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 / Part 24
“Scott’s treatment of the Oriental side of the picture is marked by fewer liberties, because there was less occasion. He has exercised a judicious caution in bringing practically only one Eastern figure, that of Saladin himself, upon his canvas, and avoiding the temptation to dwell upon anything but his personality. He says nothing definite of the Sultan’s history, and by substituting him for his brother “Saphadin” in the story of the proposed marriage, he gets rid of the necessity for individualising a second important Moslem character; but Scott knew very well that it was to be an alliance between “Saphadin,” not Saladin, and Joan of Sicily, not Edith. To avoid crowding the canvas with “inferior characters,” to say nothing of lowering the dignity of the alliance, a stroke of the pen abolished both Joan and her proposed bridegroom. No one can deny that the story is all the better for it; and a footnote easily propitiates complaisant history.
“But if Saladin was to marry Edith there must be a meeting; and so the ordeal by battle and the unhistorical slaughter of Conrad and the Master of the Temple (whose name was not “Sir Giles Amaury”) serve also most conveniently to make the chief actors acquainted. It is possible that Scott was really unaware of the fact””somewhat singular, considering their close relations, both hostile and diplomatic””that Richard and Saladin never actually met face to face. The King twice proposed an interview, but in each case Saladin declined. It was “Saphadin” who really met Richard and exchanged much cordial hospitality, and who conducted all negotiations. Equally fictitious are Saladin’s visit in the disguise of a hakim, and his solitary rides about the plains. The Sultan never travelled unattended; he generally had his guard of mamluks when he was anywhere near the enemy; and the chance encounter with Kenneth, the disguise and the talisman belong to the category of the “Thousand and One Nights.” Nor can Scott honestly be justified in his description of Saladin’s appearance. He says he was “in the very flower of his age,” but Oriental flowers at fifty-four are apt to be faded; and he ventures to paint his portrait, which, to our loss, no contemporary Eastern attempted. All we know definitely about his face is that at fifty he wore a beard, and we only know this because he happened to tug at it during the battle of Hittin. Sir Walter has got the beard right, “a flowing and curled black beard,” to boot, “which seemed trimmed with peculiar care”; but when he goes on to work in the nose, eyes, teeth, and forehead, he trusts to that admirable source, his own invention.
To be continued.