Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Adventure classics -- Skywalker's 12th century cousin

The Talisman

by Sir Walter Scott


PBS ran a series in the late 1970’s called Once Upon a Classic, which blogger eyeofthekat at calls Masterpiece Theatre for Kids. I wasn’t quite a kid, but I remember putting my young daughter down for a nap on Sunday afternoons, when the series aired on the Dallas PBS station, praying she’d go to sleep before the next installment of The Talisman came on. In those pre-TiVo (even pre-VHS) days, a sleeping toddler was my only hope for seeing British heart-throb Patrick Ryecart as Sir Kenneth, the Knight of the Leopard, in Sir Walter Scott’s tale of the Crusades.

The anonymous blogger eyeofthekat describes Rycart’s version of Sir Kenneth as “Luke Skywalker’s curly-haired English cousin, a knight with a sense of honor beyond his years.” That’s for a character loosely based on the twelfth-century Prince David of Scotland, who also held the English title, Earl of Huntingdon.

The novel is set at the time of the Third Crusade (1189-1192) with King Richard I of England as de facto military leader of the European forces fighting to win control of the holy city of Jerusalem from the Muslims (aka Saracens) led by Saladin (Salah ed-Din), the great Kurdish sultan who united Syria and Egypt.

Scott was deeply in debt and writing with desperate haste to pay off his creditors at the time of The Talisman’s publication in 1826. And, soul of honor though he was, he played fast and loose with a few facts to enhance the novel’s appeal and his financial stake. The historical counterpart of Sir Kenneth was probably in his late forties at the time the action was set, Saladin the same (although historically describing himself to Richard as in his fifties, due to the difference between Muslim lunar and European solar calendars). But they appear significantly younger in the novel. Apparently, ageism has been with us for a long time.

Scott also got dings from a Mr. Mills, author of History of Chivalry and the Crusades, as Scott himself mentions in the introduction to the 1832 edition of The Talisman, issued shortly before his death, for inventing the character of Lady Edith Plantagenet. This was a vaguely-related cousin of King Richard’s -- actually one of Scott’s more sensible heroines -- and Sir Kenneth’s lady-love in the novel.

To Mr. Mills’ objections, Scott replied that “romantic fiction naturally includes the power of such invention, which indeed is one of the requisites of the art.”

To summarize the story, Sir Kenneth, traveling incognito, meets with and is befriended by Saladin (also incognito). He fails a test of honor set by King Richard, but only because he believes Lady Edith demands his service. Saladin not only saves the life of Sir Kenneth’s dog (fulfilling a major requirement for sympathetic heroes in Western fiction), but comes to the rescue of the knight, who restores his honor in King Richard’s eyes, marries Edith, and receives the healing talisman of the title.

That’s compressing way too much information. You’ll have to read the book, since, alas, the Once Upon a Classic series apparently has never been released on DVD. Of course, the book form of The Talisman is still available on Scott’s story is impervious to time.

(Next Wednesday -- Adventure classics stays in British mode with what may be the late Rosemary Sutcliff’s greatest novel, The Mark of the Horse Lord.)

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