Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Talisman by Sir Walter Scott

If you've read Ivanhoe (and if you haven't, go on! We'll wait for you!), the next Scott book to read is The Talisman. Scott can be an acquired taste: his books sometimes require a little dedication to get into (at least until the plot starts rolling). But The Talisman is not at all hard to read.

The Talisman is set during the Third Crusade, King Richard Lionheart's Crusade; the Crusade of the brethren Godwin and Wulf, of the boy-knight Cuthbert, of Wilfred of Ivanhoe himself. When the book starts we find our hero, Sir Kenneth of Scotland, travelling through the desert of the Holy Land on pilgrimage. By a desert oasis he meets a Saracen warrior. At first they fight; but then the Saracen calls a truce, and the two make each other's acquaintance, in a friendly yet martial manner:
"Valiant Nazarene, is it fitting that one who can fight like a man should feed like a dog or a wolf? Even a misbelieving Jew would shudder at the food which you seem to eat with as much relish as if it were fruit from the trees of Paradise."
"Valiant Saracen," answered the Christian, looking up with some surprise at the accusation thus unexpectedly brought, "know thou that I exercise my Christian freedom in using that which is forbidden to the Jews, being, as they esteem themselves, under the bondage of the old law of Moses. We, Saracen, be it known to thee, have a better warrant for what we do—Ave Maria!—be we thankful." And, as if in defiance of his companion's scruples, he concluded a short Latin grace with a long draught from the leathern bottle.
"That, too, you call a part of your liberty," said the Saracen; "and as you feed like the brutes, so you degrade yourself to the bestial condition by drinking a poisonous liquor which even they refuse!"
"Know, foolish Saracen," replied the Christian, without hesitation, "that thou blasphemest the gifts of God, even with the blasphemy of thy father Ishmael. The juice of the grape is given to him that will use it wisely, as that which cheers the heart of man after toil, refreshes him in sickness, and comforts him in sorrow. He who so enjoyeth it may thank God for his winecup as for his daily bread; and he who abuseth the gift of Heaven is not a greater fool in his intoxication than thou in thine abstinence."
The keen eye of the Saracen kindled at this sarcasm, and his hand sought the hilt of his poniard.
Scott is an undeservingly underrated novelist, a man who could write a thrilling story with fantastic characters, and this is just another example of his skill. I love the relationship--which will prove to be extremely important throughout the plot of The Talisman--between Sir Kenneth and this Saracen, as they become fast friends. Interfaith dialogue the way it should be done, right?

The Third Crusade has hit the doldrums. King Richard, who would like nothing more than to get at the Saracens and show them who's boss, is laid up with a wasting illness. King Philip of the French, meanwhile, has had his nose put out of joint by Richard and is perilously close to withdrawing from the Crusade altogether. The Crusaders' camp is full of muttering and grumbling.

A Saracen physician appears, volunteering to treat the King, and Richard begins to mend. But the villainous Conrad of Montserrat is bent on causing an open rift between France and England. When his plots collide with bored Queen Berengaria's prank on Richard's cousin Edith, disaster looms not just for the Crusade but also for Sir Kenneth. Will he ever regain his honour and win the hand of Lady Edith?

As you can imagine, this story is full of adventure and intrigue. But again, as always with Scott, it's the characters that you've got to love--from the mysterious Saracen himself to the heroic Sir Kenneth; from the flighty but good-natured Berengaria to the more hard-headed Edith and the very lion-hearted Richard. And there are assassinations, disguises, disgrace, and a happy ending. If you're looking for an adventure novel with a bit more substance than usual, you can't go wrong with The Talisman.
Project Gutenberg etext
Librivox recording

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"The Talisman" isn't one of my favorites--I found it slow going. I far prefer "The Betrothed", the first novel of the "Tales of the Crusaders". "The Betrothed" is far more exciting, with a lonely, besieged castle on the Welsh Marches, a phlegmatic Flemish hero, and interesting lead characters. I'm probably one of the few, however, who holds this opinion. Out of the 15 Scott novels I've read (I'm currently finishing "The Monastery", another underrated novel), I found "The Talisman" to be the least entertaining.


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