The Talisman by Sir Walter Scott

1825. 358 pages. Hardcover. Dodd, Mead & Co.

From: University Library

For the challenge: Read 19 books older than myself

In a nutshell:

Set in the time of the Crusades (circa 1191), The Talisman primarily follows the travails of a Scottish knight, Sir Kenneth.  Due in part to the extreme illness of King Richard, the European allied armies have established a temporary  peace with Saladin, the Sultan leading the Muslim forces.

The story opens as Sir Kenneth travels alone in a desert.  He soon encounters another lone fighter, an Emir from Kurdistan and they battle.  When each recognizes the other as a worthy adversary, they declare a truce between them.  Sir Kenneth is on his way to see a hermit in Jordan and the Emir offers to show him the way.  Thus begins an adventure that will involve disguises, dastardly villains, trickery, romance and a climactic duel.


The Talisman is a straight-out old-fashioned adventure tale – I think the word “rollicking” would be an appropriate adjective.  There’s a real cinematic quality to the book: I could see the action unfolding clearly in my head as if it was on a movie screen.  I’d never read Sir Walter Scott before, but the man knows how to lay out a scene.  Here is a spoiler-free excerpt from the climactic joust scene:

The silence of suspense was now general: men breathed thicker, and their very souls seemed seated in their eyes, while not a sound was to be heard save the snorting and pawing of the good steeds, who, sensible of what was about to happen, were impatient to dash into career.

The characters are well-drawn and distinct and even the minor characters all add to the story in some way.  For example, the Duke of Austria is continually followed around by two attendants: a sayer of sayings, who says wise and poetic words, and a jester.  The two play off each other to hilarious effect.

Indeed, one thing I didn’t expect in The Talisman was the humor.  I laughed out loud several times.  At one point, King Richard’s faithful friend, Thomas de Vaux, is unsure whether they should accept Saladin’s offer of his personal physician to treat the ill King.  (Saladin was much admired by King Richard.)  de Vaux consults the Archbishop of Tyre about the matter, and the Archbishop launches into an explanation of how even ‘infidels’ may be used by God for the service of Christians.

“Again, Jews are infidels to Christianity, as well as Mohammedans.  But there are few physicians in the camp excepting Jews, and such are employed without scandal or scruple.  Therefore, Mohammedans may be used for their service in that capacity – quod erat demonstrandum.”

This reasoning entirely removed the scruples of Thomas de Vaux who was particularly moved by the Latin quotation, as he did not understand a word of it.

p. 113

A praise often given to current historical novels is that they are well-researched.  This is not that sort of historical novel.  Sir Walter Scott assumes that his readers already know the history of the Crusades and is not interested in retelling the details of that history.  Rather, Sir Walter Scott was taken by the contrast and similarities between King Richard and Saladin and decided to take that impression of historical figures and run with it.  As for staying true to history, Scott says in his introduction:

One of the inferior characters introduced was a supposed relation of Richard Coeur-de-Lion – a violation of the truth of history, which gave offence to Mr Mills, the author of the History of Chivalry and the Crusades, who was not, it may be presumed, aware that romantic fiction naturally includes the power of such invention, which is indeed one of the requisites of the art.

Basically: yeah, I made things up because it’s, you know, fiction.

The cross-cultural interactions between the European characters and various Muslim characters are entertaining.  Though I wouldn’t trust Sir Walter Scott’s 19th century perspective of the Muslim characters to be complete or accurate,  his depiction seemed respectful, by and large.  I loved how Scott had the Emir poke fun at the excesses of European chivalry, especially that tradition’s tendency to place women on pedestals.  The Emir observes that the woman Sir Kenneth loves would “when pressed by opportunity and a forward lover . . . thank him for treating her as a mortal than as a goddess.”

Some of the ending revelations come off as a little too convenient, but these overly neat plot turns were soon counterbalanced by the tartness of a villain getting his due in a dramatic fashion.  I was very content when I closed the book.

So, in sum, I really enjoyed The Talisman and I will definitely be reading more Sir Walter Scott in the future.


Filed under Book Review

2 responses to “The Talisman by Sir Walter Scott

  1. piningforthewest

    Thanks for that Christy, I feel a lot better about having to read The Talisman now. I think in general it’s a trait of Scottish authors to be very descriptive, especially of the surroundings, even nowadays, the setting is almost like another character.

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