Walter Scott, The Talisman, the Crusades, Richard I of England and Saladin: Myths, Legends and History
by Ibn Warraq
Genesis of an Idea.
The present essay grew out of my inquiries into something that Edward Said wrote about Sir Walter Scott’s The Talisman. It took on a life of its own, and grew and grew, and led me into the Crusades generally. What follows is not meant as a complete narrative history of the Crusades — some superb new histories of the Crusades have appeared in the last ten years , I do not need to add to these, even if I could — rather, I wish to examine some of the myths and legends perpetuated by Sir Walter Scott in his novels on the Crusades, and at the same time I wish to elucidate, if possible, the motives of the Crusaders, and the real origins of the Crusades. I began my studies of Scott’s Crusade novels three years ago with an examination of Ivanhoe in Sir Walter Scott, Jews and Saracens, and Other Sundry Subjects , but never finished them; this present essay is my belated effort to make good on my promise. While recently researching the historical background of Scott’s novel The Talisman, which recounts the exploits of Saladin and Richard the Lionheart during the Third Crusade, I came across Sir Hamilton Gibb’s biography — or rather hagiography, as we shall see later — of Saladin. Gibb [1895-1971], born in Alexandria, Egypt, but later educated in Edinburgh, was one of the last great Orientalists, or as Albert Hourani described him, “the last of the universal Arabists”; a professor at SOAS, then Oxford, and finally at Harvard. I discovered something that delighted me, since the discovery adds a certain poetic symmetry and brings some kind of justification to my study of Scott’s The Talisman. Here is the treasure: Sir Hamilton Gibb not only attended the same school as Scott in Edinburgh, he also immersed himself in Scott’s novel at an early age, and Saladin became his hero; and when he became a historian and university professor, Gibb recommended The Talisman to his students as “a work of art from which they could learn much about Islamic history”. 
Three years ago, I began my essay on Scott’s novels with what Edward Said said of The Talisman:
Edward Said, the late Professor of Comparative Literature at Columbia University, has, in his influential Orientalism, a characteristically shallow, sneering aside on Sir Walter Scott, and, in particular, on his novel, The Talisman:
In Scott’s novel The Talisman (1825), Sir Kenneth (of the Crouching Leopard) battles a single Saracen to a standoff somewhere in the Palestinian desert; as the Crusader and his opponent, who is Saladin in disguise, later engage in conversation, the Christian discovers his Muslim antagonist to be not so bad a fellow after all. Yet he remarks:
“I well thought”¦that your blinded race had their descent from the foul fiend, without whose aid you would never have been able to maintain this blessed land of Palestine against so many valiant soldiers of God. I speak not thus of thee in particular, Saracen, but generally of thy people and religion. Strange is it to me, however, not that you should have the descent from the Evil One, but that you should boast of it.”
For indeed the Saracen does boast of tracing his race’s line back to Eblis, the Muslim Lucifer. But what is truly curious is not the feeble historicism by which Scott makes the scene “medieval,” letting Christian attack Muslim theologically in a way nineteenth-century Europeans would not (they would, though); rather, it is the airy condescension of damning a whole people “generally” while mitigating the offense with a cool “I don’t mean you in particular.”
Not only does Said make the unwarranted assumption that Sir Kenneth is voicing Scott’s thoughts [Said would have done well to heed Waugh’s motto to Brideshead Revisited, “I am not I; thou art not he or she; they are not they”], he misunderstands and or at least fails to mention, the entire import of Scott’s novel, the contrast between the two cultures, particularly in the early chapters, with the Muslim one emerging to its advantage many times over. We come away from the novel with a sense of the chivalrous superiority of the Saracens.  (Incidentally, Said accuses Scott, creator of the historical novel, of “feeble historicism”, when he clearly means “historicity”).
 Thomas Asbridge. The Crusades. New York: Harper Collins, 2010.
Christopher Tyerman. God’s War. A New History of the Crusades. Cambridge [Mass.]: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006
Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Crusades, A History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005 [2nd Edn.]
Jonathan Riley Smith. The Crusades, Christianity, and Islam. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.
Thomas F.Madden. The New Concise History of the Crusades. New York: Barnes and Noble, 2006.
Peter Frankopan. The First Crusade. The Call from the East. Cambridge [Mass.]: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012.
 See http://www.newenglishreview.org/custpage.cfm/frm/37551/sec_id/37551
 Albert Hourani. Europe and the Middle East. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. 1980, p106.
 Paul Pelckmans. Walter Scott’s Orient: The Talisman. In Oriental Propects Edd. Barfoot, D’Haen. Rodopi: Amsterdam & New York, 1998, p.99.
To be continued.