Walter Scott, The Talisman, the Crusades, Richard I of England and Saladin: Myths, Legends and History
by Ibn Warraq
Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3 / Part 4 / Part 5 / Part 6 / Part 7 / Part 8 / Part 9 / Part 10 / Part 11 / Part 12 / Part 13
Given that The Talisman is a work of fiction, it is startling to read that Sir Hamilton Gibb recommended it to his students as a book from which they could learn much Middle Eastern history. How accurate is Scott in his historical reconstructions? A short answer would be “wildly inaccurate”. Richard and Saladin never met, Saladin never treated the King of England for any illness, and neither of them displayed any clemency if it did not suit them. It was grim warfare, and politics all the way.
Let us begin with the minor actors in the drama. Scott cannot even get the title of Conrad of Montferrat, the main villain in the novel, correct. During his research, he misread the “f” in Montferrat as an “s”, and came up with Conrad of Montserrat. Scott wrote of Conrad in this manner:
Proud, ambitious, unscrupulous, and politic, the Marquis of Montserrat was yet not cruel by nature. He was a voluptuary and an epicurean, and, like many who profess this character, was averse, even upon selfish motives, from inflicting pain, or witnessing acts of cruelty; and he retained also a general sense of respect for his own reputation, which sometimes supplies the want of the better principle by which reputation is to be maintained.
And he accused the marquis of “employing his jealousy of England as the means of dissolving, or loosening at least, the league of the Crusaders.”
Extraordinarily enough, Sir Steven Runciman describes Conrad initially in strikingly similar terms: “Harsh, ambitious and unscrupulous…” But adds, significantly, “yet trusted and admired by the native Frankish nobility, would have been a strong and cunning king”. Thomas Asbridge describes Conrad as “profoundly ambitious -- guileful and unscrupulous as a political operator, competent and authoritative as a general…” Whereas for Thomas Madden, the marquis was "renowned across the Mediterranean for his skill and bravery”.
Surely, the most significant act in the life of Conrad, the marquis of Montferrat, was the magnificent and timely defense of Tyre -- a feat not celebrated in The Talisman. He arrived in Palestine in July 1187, just days after the battle of Hattin. Tyre would undoubtedly have fallen to Saladin had not Conrad taken command of its garrison and defences. As Tyerman says, “[a]ccompanied only by a single ship’s company of knights, a few score at most, Conrad brought leadership, determination, energy and optimism to the defence of Tyre”.  Saladin raised the siege and departed north in early 1188, leaving “a vital Palestinian port in Christian hands, a haven for Frankish refugees and a base for the naval squadrons that were beginning to arrive from the west. 
 Tyerman, op.cit., p.404.
To be continued.