The Talisman by Sir Walter Scott (1825)
‘All Scott’s work is marked by three characteristics: a genius for enriching the past; a love of Nature; a sturdy humanity. He loved the pomp and pageantry of a bygone age. His imagination lived naturally in the stirring tales of yore. He was a historical novelist by temperament rather than by profession... There have been historical romancers more accurate than Scott in the details of the story, but none so true to the inmost spirit of the age depicted.’ - from the Introduction by Robert Harding
The Talisman is set in the Levant (the historical name for the region of the Eastern Mediterranean) towards the end of the Third Crusade. In 1187 A.D. Jerusalem was captured by Saladin and the Third Crusade was launched in 1189 to retake the city. The book, a work of historical fiction, focusses on Richard I, the ‘Lionheart,’ Saladin, and a fictitious knight by the name of Sir Kenneth.
The Crusaders were encamped in the Holy Land and in disarray. The Lionheart was very ill with a fever and partisan politics were threatening the progress of the Crusade. Meanwhile, in the desert of Syria, Sir Kenneth meets a Saracen and after fighting and neither winning, they acknowledge each other’s prowess and continue on their travels together. The Saracen leads Sir Kenneth to the hermit he had been seeking and they then go their own ways.
There are twists and turns, double identities, misunderstood prophecies and plenty of adventure as the story continues.
'...the unfortunate Knight of the Leopard, bestowed upon the Arabian physician by King Richard rather as a slave than in any other capacity, was exiled from the camp of the Crusaders, in whose ranks he had so often and so brilliantly distinguished himself. He followed his new master...to the Moorish tents which contained his retinue and his property, with the stupid feelings of one who, fallen from the summit of a precipice and escaping unexpectedly with life, is just able to drag himself from the fatal spot, but without the power of estimating the extent of the damage which he has sustained.'
Scott gets a little theatrical and the chivalry is over the top at times, as you might expect of the writing from this time, but he really brings Richard and Saladin to life. Their characters are realistically portrayed and Edith, one of his main female characters and a relative of the King, is interesting, intelligent and plucky.
Scott doesn’t glorify the Crusades in any way and Saladin is treated very positively. It was interesting to read Scott’s description of him as I had just finished a chapter in another book, In the Steps of the Master by H.V. Morton, where the author stated that Saladin was ‘...the one enemy of Christendom whose name runs through all the history books as that of a brave and chivalrous foe.’
I have to say that I used the dictionary fairly regularly when I was reading The Talisman! There are quite a few obscure words and although a glossary is provided at the beginning, it looks like it's the original from 1825 and doesn’t include all the words that have gone out of circulation since.
The Talisman is scheduled as a free read for the Ambleside Online Year 7 curriculum and is a book all my children have enjoyed at some point. A great book to add to your Charlotte Mason high school.