Richard Warren Field

Internet Column

Sir Walter Scotts The Talisman: Sorting Fact from Fiction

Posted: March 28, 2010

(Richard Warren Field is the author of the award-winning novel, The Swords of Faith. Read here why The Swords of Faith will make a great movie.)

Aficionados of English Literature consider The Talisman, written by Sir Walter Scott, to be a revered classic. Scott is credited with pioneering historical fiction. So this essay does not seek in any way to offer a critique of this acknowledged masterpiece. But as readers experience The Talisman, they are confronted with the usual questions inherent in any historically-based storytelling—novel, movie, television series, play, opera, musical—where does history leave off and imagination begin?

Sir Walter Scott himself addressed the issue in the Preface of The Talisman: “It may be said, in general, that most of the incidents introduced in the following tale are fictitious; and that reality, where it exists, is only retained in the characters of the piece.” So he was not trying to be precisely factual—not even close. In a novel, a fictional art-form, this is fair game, especially when we have the author’s admission up front. So to offer this analysis, we will look at The Talisman chronologically, offering fact-checking in chapter-by-chapter groups. As I commented previously, this is not intended as a literary commentary.

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In the first three chapters, we meet The Knight of the Couchant Leopard, and a Muslim warrior. The knight is one of the main characters of The Talisman, Kenneth of Scotland. He is a purely fictional character as is his lord, King David of Scotland. Sir Walter Scott was from Scotland, and he gives an emphasis to Scotland in The Talisman that was not present during what history now calls the “Third Crusade,” the confrontation between Christian forces commanded by Richard the Lionheart and Muslim forces commanded by Saladin. In these chapters, culture and religion are contrasted as these characters interact. Specific historical events are not really depicted here. Kenneth and the Muslim warrior encounter a Christian hermit, offering more perspectives on religion and culture offered. These are matters of some subjectivity. For this discussion, I will focus on historical events as opposed to the subjective discussions in The Talisman.

In chapters four and five, Scott takes Kenneth through an elaborate ceremony, shrouded in mysticism, guided by the Christian hermit. References to controversies of the age—Christian recovery of the “True Cross,” taken from western Christians at the Battle of Hattin a few years before the Third Crusade, and the Shia apocalyptic messiah, the “Twelfth Imam”—appear in this vision.

In chapters six, seven and eight, the locale of the novel changes to the camp of Richard the Lionheart, “between Acre and Ascalon.” Richard did spend time at Jaffa, after the Battle of Arsuf, before his first move toward Jerusalem in late 1191, and Jaffa is “between Acre and Ascalon” along the eastern Mediterranean coast. But Scott does not refer to Jaffa specifically. And as we review the events depicted, we see that Jaffa could not have been the historical location for these events.

Richard is sick with a fever. Richard did have two serious bouts with illness during the Third Crusade: one just after his arrival at Acre in 1191 and a second after the Battle of Jaffa near the end of the Third Crusade in 1192. So the idea of Richard ill with a fever is consistent with the historical record.

In The Talisman, Richard also expresses frustration with the contentious factions in his camp. This was a chronic problem from the time Richard arrived in the Middle East until he left. Desertions, and difficulties imposing discipline because allegiances were owed to different lords, also plagued Richard. So these aspects of Richard’s camp are also historically based.

But Scott’s story deviates from history when we look at who was in his camp, and the events that occurred. King Philip II of France is present at this fictional camp. Philip and Richard were together on the Third Crusade only for a brief time in the Middle East. Philip arrived first at Acre, and commanded some attacks against the Muslim-held city while Richard recovered from illness. Almost immediately after Acre surrendered, Philip left to return to France, citing illness as his reason for leaving. Whether it was illness, or concern with being overshadowed by Richard’s more commanding presence, Philip was gone before Richard moved down the coast.

Conrad of Monferrat, the villain of The Talisman, is also depicted as present in this camp “between Acre and Ascalon.” Conrad was with Richard’s forces only for a brief time between Richard’s arrival at Acre, and the city’s surrender, the same time Philip was with Richard. And this was not coincidence. Conrad was a rival for the “King of Jerusalem” title, a rival with Guy of Lusignan, the designated King of Jerusalem at the time of the surrender of Acre by the Muslims. Conrad was Philip’s vassal; Guy was Richard’s vassal. After Philip left, Conrad left, and at one point actually negotiated with Saladin to set an alliance against Richard. So in a different way, Conrad was a villain to the historical Richard’s efforts as well.

The resolution of the conflict between Richard and Conrad during the Third Crusade is one of those “truth-stranger-than-fiction” moments in history. During his time in the Middle East, Richard received alarming reports from Europe that his brother John was attempting to usurp his throne, and the newly returned Kind Philip was trying to take Richard’s French territories, in direct violation of sworn oaths that he wouldn’t, oaths taken before Philip left the Middle East. Richard needed to return home, and so needed to unite the factions of western Christians under a competent king who could maintain the Christian position and hold on to Richard’s gains. Richard came to understand that most Christians from the area perceived King Guy as almost criminally incompetent, the boob who had blundered away the Christian army at the Battle of Hattin in 1187. Conrad was a rogue, disloyal, selfish—but Conrad was competent and leaders in the Middle East respected him. Richard put the issue to a vote, a vote he surely knew Conrad would win. When Guy lost his “throne,” Richard arranged for Guy to take over as ruler of Cyprus. Conrad was in place as king-designate and by all accounts apparently grateful to Richard. Richard could now go back to Europe and settle issues there.

But two assassins (from history’s original “assassins) disrupted Richard’s plans when they stabbed Conrad in Tyre on the verge of taking his position. Richard convinced his nephew, Henry of Champagne, to take over the throne, but realized he would need to stay longer to solidify the Christian position. And suspicions grew that Richard had hired the assassins. This was absurd, as Conrad’s death hurt Richard’s plans at this point. And the assassins had infiltrated Conrad’s household months before. It is likely that Sinan, “the Old Man in the Mountain,” the leader of the assassins, the Isma‘ilis, a Shiite Muslim sect, had his own grievance with Conrad, over a ship and cargo Conrad had either seized, or kept when they shipwrecked in Conrad’s territory. So the true Conrad story is more nuanced and quirky than events as depicted in The Talisman.

The “Archduke of Austria” is another character who simply would not have been in this camp. Leopold of Austria was involved in one of the most famous incidents of the Third Crusade, an incident that would have far-reaching ramifications for Richard beyond his time in the Middle East. Just after the triumph at Acre, and the occupation of the coastal fort, banners were hoisted along the walls—King Richard’s banner, King Philip’s banner and Duke Leopold’s banner. (In The Talisman, the disposition of a banner figures prominently in the story, but not in the same way.) The duke undoubtedly saw himself as the ranking representative of the Holy Roman Empire, and of the late Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. Emperor Frederick had drowned on the way to rescue Jerusalem while Richard was still a month away from leaving Vezelay, France. Frederick came at the head of a huge army, an army that largely disintegrated after he died in present-day central Turkey. By the time Richard arrived in Acre, Leopold and the remaining troops from the empire were subordinate participants in the battle against the Muslims. Richard was even paying some of Leopold’s troops with his own funds. So the duke’s banner up on the parapet seemed to Richard like a claim to achievement not earned. This was a duke placing himself on the same level as kings. And more than that, it couls have been interpreted as a claim to one third of the spoils.

Richard ordered the banner taken down. The order was obeyed enthusiastically; Richard’s men flung the banner into the muddy moat in front of Acre while others trampled the banner with horse hooves. Duke Leopold demanded an apology. Richard was in no mood to offer one to a man he considered inferior, a man referred to as “the sponge” because of his love for alcoholic beverages. Leopold left the camp for his home in central Europe, nursing a serious grudge. Two years later, when Richard was returning home over a land route through Europe, he traveled through Leopold’s territory. He was recognized and fell into Leopold’s hands. Leopold promptly turned him over to Emperor Henry, who held him for a stifling ransom, a ransom paid for by Richard’s government, depleting the treasury.

Sir Thomas of Gilsland is also a fictional character. He clashes with Kenneth over a Muslim physician Kenneth has brought to the camp. The idea of a competent Muslim physician in the Christian camp is completely plausible, as eastern Mediterranean medicine was certainly more advanced than western European medicine at this time. And religion was not a bar to practicing medicine; one of Saladin’s physicians was a Jew.

In chapters nine to eleven, we are offered more story about Conrad. He schemes with Templar Knights against Richard, and seems more interested in preserving his position than in the success of the Christian mission. Scott depicts him as scheming to divide Christian forces. To be fair, Christian forces were divided without help from Conrad. In The Talisman, Conrad convinces Leopold to place his banner next to Richard’s. As discussed earlier, Leopold placed his banner next to Richard’s without any help from Conrad. In The Talisman, Richard personally tramples Leopold’s banner. By most accounts, Richard’s subordinates complete this task.

Scott discusses the absurdity of the title, “The King of Jerusalem,” while Jerusalem was in the hands of Saladin. Scott’s characterization of Philip as a wily schemer seems to match his character, though as commented earlier, he left the area shortly after the Christians took Acre.

Chapters twelve to fourteen move into the heart of the story, the battle over banners. There is no such controversy at Acre, or at any camp down the coast. The consequences of the banner incident didn’t occur until a few years later in Europe, as detailed earlier. So the entire banner story—guarding it, losing it—is invented.

At this point in the story, Scott introduces Berengeria, Richard’s wife, the Queen of England. Berengeria seems to be a little catty, involved in a bet as to whether the fictional Sir Kenneth could be enticed from his post. Berengeria is an enigmatic figure in history, the only Queen of England never to set foot in the country. She is from a Basque royal family, married to Richard to place allies at the southern area of Richard’s holdings in France where rebellions seemed to be chronic. Berengeria was described in the historical record as a pleasant lady, but these descriptions almost seem like damning with faint praise. There is little doubt she paled in any comparison to Richard’s mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of the most dynamic women of the Middle Ages, remembered for her stunning beauty and sharp wits. Richard marries Berengeria in Cyprus, on the way to the Middle East, but seems to grow tired of her. (There is a strain of modern revisionism that suggests Richard was gay. This idea was rejected in two recent biographies of Richard, by Anthony Bridge and John Gillingham, and seems unlikely when considering there is at least one documented illegitimate child fathered by Richard.) This cattier, edgier Berengeria seems to be an invention of Scott’s, not consistent with the scant records available concerning Berengeria.

During these chapters there is also a suggestion that Richard would unite with Saladin, through marriage. In The Talisman, it is the fictional Lady Edith, love interest of fictional Sir Kenneth, who Richard offers to Saladin’s family as a potential bride. Richard did actually offer his sister Joan, widow of the late King William of Sicily, as a possible bride for Saladin’s brother, al-Adil. Richard’s proposal had them jointly ruling an area that included Jerusalem. The proposal did not seem serious, and came to nothing substantive. There is also reference to the possibility that Christians would rule holy sites under Saladin’s suzerainty. Richard offered a similar proposal during final negotiations of the truce between Richard and Saladin in 1192. This convoluted idea also came to nothing substantive, though in France, the English King Richard actually held territories that were technically under the suzerainty of King Philip of France. So the idea may not have seemed far-fetched to Richard.

Chapters fifteen to nineteen advance the story, which is not based on historical events. The mystic Christian hermit tells Richard he will die without an heir, which turns out to be historically accurate. In a curious twisting of history, Conrad schemes to assassinate Richard. As mentioned earlier, the real Conrad is assassinated by the original “assassins,” and Richard is suspected of hiring them by some. There are reports that Philip feared Richard had sent some assassins to France to kill him.

There is also a hint that Saladin might be willing to share power with Richard as part of some sort of treaty. There is no doubt Sir Walter Scott admired Saladin; Saladin was revered during this period by westerners as a heroic Muslim. Much of this is earned by Saladin, a man who chroniclers on both sides document as a compassionate man during an often brutal, cruel time. But the Saladin of history would not have been that generous. When fighting the armies of the Third Crusade, Saladin called for a Holy War, a Jihad, to defeat and expel western Christians from the area. In such a situation, no Muslim ruler can agree to a peace treaty. There can be only truces on the way to complete victory. The historical Saladin would have held that firmly in mind.

During chapter twenty, a message comes to Richard from England describing a conflict between Richard’s brothers Geoffrey and John, with the “High Justicary Longchamp,” and “oppressions by nobles against the peasantry.” The message warns that these problems may be exploited by France and Scotland. There is no doubt that Richard received a set of messages from home, warning him of perils to his position while he was fighting for Christendom in the Middle East. But Geoffrey had died a few years before Richard went on the Third Crusade; John was Richard’s only surviving brother, the only brother challenging his authority in England. And while the schemes of Philip in France certainly concerned Richard, it is unlikely he had many concerns about Scotland while he was away.

In chapter twenty-one, a Nubian slave foils an assassination attempt on Richard. The slave is wounded by a poison dagger; Richard is willing to suck poison from the wounds when his guards won’t. The Nubian slave ends up giving a note to Richard, a note from Saladin in French. Richard figures the slave cannot speak English. Historically, neither could Richard; Richard grew up in France and in truth was more French than English.

During chapters twenty-two and twenty-three, we flash back to find out the Nubian slave is Kenneth in disguise. This moves the story forward, the fictional story about Richard the Lionheart’s stolen banner.

Chapters twenty-four thru twenty-six continue the story of the banner, involving Conrad as the culprit. The controversy evolves into a challenge of combat, with Saladin deciding neutral ground for the combat. (The entire novel barely seems to involve the clash between Richard’s Christian forces and Saladin’s Muslim forces.) In these chapters, we have Lady Edith refusing to marry Saladin, very much along the lines of Richard's sister Joan refusing to marry al-Adil, though in a completely different tone and context.

During chapter twenty-six, Blondell arrives. Blondell was a famous troubadour/minstrel who according to legend, found Richard after he was taken for ransom by serenading castles in central Europe until Richard recognized a song they had co-written and joined Blondell singing it. But even this story may be more legend than truth, and there is no indication Blondell went along on the Third Crusade. This incident allows Scott to feature Richard’s own musicianship. Richard did enjoy some songwriting capability. At one point during the later part of Richard’s time in the Middle East, Richard discovered some of the French were singing a derogatory song about him. Richard responded with his own rebuttal song deriding the French. In the Blondell section, there is also a historically accurate reference to Richard’s conquest of Cyprus.

In chapter twenty-seven, Leopold of Austria and Philip of France leave the camp. So Scott does have them depart before the resolution of the story, as they do in history, though in The Talisman, the departure takes place from a place further south, and further along in the conflict.

In one of the most famous scenes of The Talisman, Richard and Saladin meet and demonstrate a symbolic representation of their power. Richard slices a bar of iron with his sword; Saladin neatly slices a cushion. This scene is honored for its contrast of the brute brawn of western Christian Europe with the sophisticated finesse of the Muslim Middle East of the Middle Ages. The problem with the scene is that Richard and Saladin never met face to face. Richard asked Saladin to meet with him for peace negotiations when he first arrived, but Saladin insisted that kings do not meet while at war. After the truce was signed, Richard would not come to Jerusalem because he had not captured the city.

Also, Scott refers to the “avarice of the Venetians.” The Italian merchant cities of Venice, Pisa, and Genoa, rivals in commerce, were known for being more committed to mercenary concerns than religious devotion. They traded with Muslims as well as Christians.

In chapter twenty-eight, Scott ties up the loose ends of his fictional plot line involving a combat between Sir Kenneth and Conrad. There is an illusion to a famous story from just before the Third Crusade. Right after the Battle of Hattin in 1187, the battle that destroyed the Christian army in the Middle East, Saladin confronted captured Christian dignitaries. King Guy was clearly depleted of energy, maybe even dying of thirst. Saladin noted Guy’s suffering and had a servant take King Guy a goblet of cool water. Guy drank from the goblet, then handed it to Reynald of Chataillon. Saladin pointedly stated that he had offered the cup to Guy, not to Reynald. Saladin was concerned with the Muslim tradition of hospitality; once hospitality is offered to a guest, even a prisoner of battle, the guest can consider himself safe from harm. Saladin had no problem with such a guarantee for the hapless King Guy. But Saladin had a long list of grievances with Reynald, and wanted no limits placed on how he would deal with Reynald. He ended up beheading Reynald. In The Talisman, the goblet is first offered to Kenneth, who passes it to Leopold, who then passes it to the Master of the Templars, depicted as a conniving villain. Scott has Saladin make his famous disclaimer, and then behead the Master of the Templars for treachery Saladin observes earlier in the story. So Scott has borrowed some history and transplanted it into the climax of his story.

Almost as an afterthought, Richard and Saladin agree to a truce, as they do in history. (It is no afterthought during the Third Crusade; it is the end-product of months of negotiations punctuated by military clashes.) In The Talisman, they express mutual respect and admiration face to face. This is not literally factual, because as mentioned earlier, the two men never met. But there is no doubt they developed a mutual respect. Saladin stated this directly to Hubert Walter, one of Richard’s key advisors in the Middle East, a man who took the trip to Jerusalem after the truce as a pilgrim, and met with Saladin. Richard expressed his sentiments of respect directly to Saladin’s brother al-Adil more than once during their meetings. During a banquet, Richard awarded knight spurs to al-Adil’s son, future Sultan al-Kamil.

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In The Talisman, there is little doubt that Sir Walter Scott achieves his statement in the Preface: “reality, where it exists, is only retained in the characters of the piece.” He captures Saladin’s well-documented nobility and generosity for a ruler of his time. He captures Richard’s strength and imposing presence. Scott was not trying to offer accurate history. What I have done here has not been intended in any way to diminish this great classic by pointing out historical inaccuracies that the author was not concerned about. My effort is simply offered to inform readers—after they have enjoyed the entertainment of The Talisman—which parts are true to history, and which parts are invented. Having this information, I have no doubt, will enhance the experience for readers of The Talisman.

Copyright © 2010 by Richard Warren Field


Richard Warren Field is the author of The Swords of Faith, a novel also set during the Third Crusade.


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