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 / Part 14 / Part 15 / Part 16 / Part 17 / Part 18 / Part 19 / Part 20 / Part 21 / Part 22 / Part 23
“It would be interesting to trace the effect of these medieval tales upon the two great writers [i.e. Scott, and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729 –1781), the latter to be discussed later] who have introduced Saladin among the dramatis persona of European classics. Scott, of course, had read the chronicles and romances, as far as they were readily accessible, and incidents in 'The Talisman' may be plausibly traced to the legends of the minstrels. Saladin's visit to Richard's camp in the disguise of a hakim may have been suggested by the Minstrel's tale of the equally imaginary visit to the Hospital of St. John at Acre. The quarrel over the banner of Austria is found in the 'Romance of Richard Coeur de Lion,' published at Edinburgh, in Weber's "Metrical Romances," fifteen years before 'The Talisman.' But his main source was clearly not the romances, but the chronicles, which he used as far as they suited him, and very properly threw over whenever they did not fit his scheme. As [Scott] wrote himself in the Preface of 1832:
‘One of the inferior characters introduced was a supposed relation of Richard Coeur de Lion; a violation of the truth of history, which gave offence to Mr. Mills the author of the History of Chivalry and the Crusades, who was not, it may be presumed, aware that romantic fiction naturally includes the power of such invention, which is indeed one of the requisites of the art.
“Scott boldly asserts that he ‘had access to all which antiquity believed, whether of reality or fable,’ about Richard I.; but he can hardly have gone very thoroughly into the Oriental sources, although some were even then easily accessible in Latin. It is obvious, however, that when he sins against ‘the truth of history,’ in regard to his European characters, it is of malice prepense. He admits that he knowingly killed Conrad of Montferrat in the wrong way, and the wrong time, and the wrong place, and his other deviations from history are probably no less intentional. He places the scene of the novel at Jaffa, in the autumn of 1192, as various indications prove; and he must have known that Philip of France and Leopold of Austria had both left the Holy Land after the surrender of Acre more than a year before. He sets "the Diamond of the Desert" [a fresh-water fountain] close to the Dead Sea, on the road to Jerusalem, half way between the camps of the Crusaders and the Saracens; which would place Saladin's camp, "over against Jaffa," somewhere in Moab on the other side of the Mare Mortuum [Dead Sea]. Nor could Ilderim have been deceived for a moment by the notion that the Knight of the Leopard [Sir Kenneth] could possibly find himself beside that inhospitable water if he was riding from Jaffa to Jerusalem, since he must have left the Holy City directly behind him. At that time, moreover, no "pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulchre" was to be thought of. But a crusading tale without a desert, no sand, no oasis, no Dead Sea, no pilgrimage, would lack the essential local colour, and Scott very properly put it in. And so all the quarrelling between the rival nations, which was true enough of the French and English, is infinitely more interesting when the absent King of France himself leads his knights; no novel-reader would care a rush for the jealousy of a Duke of Burgundy—unless, of course, he were Charles the Bold.
To be continued.