Sir Kenneth of the Couchant Leopard had set out on crusade with a small retinue and high hopes. Now most of his retinue are dead or dispersed. Kenneth’s hopes remain as high as ever. For some obscure reason Kenneth had been sent on a secret mission, connected with peace negotiations with Saladin. Kenneth encounters a young Saracen emir on the road, they fight, and the fight having ended in an honourable draw they become firm friends.
King Richard I of England, Richard Coeur de Lion, is the military leader of the crusading forces but the other crusading kings and princes all have their own agendas and their own ambitions as combined with various petty jealousies and secret betrayals the crusade has the potential to become a chaotic farce. To make thing worse Richard is seriously ill with fever. Kenneth returns to Richard’s camp with a Muslim physician, sent by Saladin to minister to the ailing Coeur de Lion. Can a doctor sent by the crusaders’ most dangerous enemy be trusted? King Richard has reason to think that he can.
The idea of Saladin and Richard as worthy adversaries, each in his own way representative of the very highest ideals of his respective culture, is one of the book’s major themes.
For Sir Kenneth there are many misfortunes in store. He has, in accordance with the ideals of chivalry (another major theme of the novel), pledged himself to the service of a noble lady. He has perhaps set his sights too high, the lady in question being of royal birth, a close kinswoman of King Richard, a certain Edith Plantagenet. This is only the beginning of Kenneth’s woes. Dishonour and slavery await him.
King Richard has his problems as well. The alliance of princes who launched the Crusade is falling apart, torn by jealousies, conflicting ambitions and outright treachery. A wise physician can heal the King’s bodily infirmities, and some physicians seem to have other talents as well.
There’s also a bold, perhaps overbold, plan to bring the wars between Christians and Saracens to an end in a most surprising way, by means of an extraordinary marriage alliance.
The plot is certainly extravagant, with all manner of surprising revelations and unexpected twists. Modern readers may be disappointed that there’s very little in the way of actual action. There is however plenty of tension and intrigue. There’s also a focus on questions of honour, matters of critical importance to the medieval mind (and not entirely forgotten even in the Britain of 1825). There’s also romance of course, in the form of the hopeless love between Kenneth and Edith.
The Talisman is very much a product of the Romantic Movement although Scott is brutally realistic in his treatment of the cynical, scheming and treacherous leadership of the crusade. Both Sir Kenneth and King Richard personify the ideals of chivalry, as does Richard’s enemy Saladin. The novel is remarkably even-handed on the subject of religion. Amusingly both Christian and Muslim characters betray the same profound misunderstandings of each other’s faiths.
One thing Scott did understand about historical fiction - there’s no point in writing such fiction if you populate your stories with anachronistically modern characters. You have to make an effort to capture the spirit, and the prejudices, and the obsessions, of another historical epoch. This lesson has now been all but forgotten, with catastrophic consequences for historical fiction. Scott does make the effort to make his characters convincingly medieval. Perhaps he doesn’t always succeed, but he does try. And there are times when you almost want to strangle Sir Kenneth because of what seems to a modern reader to be a monumentally stubborn refusal to compromise on matters that he believes to be essential to honour or religion. The fact that we grow exasperated with him demonstrates that Scott has managed to make him reasonably believable as a man of his times.
King Richard is the most interesting character. Scott portrays him as a great and charismatic hero but one with very definite flaws, although he remains a sympathetic character. He’s a man destined not to achieve his great objectives, partly through his own failings.
If you have any interest at all in historical fiction you have to at least sample Sir Walter Scott’s work. Even if it’s somewhat lacking in the degree of action you might expect The Talisman is an absorbing and entertaining tale, somewhat far-fetched but all the more enjoyable as a result. Recommended.