Monday, October 12, 2015

Sir Walter Scott: The Talisman (1825)

[I don't know anything about the provenance of this illustration. The artist has transformed the shallow and histrionic Queen Berengaria into the undisputed heroine of the picture, which I suppose goes far to explain her confidence in all dealings with her husband. King Richard looks stupefied. And the book's intended heroine Edith is presented in the chilliest manner, lurking in the background.]

Image source:]

Kudos to Lizzie Driver for her excellent solo reading of The Talisman on Librivox.


The Talisman was published in June 1825 along with The Betrothed,  as "Tales of the Crusades". But its more interesting connection is with Ivanhoe (1820).  

Defining that connection in a word is not easy. Whatever the imagined chronology, it doesn't feel quite right to call The Talisman either a prequel to Ivanhoe or a sequel to it (the former would seem the historical sequence, but the latter seems a better fit to changes in Richard's nature).

Yet Richard Coeur-de-Lion is a major character in both novels. Thomas of Gilsland, little more than a name in Ivanhoe, now steps forth in a significant role. The Knights Templar, unsympathetic in Ivanhoe, are positively villainous here. Most significantly, the interest in an exotic multiculturalism, first developed in the Jewish characters of Ivanhoe, is now pursued in the Muslim characters of The Talisman. That makes a difference, but not because Scott knew either culture very well.  In Ivanhoe Scott had to grapple with deeply-rooted anti-Semitism, especially about Jews in Britain. In The Talisman, the first of his novels to be located (as he was acutely aware*) in a place he had never visited, he was freer to be much more simply enthusiastic about his Muslim characters. Ethically they have the best of it all through the book, and make a powerful commentary on the extremely imperfect behaviour that characterizes the Christians.

At least, nearly. There's also Saladin's sudden decapitation of the Grand Master, which casts such a deep chill over the subsequent dinner. Saladin explains that this instant punishment was required because if Giles had tasted the sherbet then Saladin would be bound by laws of hospitality. The implication of the chill is that Scott allows his Christian readers to admire and be fascinated by Muslim culture, but only in a picture-book, only from a distance.  When Edith reacts with horror to the idea of being married to a Muslim prince, Scott probably intends us to feel that her horror is a right and proper emotion. (Even if it conceals her own prior interest in Sir Kenneth.) Richard's own bluff indifference to whether she marries a Christian or a Muslim is supposed to indicate a soldier's insensibility.

For much of the book the positions of normative and Other are to some extent reversed. Though we are in Palestine, we are in the Crusader camp and see the somewhat exotic behaviour of the Age of Chivalry through the unillusioned eyes of Adonbec el Kakim (Saladin).

But there's a double-twist here, because Scott takes it for granted that readers will understand, even if they smile at, the excesses of the chivalric age. All Saladin's wisdom cannot shake the book's certainty that he and his world are necessarily beyond the pale of the culture that inherits and understands chivalry from within.

The Talisman is the last of Scott's novels to be completed before his own world was re-shaped by multiple griefs. It isn't a masterpiece but it does have sustained interest.

* The 1832 preface, where Scott admits his lack of direct contact with the East, is a mess; Scott was by then in no condition to write even a Preface. He begins by giving cogent reasons why he should not have attempted to write a book set in Palestine. He then says that he felt, nevertheless, that he could contribute something of his own to the genre; presumably he means his portrayal of Richard, but at this point the argument flickers and gutters out. (The poetic illustrations of the medieval tradition of Richard's cannibalism are, however, appallingly interesting. )


Giles Amaury (The Grand Master of the Templars) is a made-up name. Scott may have based him vaguely on Roger de Sablé.  though it was his predecessor Gerard de Ridefort who was, in fact, beheaded by Saladin. Richard had good relations with both.

"Conrade of Montserrat" is given a villainous role. As Scott admits, this is entirely made up. The historical Conrad of Montferrat was indeed a rival of Richard; in fact Richard was accused of having him murdered. [It seems that Scott was already thinking about The Talisman at the same time he was writing St Ronan's Well (1824). The earlier novel refers more than once to twelfth-century Palestine, and even to  a confrontation between Conrade of Montserrat and Richard.]

Saladin negotiated for a marriage between Richard's widowed sister Joan and Saladin's brother Al-Adil. She refused. Richard's views are unknown. When Conrad turned over his Muslim hostages to Richard, he had them all killed.   (Richard may bear responsibility for the anti-Jewish violence at the time of his coronation, also.)

So the chivalrous conception of Richard, and his broad-minded attitude to Islamic and other cultures, is very much Scott's own vision.

Masses of the slimy and sulphurous substance called naphtha, which floated idly on the sluggish and sullen waves, supplied those rolling clouds with new vapours... (Chapter I, description of the Dead Sea)

More strictly, Asphaltum. In Edward Turner's Elements of Chemistry (1833) he says:

Naphtha occurs in some parts of Italy, and on the banks of the Caspian Sea. ...  Asphaltum is found on the surface and on the banks of the Dead Sea ....
(p. 808)

But, as Turner realized, the two inflammable substances were closely related.

I notice that on my bottle of Redex for diesel engines, one of the ingredients is "Naphtha (petroleum)".


In the final chapter, it's revealed that Sir Kenneth of the Leopard is, in fact, Prince David of Scotland.

On the whole, there were already too many royals in disguise. (The two principal Muslim characters, it turns out, are both Saladin.) Shakespeare's Henry V may lie behind it (or ancient folk motifs, maybe). In Scott, the motif began with Ivanhoe (1820), where it was done really well (relevant to theme and well motivated), and it became seriously annoying in Quentin Durward (1823) which shares a lot of The Talisman's less admirable features.

Anyway, now it turns out that even our hero is royal.

Of course that resolves the issue of Sir Kenneth's social inferiority to Lady Edith very conveniently. But the "lost heir" plot of Tom Jones etc only works if the heir is genuinely lost. Kenneth wasn't a lost heir but a disguised heir: he knew all the time that he had royal blood. And this means that the most affecting scenes in the earlier part of the book, surrounding Kenneth's sense of unworthiness before his lady and his shame at being lured from his post for a once-in-a-lifetime chance to do her some service, are in retrospect almost nonsense. (Indeed so attached are we to our former reading that we're inclined to treat this late revelation as not to be taken seriously.)

Yet it's evident that the revelation is no afterthought. There are multiple subtle hints, as early as the opening chapter, that Kenneth is in disguise and is probably someone pretty notable. And a careful reading of those middle chapters reveals that though Kenneth is entirely sincere in his chivalric abasement, yet he feels no social inferiority to Edith or even to Richard.

Too many monarchs altogether. The crusade brings together a rabble of them, all with different aims. Meanwhile the royal enemies Saladin and Richard cultivate a chivalrous regard that is almost lover-like.

There is a kind of point to this. At the multicultural borderline, there is a collapse of the hierarchic social structures of monoculture.  The foreigner affects us much the same whether they're an untouchable or a king. The romancer is apt to elevate the picturesque other to a kind of sovereignty, a sovereignty of the mysterious sphere to which he belongs and in whose ways the outsider is so inept. In this novel, even those few who are not kings (the hermit of Engadi, or Thomas of Gilsland) have something king-like about their distinctness. Nectabanus certainly thinks that he does.

Nevertheless, The Talisman almost expires for lack of common people.   

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