Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 19, 2011

The Talisman (1823), by Sir Walter Scott

Sir Walter Scott was a much-loved author of the 19th century: he wrote great tales of adventure, as appealing now as they were then, but today we read them with a keen awareness of the British sense of entitlement which guides Scott’s characters’ actions.

The Talisman is a tale of the Crusades, set in 1190 and beginning when there was a truce between the Saracens and King Richard the Lionheart.  As with many another historical novel, Scott takes liberties with the historical record, and probably with his depictions of Arab culture too, but rather than analyse its deficiencies with a post-colonial eye, I chose to surrender to the adventure instead.

BEWARE: SPOILERS (Nothing but, really)

It begins, as does The Faerie Queen with the image of the lone knight plodding through an eerie landscape, in this case the arid wastes of the desert.  He’s weighed down by all the chain mail paraphernalia of the knight and Scott notes that many crusaders died from the effects of the torpid heat.  However this knight (and his horse) have adapted easily.  Clearly he has exceptional qualities of endurance, and he’s also honorable.  After two years on the campaign he’s run out of money to support the usual followers (who we presume would cook his meals, wash his socks and help him repel the enemy) but the reason for his impecunious state is that (a) he wasn’t well off to start with, though clearly better off than a luckless peasant and (b) (unlike other crusaders) he’s chosen not to rob those he’s defeated nor demand ransom for their return.  His squire, who by rights should be loyal and therefore not in need of any such sordid inducement as regular payment, is absent because he is ill, not because he’s shot through.  Is our hero cast down by his circumstances?  Certainly not.  He ‘was accustomed to  consider his good sword as his safest  escort, and devout thoughts as his best companion’. 

Before long he chances upon an oasis and thus his first trial.  The Saracen fights bravely, but Sir Kenneth, Knight of the Couchant Leopard, doesn’t fall for any of the Saracen’s sneaky tricks and ends up unhorsing his opponent, who turns out to be a Kurdish Emir called Sheerkohf, Lion of the Mountain, with an equally impressive lineage.  Of course he speaks a fluent (if somewhat florid) lingua franca (which looks a lot like well-bred English) – and later on he shows remarkable skill in rhyming poetry too.  We are not told why he is alone and unattended but we quickly learn that he is a noble fellow too and so the two quickly become pals.  This is because, as Scott explains in chapter 2, when war is the default mode of existence for your society, brief truces and the opportunity to behave in a civilised way towards a fellow human being are not to be wasted.  Amen to that.  I know it’s naïve but it seems impossible to read Scott’s thoughts about Arabs maintaining an honorable truce without a pang of longing for the days when the rules of war were (we are told) mostly observed by both sides.

Despite their best intentions, however, a war of words soon erupts.  The Saracen takes exception to the Knight’s meal, dried pork and water containing ‘something better than pure element’, and the Knight adopts a lofty attitude towards Moslem polygamy.  The Saracen is impressed, however, when he learns that the Knight had actually held a safe-conduct pass which he had nobly chosen not to exploit against a solo opponent, and is further mollified when the Knight acknowledges the worth of his opponent in that fight.  The Saracen then offers to escort Sir Kenneth to the cave of the hermit Theodoric of Engaddi.  (Sir Kenneth’s mission is to pass on some secret information to this hermit who somehow communicates with the Pope).

Scott’s nationalism is never far from the surface in an exchange which follows. The Saracen is bemused to learn that the crusade attempting to conquer his land is so outnumbered and furthermore that the kingdom it represents is divided.  No chance, says the Knight, that we could mount the campaign if we waited for unity: the Scots are not ever going to knuckle under to the English.  Not negotiable.  Well, trust is the first casualty of this proud attitude.  The motif of mutual disdain between Scot and Englishman pervades many an interaction, allowing for mutual wariness, pettiness and bad manners (expressed with courtly and chivalrous restraint i.e. mutterings, suspicious thoughts, sullen taciturnity and huffy body language).

The Knight and the Saracen squabble again in the Valley of the Shadow of Death because the Knight’s pious feelings as he contemplates Jesus’ temptation by Satan are interrupted by the Saracen attempting to lighten the sombre mood with cheery song.  When chastised he launches into a ditty which seems to celebrate his ancestry from Satanic genii and the Knight is just weighing the moral obligation to maintain their truce and his compulsion to dash out the brains of the heathen on the spot when he is distracted by an apparition…

Not unlike his predecessor Don Quixote, he instantly assumes the worst.  The heathen has raised a fiend with his Persian poetry, he thinks, and reaches for his mace.  However it is the Saracen who is attacked, and he is not best pleased when Sir K takes his time about coming to his aid, especially since it turns out that the apparent loony Hamako, dressed in goat-skins, capering wildly and muttering incoherent imprecations, is the very hermit that the Knight is seeking.  How embarrassing, eh?  And it’s even more galling when the Saracen sweetly suggests that it is sometimes when reason has fled that thoughts turn more readily to heaven.  Fortunately Theodorick calms down once inside his cave, gives them a meal that suits their respective religious persuasions and gives a good impression of a bloke who might be entrusted with Great Matters for the Pope.  Our hero remains suspicious, however, because might not the hermit’s insanity be a ruse?  And why would Saladin have given orders to protect him, eh?

Things become curiouser and curiouser when the hermit wakes the Knight and spirits him away into the depths of the cave to witness some extraordinary visions.  (The Saracen has been left sleeping soundly, or so it seems.  We are meant to suspect that he is not).  In the chapel with its parade of passing nuns (who might, or might not be real) we discover that Sir K’s lady-love (with the prosaic name of Edith) is far above him in status and that he has not so much as dared to speak to her, though she does fancy him, oh yes she does.  He is still mooning about over Edith when he is surprised by a couple of quarrelsome dwarves called Nectabanus and Guenevra, claiming to be King Arthur and Guenevere, spirited away from Avalon by fairies.   Before Sir K has time to digest this the hermit returns, sends the dwarves packing and takes the knight back upstairs.  Sir K witnesses the hermit scourging himself, but refrains from following this devout example.

Just when the reader is wondering about the plausibility of all this, the scene switches to the camp of King Richard the Lionheart.  The crusade is not going well, and the king’s bad temper is getting the better of him.  He’s not well, and he’s peeved because of the truce.  He wants to be out Conquering and demands to know why his knights  are loafing about doing nothing when they should be girding their loins and so on.  (Against the enemy that is.  They’re not wasting any time in squabbling amongst themselves).

Richard doesn’t see much of anyone however because his pals have mostly been put off by his surly rantings.  (Though they might also be rightly doubtful about risking infection.  (The camp, we learn later, is whitened with skeletons of those who fell to sickness, not to the enemy).  It was 1192.  Was this before or after they’d burned all the witches (i.e. herbalists with any medical knowledge) at the stake??)  Only one knight is brave enough to enter the lion’s den and that’s the trusty Sir Thomas de Vaux.

Sir Thomas is a blunt, burly Englishman with a powerful distaste for the Scots and his welcome to Sir Kenneth isn’t very friendly.  He doesn’t give him the time of day until Sir K tells him about the miracle cure that Saladin’s physician has performed on his squire.  Suffering the same ailment as the king, the squire was at death’s door but is on the mend. Abashed by the poverty in which one of his King’s command is living, Sir Thomas is suitably impressed by the curative powers of the physician’s elixir and goes back to report to King Richard.

Oh dear, oh dear.  Sir Thomas has just improved his monarch’s opinion of our worthy hero by revealing that Sir K has a fine manly hound in the camp when he puts his foot in it.  The king is livid when he learns where the Knight has been i.e. the cave.  It turns out that – accompanied by a bunch of nuns and the Lady Edith! –  it was the Queen who was floating about in there, doing penitential things in the hope that the Almighty will thus be disposed to cure the king of his malady.  Her pilgrimage was supposed to be kept secret… Not only that but the King almost has an attack of apoplexy when he reads Saladin’s letter offering his physician’s services.  It’s peppered with annoying allusions to Allah and the superiority of the Moslem religion, and looks to suspicious minds a lot like a ruse to poison the King.

Back to the squire’s tent goes Sir Thomas with a sceptical Bishop tagging along but eventually Saladin’s help is accepted and the King overrides objections and takes his medicine.  Not before ticking off Sir Kenneth, however for (a) daring to interfere with the King’s venison, (b) being messenger boy for a defeatist offer of peace from the Council of Princes of the Holy Crusade to Saladin and (c) witnessing the Queen’s pilgrimage.  Is it out of spite that he warns poor Sir K off the lovely Edith, or has he heard about the slum dwelling so unworthy of her, eh?

Then we find out about the plot…

It turns out that not everyone wants Jerusalem recaptured.  Conrade, the Marquis of Montserrat and Giles Aumary, the Grand Master of the Knights Templar would rather the Crusade failed so that they can hang onto their possessions in Syria, and they don’t much care who they have to dispose of to achieve it.  You can guess who needs to be murdered, right?  Of course we know they will come to a bad end because of the Marquis’ ‘love of sarcasm often outran his policy and discretion’.  And besides, he’s French.

Enough already! If I tell you any more of the plot this post will be longer than my ramblings about Don Quixote!

© Lisa Hill

Author: Sir Walter Scott
Title: The Talisman (second of  Tales of the Crusaders)
Publisher: Project Gutenberg via Many Books , first published in 1825
Source: Personal library

ManyBooks (free, but be nice and give them a donation)


  1. I am also enjoying this read. A bit long winded but the information relevant to the Third Crusade and the array of characters retain my interest. Who do you trust in war – your allies or your enemies?



    • Nobody, it seems, can be trusted. It’s the same message as in that very contemporary novel that I just reviewed Prohibited Zone. Trust no one.
      Sad, isn’t it?


  2. I ve never read walter scott ,lisa must admit he is one of these writers I m a bit scared to read ,lovely review ,all the best stu


    • He’s a bit of an acquired taste, Stu, but with your skill in reading books in translation I think you’d adapt to his style quickly:)


  3. Thank you, Lisa. I really enjoyed this; my weekend has now started with a delightfully humorous ‘take’ on Sir Walter – such a relief from the news of the day. I believe that there is much therapeutic value in being able to share a comic outlook and I appreciated this hilarious review much more than a sober assessment of the illustrious author. I can’t believe I read Ivanhoe with enthusiasm all those years ago – don’t think I’d be doing a re-read now.


    • Hi Ros – I must admit that I find it hard to take the some of the classics seriously *grin*
      And what a beautiful day for the weekend it is! A great day to be out and about celebrating Booksellers Day here in Melbourne:)


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