‘The Talisman’ is set during the Second Crusade, and skilfully interweaves historical facts and personalities with the fictional narrative. Scott single-handedly invented the ‘historical novel’ as we now think of it, and this is one of his finest.
The story follows the fortunes of Sir Kenneth, a Scottish knight who is in the Holy Land - occupied by an army of Christian allies (France, England and Austria) - to restore his family fortunes. At the opening of the novel he has a chance encounter with an Arab doctor in the desert (who is actually Saladin in disguise), and takes him to the Crusader camp to tend the sick King Richard with his ‘amulet’. He soon becomes a firm favourite with the King, but due to the machinations of Leopold of Austria, Conrade of Montserrat and the Grand Master of the Templars, he is tricked into a treasonous act and exiled from the camp. He is taken in by the ‘physician’, and disguised as a messenger from Saladin re-enters the Crusader camp shortly afterwards, with a proposal from Saladin for ending the conflict, and whilst there saves the King’s life from a assassin.
The fanatical Grand Master has been in cahoots with Richard’s enemies in the camp, and in an exciting finale he is beheaded by Saladin and the story resolves itself.
Sir Kenneth is rehabilitated and united with Lady Edith, a lady-in-waiting to Queen Berengaria, whom he’d loved in the chivalric manner but because of their difference in rank had been unable to take further; he finally reveals that he is the son of the King of Scotland, travelling incognito, and that therefore there is now no bar to their union.
As well as the exciting narrative, the novel draws remarkably vivid portraits of the Royal protagonists – Richard of England, Philip of France and Leopold of Austria. Richard’s queen, Berengaria, is portrayed as a spoilt adolescent, and Saladin as a model of wisdom and tolerance when compared with the brutish Crusaders.
This is the book on which all popular conceptions about Richard, Saladin and the Crusades have tended to be based, and despite being published in the early 19th century it has lost none of its appeal. Witness to this is a major BBC drama adaptation in 1999, and the Ridley Scott movie ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ contains many of its elements.