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Le crime, le châtiment et les écossais

Jean Berton
Bill Findlay

II – The Roots of Evil / Les racines du mal

Crime, Punishment, and Civilisation in Walter Scott’s The Talisman

Andrew Monnickendam

Texte intégral

1This paper explores the nature of identity markers by reading a nineteenth-century novel through the perspective of a quite recent politico-sociological study. Walter Scott’s The Talisman (1825) will be subjected to analysis through the prism of Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order (1996). The reason for this matching is straightforward: the former deals with civilizational allegiance projected back to the twelfth century when nation-states where yet to be created; the latter suggests alternatives, when, after the end of the Cold War, nation-states were said to no longer have the importance they had enjoyed for centuries as the West’s predominant form of political organisation. Of special relevance to this volume is the fact that Scott uses crime and punishment as a way of gauging the relative merits of what are, in his terms, the essential values of Christianity and Islam. In other words, civilisations or religions, in this instance there is considerable overlap if not conflation, reveal their true nature in how they administer justice. Although Scott and Huntington initially appear to share little in common, this chapter is founded on the idea that a contrastive study permits abstraction in the most positive sense, in that it allows us to pinpoint the real nature of a society free from the pressures that often turn identity politics into a contest between one set of preconceived ideas and another. Briefly, we can move beyond cultural misconceptions.

2The essay comprises three sections that explore three basic questions: the clash of civilisations in The Talisman; Huntington’s own analysis of this concept; third, justice. The first two issues force us to ponder two incidents, Sir Kenneth’s punishment, and the novel’s final chapter, which describes the summary execution of a despicable plotter. This denouement requires us therefore to consider such questions as: to what extent is instant death justified in the context of the novel? Should such action be condoned?

3 The Talisman was published in 1825 as the second of Scott’s Tales of the Crusaders. Although the obvious link in time is to The Betrothed, published earlier that same year, it reads very much as complementary to Ivanhoe (1819). Ivanhoe, Ann Rigney (2012) points out, has the longest and most intense afterlife of all Scott’s novels. Subsequently, she dedicates two of her seven chapters to it, as

the reception of Ivanhoe […] yields mind-boggling statistics. Besides countless editions in English, it appeared in translation in at least thirty-six languages […] The Library of Scotland has recorded more than six hundred translations, including recent ones in Turkish and Vietnamese. (80)

4The action takes place in England, which at times looks like the Merrie England of folklore – men in green tights – whereas at others, the country is pictured as strife-ridden along lines of class, religion, gender, and ethnicity. But in the popular imagination, it is undoubtedly the former which has the greater impact. Who can forget the doomed romance of the young hero and the dark Rebecca? On the other, despite the presence of gallant crusaders, there is no crusading action; as stated above, the story is set in England.

5It would seem logical that a Crusading novel set in Palestine, focusing on the Third Crusade, on Richard Coeur-de-Lion and his battle with Saladin, would be equally if not more enticing to the literary market. The connection between the two novels certainly exists, as the covers of popular editions, both in the United Kingdom and abroad, assume, or promote, the idea that The Talisman is Ivanhoe’s sequel. That might be thematically the case, but the novel has never achieved popular status. Subsequently, Rigney does not mention it. John O Hayden’s volume on Scott in The Critical Heritage series also draws a blank. Hence, in both instances, one on popular and the other on academic reception, The Talisman is invisible. Why should this be so?

6It starts off promisingly enough. The opening lines set the scene, and immediately we read of the one-to-one battle between the hero of the novel, Kenneth, and Saladin, in the first of his many disguises.

But the Christian knight, well acquainted with the customs of Eastern warriors, did not mean to exhaust his good horse by any unnecessary exertion; and, on the contrary, made a dead halt, confident that, if the enemy advanced to the actual shock, his own weight, and that of his powerful charger, would give him sufficient advantage, without the additional momentum of rapid notion. Equally sensible, and apprehensive of such a probable result, the Saracen cavalier, when he had approached towards the Christian […] (17)

7Unlike a Western movie or similar, this is largely a cerebral battle, in which the winner has to use the right strategy to win. The narrative emphasises that brawn is not “sufficient advantage” in itself to overcome brain, that a cavalier must be “Equally sensible” in both departments to ensure success. Being true gentlemen, after their inconclusive joust, they sit down to a frugal meal during the course of which they express their views, comprising mostly stereotypes, on each other’s society. Kenneth chews “[d] ried hog’s flesh, the abomination of the Moselmah” (26), causing his opponent to ask, “Valiant Nazarene, is it fitting that one who can fight like a man should feed like a dog or a wolf?” (26) The debate moves on to alcohol: Kenneth argues that “[t] he juice of the grape is given to him that will use it wisely.” (26) He counterattacks on the question of “thy enslaved wives” (27), but Kenneth’s exhortation of the idealisation of woman in the annals of courtly love reveals the code as unearthly, if not absurd, as the Saracen proposes. All-in-all, the two noble figures discuss matters in a relatively civilised manner, the only note of real discord occurs when “[a] n electrical shock of passion thrilled through the form of the Emir; but it was only momentarily,” (31); the question of which is the one true religion has emerged.

8From these brief extracts, we can surely appreciate that the texture of The Talisman is structured on a loop from action to abstraction. Certainly, there is a physical struggle, but that is brief, before the combatants turn to an ideological clash, which is likewise not brought to a conclusion either here or, arguably as we shall see, not even in the novel’s conclusion. Furthermore, even the action itself is described without physical details, as if it were a game of chess. This effect is enhanced by the removal of idiosyncrasy from character description. It is true that the characters introduce themselves and exchange names, but their status as individuals is undermined by two strategies. First, their names do not correspond to their real identity; as they both use aliases, neither is who he claims to be. Second, in the absence of their essential self, the text resorts to civilizational labels: the Christian Knight, the Saracen cavalier, the Christian, Valiant Nazarene, the form of the Emir, Eastern, and so on. Scott continually uses these and similar identity labels that are generic rather than specific.

9The brief encounter between Kenneth and the Saladin bodes well, if we are looking forward to swashbuckling. But rather than the beginning of action, it is virtually the end. Saladin refuses both to engage in battle with the Crusaders, or to joust with Richard. There are reasons to justify this within the plot itself, but such inaction responds to another phenomenon. In a recent study of the historical novel, Brian Hamnett develops the idea that Scott often avoids drawing great historical canvasses to propose that additionally he “displaced male-female courtship as the main preoccupation of the novel, and gave central attention to political issues, especially where these involved armed conflict.” (80) Although open to debate, Ivanhoe itself might yield only partially to such analysis, this insightful observation enforces my analysis of The Talisman: the military struggle heralds a more profound rift. The luncheon exchange between the two major characters dealt with collective rather than personal issues.

10Hamnett’s hypothesis holds when we see how much Scott converts a distinct location into something else. We are undoubtedly in Syria, near the Dead Sea, in the land of Sodom and Gomorrah, but Scott turns it into an abstraction by highlighting an emphasis on death, on sulphur, bitumen and naphtha, more reminiscent of Milton’s Hell in Paradise Lost than of one distinctive location, “the land as well as the lake might be termed dead.” (15) To put it another way, both the event and its location have identifiable litigants, but the narrative moves on to a level beyond specificity.

11The novel’s lack of military action is attributable to the ideas set out in its introduction, which deserves citing at some length:

The period relating more immediately to the Crusades, which Richard I., wild and generous, a pattern of chivalry, with all its extravagant virtues, and its no less absurd errors, was opposed to that of Saladin, in which the Christian and English monarch showed all the cruelty and violence of an Eastern Sultan; and Saladin, on the other hand, displayed the deep policy and prudence of a European sovereign, whilst each contended which should excel the other in the knightly qualities of bravery and generosity. (2)

12The two sides seemed to have swapped places, but what has produced this reversal? According to this extract, one source must be the wildness of chivalry, which displays itself not only in battle against enemies but, more pointedly, and with enormous consequence to the Crusade, in rivalry between allies. Accordingly, its energies are directed less against “the heathen” and increasingly against collaborators, who have become adversaries. The Talisman therefore replicates the critique of chivalry that is extensively described in Scott’s 1818 essay on that subject (written for Encyclopaedia Britannica), renowned for its searing attack on celibacy, Catholicism, and Crusader violence. Although the publication date precedes Ivanhoe, this earlier novel does not share the essay’s relentless assault on militant Christianity. Indeed, the romantic input is so powerful that its own dissenting note has been widely overlooked, as Rigney’s monograph proves without a doubt. Yet, if there is a match between the essay and fiction, it is with The Talisman, to such an extent that a certain critical consensus promotes Saladin as the heroic male figure over the candidacy of Kenneth and Richard. For example, in a rather forceful version, Kathyrn Ann Sampson argues that “Scott also replaces the image of the fierce Saracen with that of the heroic desert Arab, a romanticized as well as idealized political symbol, the embodiment of proud independence.” (182) The Crusaders, in contrast, almost cause revulsion, hence Margaret Bruzelius’ claim that “Scott consistently describes Richard and Theodoric as almost grotesquely bestial. Both are hairy and uncontrolled.” (27)

13Let us now move on to the closing years of the twentieth century. Samuel P Huntington published the article “The Clash of Civilisations?” (1993) in Foreign Affairs, which became the basis of The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order (1996). As we can see, whereas the article asks a question, the book-title turns it into a statement. In other words, the hypothesis may be discussed, but the author does not doubt its validity. As the dates of publication might indicate, Huntington’s theories should be contextualised within the discussion of what form the new world order, that is to say, the world after the collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc, would take. Huntington’s view of the future coincided but shared little in common with Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man (1992), which pinpoints the dominant role of economics, though his later publications somewhat modify his quasi-utopian departure point. Huntington opts for the predominance of cultures-cum-civilisations, as stated at the beginning of his study:

The central theme of this book is that culture and cultural identities, which at the broadest levels are civilizational identities, are shaping the patterns of cohesion, disintegration, and conflict in the post-Cold War world. (20)

14When political, economic, or military decisions are taken, cultural identity is pivotal to policy. The gradual weakening of the nation state means that decisions are increasingly taken lower down, often influenced by ethnicity, or higher up, by cultural affinity. Dual allegiance would explain why Greek identity was there and not there in the times of the Spartans and Athenian Republic, or, more recently, how a sense of Italian identity existed for centuries when the Papal States pre-empted the creation of a united Italy. Huntington put forward a simple formula: “The rivalry of the superpowers is replaced by the clash of civilizations.” (28)

15Huntington received plenty of criticism, as we shall soon see, but I would like to stress a few of those points that, retrospectively, inform The Talisman. The West, he insists, is a unique civilization for several specific reasons. First, it is the only civilization that has substantially affected all others. Second, its insistence on the separation of powers marks a substantial difference from, for example, Islamic states. Third, no other culture stresses to the same extent human and individual rights. Fourth, implied but never developed, is the assumption that such rights stem from the West having undergone an Enlightenment, that is secularization, that has totally transformed its original, militant Christianity, a premise articulated at a much greater level of intellectual sophistication by Larry Siedentop (2014).

16To adequately assess the validity of Huntington’s study lies outside the scope of this paper, but it is necessary to indicate three obstacles that any attempt at a reasonably objective judgment must address. The first is his style.

17I have just mentioned that his findings can be summarised in the simple formula of the clash of civilisations. His writing often lurches towards the linguistic register of Readers’ Digest through the production of sweeping generalisations of the sort that we warn postgraduates not to formulate. We can find, amongst countless examples, assertions such as “[t] he dangerous clashes of the future are likely to arise from the interaction of Western arrogance, Islamic intolerance, and Sinic assertiveness.” (183) Frequently, such overviews of world policy lack evidence or sufficient academic rigour. Additionally, they seemed designed to offend as many people as possible! Second, it is in the very nature of a study that makes such huge predictions that some of them are not fulfilled, hence detracting from other successful projections. Generalisations are imbedded in his statement: the West is arrogant, Islam is intolerant, and the Chinese are assertive. By extending the previous point, we can appreciate that a less dogmatic tone would have provided greater credibility. To use an everyday analogy, to say it will rain cats and dogs is one matter, to say the probability of rainfall is high, represents something else. The Huntington style lies closer to the former, thus fermenting adverse criticism. Third, we have to redress a certain misconstrued view of his supposed conservativism. Huntington certainly was a lifelong Democrat, had collaborated with Senator Hubert Humphrey, and later with the Carter administration. However, his views were often cited as justification for American imperial expansion and George Bush’s war on terror. However, Huntington’s statement that “the West is arrogant” is precisely the criticism one would expect from the former President’s adversaries, not his so-called ideological counterparts. Similarly, Huntington’s assessment that the First Gulf War (1991-1992) is the root cause of contemporary Western tension with Islam reveals itself as an innovative, minority opinion, rather than that of a bellicose neo-con.

18Edward Said was arguably Huntington’s fiercest critic, as evident from a lecture entitled “The Myth of the ‘Clash of Civilisations’” delivered at the University of Massachusetts in 1998; it is widely available on the internet. Said maintains that Huntington’s study is less descriptive than prescriptive. It is a chauvinistic attempt to justify and promote Western values, especially those of the Pentagon, since many employees have been out of work since the end of the Cold War! Even though Huntington talks of civilisations and history, Said promotes the idea that essentially his arguments focus on the conflict between Islam and Christianity, in terms very similar to those I have outlined as forming the backbone of The Talisman. Said suggests Huntington’s major weakness results from a methodological stiffness that conceives of cultures as monolithic blocks, that is, as an extension of the self (one block) and the other (a second block). Said proposes that societies comprise both a more official culture of belonging, which is associated with tradition, and such institutions as education. In parallel, we find counter-cultures, which both critique the former and create new values. In a quasi-Bakhtinian dialogue, such diversity creates richness. This dual model of culture, Said insists, is part and parcel of all cultures, whatever their location or religion: Said does indeed use the term “hybrid”. The desire to identify cultures as homogenous is the legacy, Said argues, of nineteenth-century orientalism. This is certainly a convincing argument, but it faces one problem that Said does not address but which Huntington certainly does. Said insists upon the importance of universal human rights in overcoming intolerance and friction between East and West, whereas his opponent contends that such humanistic concepts are essentially Western. This leaves us with a conundrum to unravel: whether universal rights are culturally specific or universal.

19It is also appropriate to highlight one point at which Said’s dual model of culture encounters a serious obstacle, namely, Huntington’s assertion that:

The conflict [between Christianity and Islam] also stemmed, however, from their similarities. Both are monotheistic religions, which unlike polytheistic ones, cannot easily assimilate additional deities, and which see the world in dualist, us-and-them terms. Both are universalistic, claiming to be the one true faith to which all humans can adhere. Both are missionary religions believing that their adherents have an obligation to convert nonbelievers. (210-11)

20It would be safe to say that crime and punishment or, more especially, cruel and/or capital punishment, generate great controversy, because that is precisely where cultural difference is most visible. It has as central a role in The Talisman as it currently does in media coverage of Daesh.

21In The Talisman, crime and punishment are recurrent themes, yet it rarely discusses them openly in the form of interpolations or commentary. Given Scott’s professional background, that is perhaps unexpected. I will concentrate on two crimes and the ensuing punishment; one judged and executed by the West, in the figure or Richard I, the second by the East, under the auspices of Saladin.

22Richard commands Kenneth to stand guard by the English flag, after a heated dispute amongst European leaders has concluded when Richard tramples on the Austrian “rag”. Richard, we should recall, is commander-in-chief of the Crusade, and therefore rightfully demands obedience in military matters. As Kenneth is in fact not a knight but the Scottish Prince in disguise, his position is therefore similar to that of the European monarchs. The Crusade binds them together in a common enterprise while turning a blind eye, if only temporarily, to political rivalry, which is particularly intense in the cases of France and Austria. Scott describes the situation and the inherent fault-lines in the most unequivocal of manners: Richard commands, “‘Valiant Scot […] Thereby stands the banner of England! Watch it! […] Dost thou undertake the charge?’ ‘Willingly’”. (138-39) Scott’s own ambivalent allegiances are difficult to untangle, precisely because they are not as simply presented as in this vivid juxtaposition of the two kingdoms.

23Saladin himself, who possesses expert knowledge of European politics, ridicules Richard and the Crusade by pointing out to Kenneth, during the course of their exchange, that if the English monarch is unable to dominate the whole of “his narrow islet” (36), that is, including Scotland, it is presumptuous to pretend that he will recover the Holy Land for the whole of Christendom. This pointed remark irks Kenneth, who testily replies:

“‘If the King of England had not set forth to the Crusade till he was sovereign of Scotland, the Crescent might, for me, and all true-hearted Scots, glimmer for ever on the walls of Zion.”

Thus far he had proceeded, when, suddenly recollecting himself, he muttered, “Mea culpa! Mea culpa! what have I, a soldier of the Cross, to do with recollection of war between Christian nations!” (36)

24His outburst of nationalism, prioritising the fate of his homeland first and foremost, recedes when he recalls that he is partaking in a much larger campaign than the dispute between two islet kingdoms. His allegiance to the Crusading ideal becomes something that sets him apart from the rancorous European princes, and shows, ironically, the loyal nature of the Scots. How Kenneth’s temporary lapse, if that is what it is, was read in 1825 is a fascinating question, both as concerns Anglo-Scottish relations, so soon after the King’s Jaunt (1822), or as a metaphor for Empire. Scott, as we know, was instrumental in organising the former, and, for example at the close of Waverley, infers that the future Empire represents the major benefit of the Union.

25By expressing Kenneth’s thoughts, the text ensures that questions of allegiance are passed on to the reader. Chapter seven opens with a series of remarks about medieval wars between Scotland and England. Scott is not adverse to describing the foibles of both countries’ leaders, but takes a step back when making a generalisation about national values: “the Scottish would admit no superiority, and their southern neighbours would brook no equality”. (80) Whether this and similar aphorisms display narrative equanimity or a love of abstraction is intriguing, but what is irrefutable is that the text encourages or even demands discussion of such questions.

26 Kenneth is not so dedicated to military values as to be able to resist the temptation of a tryst with Edith Plantagenet, so, for a short time, he deserts his post. Much to his chagrin, he discovers that as much as an affair of the heart, Edith and Queen Berengaria had bet a ring against a bracelet (149) on whether he would leave the flag unguarded. Worse is to follow, as, predictably enough, on his return, it is nowhere to be seen. There is no doubt of what will follow: Kenneth is a traitor and will die a traitor’s death (165).

27That would be the case in normal circumstances, that is, under a military code, under the rules of chivalry, all subsumed to the power of an irascible monarch. Richard, however, does allow Kenneth a certain release from the agonies of a traitor’s death: “It is King Richard’s pleasure that you die undegraded–without mutilation of your body or shame to your arms–and that your head be severed from your trunk by the sword of the executioner.” (169) In my judgement, there is no doubt that Scott is consciously echoing his first novel, Waverley, and specifically the traitor’s death handed out in Carlisle to Fergus. In his final interview with Waverley, Fergus ironically recalls that

“This same law of high treason”, he continued, with astonishing firmness and composure, “is one of the blessings, Edward, with which your free country has accommodated poor old Scotland: her own jurisprudence, as I have heard, was much milder.” (474)

28Fergus’s point is that such barbaric punishment has no place in a civilized society; the judgement itself belongs to the customs that predate civil society. So the question that is framed but not answered must surely be whether the punishment for treatment ever had any other purpose than to inflict the maximum amount of pain on the recipient. English justice, equally marked as such in both novels, executes itself (literally) on the body of a noble Scot. Indeed, we could also indicate another instance of the same configuration by including the death of William Wallace in Jane Porter’s The Scottish Chiefs (1810). In doing so, the inevitable conclusion is that institutionalised barbarity has not varied down the ages, whether the command comes from Edward I, Richard I, or a Hanoverian constitutional monarchy during the Enlightenment. However, Scott highlights one major difference in The Talisman. Kenneth himself does not see his death as an unreasonable act of a loutish despot, on the contrary, after hearing his sentence, he repeats that Richard I is “kind.” (169)

29Kenneth, as befits the novel’s most eligible bachelor, will not be put to death. But how and why does Richard relent? When Edith admits her role in the affair, he is so infuriated that he threatens to pack her off to a convent. In fact, it is Hakim (Saladin in disguise), who has secured his release in exchange for having restored Richard’s health. This first episode of crime, punishment, and justice is bizarre in its conclusion. It would be tempting to say that Scott designs a set-piece in which the human factor, the pleas from the ladies, the appeal from Hakim, overrides the harshness of military law, but that is not satisfactory, as Kenneth now acts as Saladin’s slave in a series of events, all requiring heavy disguise, which seem to have been plucked from a fairy-tale, down to the magical powers of the talisman itself. This line of thinking is undoubtedly convincing, as it seems that here Scott has switched genre, abandoning the historical tale for an Orientalism of the imaginative sort, best exemplified by William Beckford’s Vathek (1782 [in French] and 1786 [in English]). The result, therefore, is that drawing a conclusion is impossible, though we can identify the importance of agency, in this instance Oriental. It is debatable where acquiring a new slave displays evidence of a desire to be more humane than Richard. Judgement depends on the extent to which we judge Kenneth’s further exploits as purely humiliating, or the necessary pain and penance eventual forgiveness demands.

30The novel concludes with a tournament and banquet, which replays the joust between Kenneth and the Saladin and the subsequent packed lunch on a collective level. Representatives from both sides, both religions, both sexes, sit down to a formal dinner to eat, for a “collation”, and to chat. The kind of questions posed a moment ago are brought to the fore when Saladin executes the Grand Master of the Templars for treachery (against his fellow Christians.)

The sabre of Saladin left its sheath as lightning leaves the cloud. It was waved in the air, –and the head of the Grand Master rolled to the extremity of the tent, while the trunk remained for a second standing, with the goblet still clenched in its grasp, then fell, the liquor mingling with the blood that spurted from the veins. (310)

31In a rather surreal take on transubstantiation, the Grand Master is dealt with in so brief an instant that, literally, we never see what happens: the sword is in the air at one moment, next, the head is on the floor. Initially, this brutal execution would indicate that Saladin has acted equally badly if not worse than Richard. After all, there has been no warning, not even an attempt at an explanation, or a trial. However, rather than acting impulsively, Saladin has gone at some length to search out the facts of the Templars’ dastardly plot. The text stresses his scientific approach in a manner that predicts the rise of detective fiction in the mid-Victorian period.

32Saladin’s methodical investigation and cogent explanation lead Richard to ask, perhaps rhetorically,

“If this be true, as I doubt not, we have witnessed a great act of justice, though it bore a different aspect. But wherefore in this presence? wherefore with thine own hand?”
“I had designed otherwise,” said Saladin; “but had I not hastened his doom, it had been altogether averted, since, if I had permitted him to taste of my cup, as he was about to do, how could I, without incurring the brand of inhospitality, have done him to death as he deserved? Had he murdered my father, and afterwards partaken of my food and my bowl, not a hair of his head could have been injured by me. But enough of him–let his carcass and his memory be removed from amongst us.” (312-13)

33The Crusaders are so sobered by what they have witnessed that their spirits are dampened; they have nothing left to say. They have been made aware, graphically so, of their own inadequacy. Saladin’s justice reminds them that they have no force left due to their own treachery and desertion, so war will never take place because it is not necessary. The death of a leading military figure at the hands of Saladin, performed with such ease and dexterity, serves as a premonition of their fate if they remained in Palestine.

34The bloodiest moment of the novel, whether seen or not seen, leaves us with a series of doubts and questions that are only partially answered, but which all pivot on the vital question of whether the punishment fits the crime, and whether the punishment can be explained in any other way than as a clash of civilisations, or, to cite Richard’s own words, with “a different aspect”. After all, Saladin has hastened execution in order not to break societal customs.

35Summary execution might not seem the adequate punishment, but we have to recall that in a novel where disguise and shape-shifting are omnipresent, the only one constant is the evil nature of the Templars. We can appreciate the sagaciousness of Saladin, in that he alone knows what has been going on, while the Templars’ acquaintances, that is to say, those who live in the same camp, are completely oblivious to their real nature. Saladin has acted while they squabble. His sagacity shows up Richard’s bluff nature, for the only Western character with similar attributes (to Saladin) is King Philip of France, who is so wise that he is the first to appreciate that the Crusade is a waste of time (at least for current political aims), and announces his return home.

36Summary execution might seem barbarous. At least Richard allowed Kenneth time to explain his own breach of military rules. As previously mentioned, many pages are given over to various pleaders who beg Richard for mercy, to which he eventually accedes in a rather roundabout fashion. But if that places the Christian King in a more favourable light, perhaps it is worth pointing out that, contrariwise, Saladin’s punishment is instant. There is no drawn out pain, no extended torture, which Montaigne, for example, sees as a defining factor of Western civilization, and Scott, as the defining punishment for Jacobites.

37Those, who like James Hogg, believed that Scott’s death was hastened by his fear of the 1832 Reform Bill, might appreciate in Saladin’s wise punishment of a heinous crime the advantage that a strong, intelligent ruler with a central purpose brings. In contrast, the squabbling rulers of France, England and Austria are incapable of running a joint project. Only strong leaders get things done. This is arguably Scott’s apology for the figure of Saladin, perhaps of Lord Wellington, or for the Union itself.

38At one moment, in order to seal a relatively enduring peace, it is proposed that Edith Plantagenet should marry Saladin. In Kenneth’s words, who “would sanction a union so unnatural, as that of a Christian maiden with an unbelieving Saracen.”? (160) Within the logic of the book, the answer would be assuredly not “ignorant, bigoted Nazarene [s]” (160), in other words, the Crusaders as a whole. As Scott himself explains in the accompanying note, he is playing with history here. It was in fact Saladin’s younger brother, Malek Ahdel, who was interested in marrying Richard’s widowed sister, Joanna of Sicily. (This is the background for Sophie Cottin’s Mathilde [1804]). Given that Kenneth has fallen in love with Edith, his reaction responds either to sexual jealousy or to religious intolerance, or to both. Again, it is not made clear, but a Huntington-inspired answer would claim that Kenneth’s reaction betrays revulsion that primarily obeys civilizational parameters. I am referring to Huntington’s remark about intransigence, mentioned earlier: “Both [Christianity and Islam] are universalistic, claiming to be the one true faith to which all humans can adhere.” (211) All the prejudices of the kind fundamental to Said’s analysis of Western orientalism require only the smallest push in order to surface in their simplest or crudest form. This, let us recall, is not Richard speaking, but the more civilized, cultured Kenneth, who himself has spent a considerable length of time in Saladin’s camp. He, more than anyone else, has first-hand knowledge of a different civilisation, but at the first provocation, he reverts to Richard’s limited horizons.

39Huntington talked of Western arrogance and Islamic intolerance. The Talisman undoubtedly shows plenty of the former, in a milder form in the case of the opening chapters, and in more extreme, bigoted terms, towards the end. But what of Islamic intolerance? I believe that this is best answered by looking yet again at Saladin’s summary justice. Out of this episode, we can reach two further conclusions that allow us to go beyond the suggestion that the text primarily promotes the virtues of powerful leadership.

40An alternative reading would highlight the role played by religion. More so than national politics, as the squabbling Crusader leaders are metonymic of future nation states, and Scottish Kenneth questions himself as to why he follows Anglo-Norman Richard, the clash of cultures is essentially a clash of religions, in the case of the Third Crusade, between a disunited Christianity and a united Islam. The clash of cultures-cum-religions might lead to overlapping and even confusion in its basic terms of reference. Nonetheless, the West, in both Huntington’s and Said’s terms is an amalgam of the two. In the debate surrounding the drafting of the European Constitution (2005), several Christian Democrat parties proposed that mention should be made of Europe’s Christian past. As I stated, Saladin and Kenneth lose their civilized veneer precisely when this issue emerges. Saladin might be wiser than his European counterparts, but that does not make him any more tolerant. Scott highlights the “fanatical zeal which animated the followers of the Cross and the Crescent against each other” (19). The doubt remains as to where this lesson in comparative civilization is leading us. That it is both comparative and fluid is surely the lesson the introduction emphasises, when it talks of the role reversal of Christian and Islamic monarchs.

41The answer might be found, I would argue, in the misconception of what the comparisons indicate: that one is better or worse than the other. Perhaps, this is a comfortable, reassuring stance, as it leaves one or arguably both sides with something positive in their favour. Yet I believe we have to move out of our comfort zone and face the possibility that perhaps The Talisman presents us with a view of two bloodthirsty civilisations that behave, depending on one’s views, equally or comparatively evil. We are not witnessing civilisations confronting barbarians, but two barbarian hordes locked in bloody combat. Nowhere is this more evident than in the narration of crime and punishment.

42The violence and justice meted out by Richard to Kenneth can be traced back to concrete origins, namely Scott’s scepticism about chivalry that informed the Encylopaedia Britannica essay and whose influence extends from The Talisman’s introduction to its final paragraph. Saladin’s superior status, his wisdom and expertise, certainly make him stand out; no reader could imagine Richard skilfully disguising himself or curing anyone of illness. But the comparative argument falls down at the nexus between crime and punishment. For, it is precisely because we associate skilfulness with superiority – after all, it is the opposite of bluffness, incompetence, and similar words – that it is tempting to uncritically accept Saladin’s justification of the summary execution. After all, if Richard got up and chopped someone’s head off, more likely than not, his action would be read as that of an impulsive murderer. In other words, The Talisman portrays the serious danger of the predictable consequence of one of elementary mistakes that justice strives to avoid at all costs: namely, to judge a person’s character instead of the crime itself. For, despite what Saladin would have us believe, the summary execution was essentially murder, not an act of justice. In contrast, Richard at least relented and listened, but the world of Saladin functions as an absolute state must: through unquestioned authority.

43The motif of treason and torturous punishment echo Waverley, so it is justifiable to propose that The Talisman reveals deeply-felt anxieties about punishment and torture not located in the recent history of the ‘45 but in a legendary Middle Ages. The Talisman functions by estrangement, and if this strategy is successful, it obliges us to reassess the contemporary world of its author, if not beyond. The novel, I hope to have shown, resolves one major question, leaving another one open. Like Huntington, it demonstrates the importance of civilizational conflict. Its extended account of crime and punishment opens as many doors as it closes. In the twelfth century, justice depended on authoritarian figures. Whether sentences were arbitrary or followed codes of practice outlined by Chivalry or Islamic law should not shut us off from considering their value in human terms. From that angle, neither side comes out with flying colours, and positive values are scanty. Whether the situation had improved by 1825 or 2016 corresponds to the reader to decide. The links, echoes, and comparisons that permeate the text suggest that if the world is indeed riddled by a clash of civilisations, as far as crime and punishment are concerned, both intransigent sides remain a substantial way-off from being civilized. Both adhere firmly to the commandment that war is the right way to settle differences.



BRUZELIUS, Margaret. “‘The King of England... Loved to Look upon A MAN’, Melancholy and Masculinity in Scott’s Talisman”, Modern Language Quarterly 62: 1, Seattle, March 2001, 19-41.

HAMNETT, Brian, The Historical Novel in Nineteenth-Century Europe, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2011.

HAYDEN, John O, Scott: The Critical Heritage, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970.

HUNTINGTON, Samuel P, The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order, New York, Simon & Schuster, 1996.

RIGNEY, Ann, The Afterlives of Walter Scott, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2012.

SAMPSON, Kathryn Ann, “The Romantic Literary Pilgrimage to the Orient: Byron, Scott and Burton”, Dissertation, University of Texas at Austin, 1999, Ann Arbor: UMI, 2000. AAT 995972.

SCOTT, Walter. Miscellaneous Prose Works. Volume 6. Chivalry, Romance, The Drama. Edinburgh: Robert Cadell, 1834.

______, The Talisman: A Tale of the Crusaders, London, Dent, 1977, (1825).

______, Waverley, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1985, (1814).

SIEDENTOP, Larry, Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism, London, Allen Lane, 2014.


Universitat Autònoma, Barcelona.
Universitat Autònoma, Barcelona, Espagne.
Andrew Monnickendam is Professor of English at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. His two major research interests, which interlock at many junctures, are the nineteenth-century historical novel, and the literature of war and peace. As regards the former, he edited the only modern edition of Christian Isobel Johnstone’s national tale Clan Albin (1815) for the Association of Scottish Literary Studies in 2003, and is author of The Novels of Walter Scott and his Literary Relations, Mary Brunton, Susan Ferrier and Christian Johnstone (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2013). On the latter, he was co-editor (along with Aránzazu Usandizaga, of Back to Peace : Retribution and Reconciliation in the Postwar Period (2007), a Choice outstanding academic publication. He is currently directing a research project on contemporary war narratives.

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