishop. Immediately thereafter, while knighting his son, Duncan publicly reveals his Deryni heritage for the first time by displaying his arcane aura. Cardiel and Arilan are furious over Duncan's public revelation, and they order him to remain in Rhemuth. The following week, after Kelson, Dhugal, and Alaric have left Rhemuth, Duncan discovers the dead body of a Camberian Councilor, Tiercel de Claron, in the castle. He tells Nigel of the discovery and then travels to Valoret, where he informs Arilan of his colleague's death. Duncan and Arilan return to Rhemuth, and Arilan takes Tiercel's body to the Council for burial.

A week later, the survivors of king's party arrive in Rhemuth and inform the court that both Kelson and Dhugal are presumed dead in a tragic accident. Devastated by the loss of his king and his son, Duncan convinces Arilan to take him to Dhassa, from which point Duncan travels to Corwyn to inform Alaric of the news. The cousins return to Rhemuth a few days later and learn of Nigel's collapse. Arilan convinces the Duncan and Alaric to activate the Haldane potential of Nigel's eldest son and heir, Prince Conall, and the three Deryni soon perform the ritual. Afterwards, Duncan and Alaric depart Rhemuth and travel to the site of the accident, desperately searching for any sign of Kelson and Dhugal. After almost a week of failure, Duncan finally contacts Dhugal, and the cousins are reunited with the missing pair the following day. They travel to Valoret, where Duncan's ecclesiastical status is finally resolved. Before the assembled bishops, Duncan makes a formal confession for accepting ordination as a priest even though it was illegal at the time. He speaks passionately about his vocation to serve God, and the bishops unanimously absolve him, restoring him to grace. Afterwards, the party returns to Rhemuth, and Duncan, Alaric, and Dhugal succeed in healing Nigel, who immediately reveals his son's betrayal. Although Conall arranges a Duel Arcane with Kelson during his trial, the king easily defeats his cousin and sentences him to death for his treason. At the end of the novel, Duncan cedes his secular titles of Duke of Cassan and Earl of Kierney to Dhugal.

Actions in King Kelson's Bride

Duncan appears only briefly in King Kelson's Bride. He remains in Rhemuth while Kelson, Alaric, and Dhugal travel to Torenth, providing a Deryni link between the king's party and the Gwyneddan court. After the king returns to Rhemuth, he asks Duncan to find a suitable location for the construction of a formal Deryni school, the first such institution in two centuries. Duncan is named Provost of the Basilica Chapter, where a new Saint Camber chapel has been built, and he agrees to be appointed rector of the new school. He officiates at the consecration of the chapel's altar, visibly extending his aura over the altar during the ceremony; the presence of Gwynedd's two highest-ranking churchmen at his elbows during this moment publicly proclaims the newfound clerical approval of Deryni powers after two centuries of persecution. (The second edition of the Codex Derynianus reveals that the school is later named the University of Saint Camber.)

Actions in other Deryni works

Duncan appears in one of the short stories that were published in the book The Deryni Archives. In "Bethane", the eight-year-old Duncan is playing with Kevin, Alaric, and Bronwyn when an accident leads to a meeting with an old witch woman.


  • Parents:
    • Duke Jared McLain and Duchess Vera (de Corwyn) Howard McLain of Cassan
  • Siblings:
    • Lord Kevin Douglas McLain (fraternal half-brother, died age 32)
    • Lady Isabet Anna McLain (stillborn)
    • Lady Alicia Jesma Isabet McLain (died age 3)
  • Spouse:

Major themes

DPv2 loves original research.

Throughout much of the Chronicles of the Deryni trilogy, Duncan is a somewhat conflicted character, as the morals of his priestly vocation clash with his struggle to hide his Deryni heritage. It is not until the end of High Deryni that he finally resolves his own internal conflict and comes to peace with his dual roles as both a priest and a Deryni. However, he still continues to hide his Deryni blood from the general public throughout the Histories of King Kelson trilogy, a choice which begins to disturb him after he discovers that Dhugal his is son. Although Duncan has come to terms with his own choices, he begins to wonder if he is setting a good example for his son by hiding his true identity. Ultimately, Duncan publicly reveals himself at Dhugal's knighting ceremony to not only set an example for Dhugal, but also to resolve his own internal conflict once and for all.