Sir Walter Scott's The Betrothed (1825) and The Talisman (1825)


Sir Walter Scott's The Betrothed (1825) and The Talisman (1825)

The Betrothed

Like Ivanhoe, Sir Walter Scott’s The Betrothed takes place in a realm far removed from the immediate concerns of the Holy Land; crusading serves as a narrative frame rather than the primary focus of events.  The novel’s main plot follows the fortunes of the noble Eveline, whose extraordinary beauty secures the affections of a Welsh prince.  She and her father, considering this prince too barbaric to be joined with their Norman bloodline, refuse the match, and the Welsh Prince promptly attacks.  Eveline’s father dies in battle, and the fortress seems doomed. Eveline makes a vow to the Virgin that she will offer herself in marriage to any knight who delivers her.  Unfortunately, her rescuer is the noble Hugo de Lacy who, although of noble fame and Norman blood, is considerably her senior and physically unattractive.  Eveline nobly suppresses her passion for de Lacy’s nephew Damian and enters into a betrothal with the older knight.  However, her situation is rendered yet more complex when de Lacy is forced to fulfill his vow to embark on a crusade in the Holy Land.  He leaves Damian as her guardian, and the young knight at first maintains his distance in order to preserve their honor.  After Damian is wounded during an attempt to kidnap Eveline, however, the lady takes him into the castle to nurse him back to health, despite her entourage’s concern for her honor.  Only then does she discover that Damian has been accused by his scheming cousin of treason, and Eveline, who refuses to surrender him to the king’s justice, is similarly accused of treason.  Fortunately, Hugo, disguised as a palmer, returns from Crusade in the nick of time; although he initially believes the tales of Damian and Eveline’s infidelity and treachery, he quickly becomes acquainted with the real state of affairs and sets all to rights. 

As a Crusades romance, The Betrothed differs significantly from Scott’s The Talisman and also from Ivanhoe.  First, it takes place somewhat earlier: Richard I makes a cameo appearance as a young boy in this narrative, but the novel’s action takes place under the aegis of his father, Henry II.  Second, crusading appears chiefly as a diversion from the true domestic duties of the English knight.  After he becomes tacitly responsible for Eveline’s safety and welfare, Hugo seeks to delay the fulfillment of his promise to go on Crusade.  Indeed, Scott represents Sir Hugo’s departure as contrary to the interests of the realm as well as to the lady: 
It was not, however, uncommon for kings, princes, and other persons of high consequence, who had taken upon them the vow to rescue Jerusalem, to obtain delays, and even a total remission of their engagement, by proper application to the Church of Rome.  The Constable was sure to possess the full advantage of his sovereign’s interest and countenance, in seeking permission to remain in England, for he was the noble to whose valour and policy Henry had chiefly entrusted the defence of the disorderly Welsh marches; and it was by no means with his good-will that so useful a subject had ever assumed the cross. (159-60) 
The sense of Henry’s displeasure and the emphasis that Scott places on the dangers posed by the Welsh marches reinforces the divisive social structures of England that are continually emphasized throughout the novel.  The maintenance of domestic stability, rather than the crusade, Scott suggests, should occupy the attention of England’s chivalry.  Although many nineteenth-century crusades romances suggest that the Saxons, Scotts, and Normans are united in purpose through the crusades, this novel offers a different take: English lords who should be constrained to abjure all domestic strife with their neighbors because of their crusading vows find themselves unable to resist the impetus to battle. 

The most direct condemnation of the Crusades comes through the voice of the Flemish Wilkin Flammock.  Although this character’s commercial interests, love of beer, and unwillingness to expose himself to danger through needless acts of knightly gallantry are occasionally mocked by the novel’s other characters, Flammock nonetheless remains as the novel’s bastion of sound common sense.  Thus, his questioning of the Crusades is meant to resonate with the readers’ more practical sensibilities.  His declamation is worth quoting at length, for it encapsulates the substance of many nineteenth-center objections to both the medieval Crusades and modern imperialism:
‘May Heaven forgive me if it be a sin!  but I see little save folly in these Crusades, which the priesthood have preached up so successfully.  Here has the Constable [Eveline’s betrothed, Sir Hugo de Lacy] been absent for nearly three years, and no certain tidings of his life or death, victory or defeat.  He marched from hence, as if he meant not to draw bridle or sheathe sword until the Holy Sepulchre was won from the Saracens, yet we can hear with no certainty whether even a hamlet has been taken from the Saracens.  In the meanwhile, the people that are at home grow discontented; their lords, with the better part of their followers, are in Palestine—dead or alive we scarcely know; the people themselves are oppressed and flayed by stewards and deputies, whose yoke is neither so light nor so lightly endured as that of the actual lord.  The commons, who naturally hate the knights and gentry, think it no bad time to make some head against them—ay, and there be some of noble blood who would not care to be their leaders, that they may have their share in the spoil; for foreign expeditions and profligate habits have made many poor; and he that is poor will murder his father for money.  I hate poor people; and I would the devil had every man who cannot keep himself by the work of his own hand!’ (248-9) 
Flammock’s diatribe—for it is scarcely anything less—contains a curious mix of sentiments that suggest his reevaluation of the relationship among chivalry, crusading, and nobility.  He reinforces the nobility’s inherent dignity and right to rule by asserting that their yoke, by comparison to that of the lower-class stewards, is “light” and “lightly endured.”  He suggests, however, that the supposedly noble chivalric quest ultimately erodes the honor of the nobility: it impoverishes them and tempts them to revolt.  True nobility, then, does not require a crusade to regain the Holy Land but instead requires able and just domestic stewardship.  The novel reinforces this message by rewarding Wilkin Flammock with a politically independent Flemish community to supervise. 

Likewise, the novel’s system of justice punishes rather than rewards Sir Hugo for the fulfillment of his crusading vow.  He ignores Flammock’s advice to “[r]emain in your land—rule your own vassals—and protect your own bride” (210-11).  He asserts, “Let those who lost the Holy Sepuchre regain it” (211).  In giving this advice, he challenges the morals of those who hold the Holy Land: “If those Latins and Greeks, as they call them, are no better men than I have heard, it signifies very little whether they or the heathen have the country that has cost Europe so much blood and treasure” (211).  Flammock’s clause—“as they call them”—creates an explicit equation of the Saracens and their rivals: neither are European or hold the domestic values prized by Flammock.  Although de Lacy acknowledges the sense of Flammock’s words, he maintains that he is bound inextricably to the Crusade.  His choice of traditional chivalry over domestic values thus forces him to relinquish Eveline’s hand.

Damian de Lacy, by contrast, illustrates the principles of a revised chivalric virtue that simultaneously preserves both knightly honor and domestic ties.  He twice demonstrates his willingness to go on Crusade in order to preserve England’s domestic unity: he initially is meant to take Sir Hugo’s place on the Crusade so that his uncle can remain with his betrothed bride.  When that scheme fails, he instead remains to guard the lady and attempts to maintain the domestic unity of his lands (that he fails is incidental to the effort).  When Sir Hugo returns from the crusade, he disguises himself as a pilgrim in order to test his nephew’s fidelity by delivering the tidings that Damian’s uncle is being held captive by the Saracens and requires Damian to exchange places with him.  On both of these occasions, Damian demonstrates a ready willingness to maintain domestic ties by journeying to the Holy Land.  He also demonstrates his ability to participate in domestic discourses: he anticipates the Lady Eveline’s needs without being asked, and, while traveling, he creates domestic idylls that appeal to her sensibilities.  This infusion of domestic virtue into the knightly ethos renders Damian the proper representative of the new chivalry.  It is therefore fitting that he, rather than the crusading Sir Hugo, functions as the novel’s hero and receives the lady’s hand. 

The Talisman

Sir Walter Scott’s 1825 The Talisman, unlike either The Betrothed or Ivanhoe, focuses on the crusaders’ adventures in the Holy Land rather than on the domestic impact of the soldiers’ departure and return.  Like Scott’s other romances, The Talisman circulated widely within nineteenth-century English culture.  Indeed, the themes which Scott introduces, including domestic tensions among Norman, Saxon, and Scottish knights, the conflict between knightly duty and romantic interest, and the curious relationship between the honorable Saracen and the honorable Christian, all emerge as central features in later contributions to the genre in England.  Although the themes, motifs, and interpretations that emerge in this novel frequently did not originate with Scott himself —Sophie Cottin’s Matilda and Malek Adhel, for instance, engages with similar issues—The Talisman’s vast popular appeal positions this novel as the source text for many subsequent Victorian crusades romances.

Scott’s original preface to the novel reveals several interesting patterns in the early nineteenth-century crusades romance genre.  He pleads his own ignorance of Eastern customs and manner as an excuse for the lack of exotic descriptions in The Betrothed, remarking that, in contrast to his own ignorance, “The love of travelling had pervaded all ranks and carried the subjects of Britain into all quarters of the world” (3).  By making this statement, Scott invites direct comparison between modern travel and the crusaders’ ventures: contemporary adventurers’ knowledge of the East gives them authority to critique imaginative representations of the medieval crusade.  Scott concludes by describing the various ways in which his narrative distorts historical fact, stating that “[i]t may be said, in general, that most of the incidents introduced in the following tale are fictitious; and that reality, where it exists, is only retained in the characters of the piece” (8).  As Charlotte Yonge’s Abbeychurch demonstrates, however, Scott’s novels came to occupy a position of historical truth for their nineteenth-century readership.  Elizabeth, one of the novel’s heroines, asserts that “I believe such stories as Ivanhoe were what taught me to like history;” she further argues that the value of novels such as Ivanhoe is that “they teach us to realize and understand people whom we find in history” (77-8). As Stephen Bann has suggested in Romanticism and the Rise of History, proponents of Romantic history, who include Scott and Yonge, were far more concerned with the feelings generated by the contemplation of history rather than its actual facts (the focus of scientific history) (23-5).  Scott’s works were thus instrumental in the creation of a new genre of historical fiction that relied upon a promiscuous intermixture of imagination and fact.  

Scott places women at the center of his chivalric system, but they play a contradictory role: they both inspire the Christian knights to valor and cause nearly all of the rifts between the knights.  Kenneth informs the disbelieving Saladin that the women of Europe—and only the women of Europe—can inspire such chivalric deeds: “The beauty of our fair ones gives point to our spears and edge to our swords; their words are our law; and as soon will a lamp shed lustre when unkindled, as a knight distinguish himself by feats of arms, having no mistress of his affection” (30).  The object of Kenneth’s own devotion, Richard’s kinswoman Edith, appears to live up to these standards.  And yet, despite these protestations of women’s virtue and honor, Kenneth’s own troubles in the novel are brought about by women.  Berengaria, far less positively portrayed here than in many other nineteenth-century crusades romances, mischievously summons the Scottish knight when he is honor-bound to guard Richard’s standards, using tokens that she has taken from Edith.  Scott reports that “[Kenneth] paused, and could not resolve to forego an opportunity—the only one which might ever offer, to gain grace in her eyes whom he had installed as sovereign of his affections” (193).  Scott here illustrates the breakdown of the chivalric system.  Despite Kenneth’s earlier assertion that women inspire noble and heroic deeds, Berengaria’s capricious jokes become the source of his dishonor and imprisonment.   

Scott’s novel is deeply concerned with the establishment of coherent and cohesive male bonds.  Indeed, these bonds of re-conceptualized chivalric masculinity consistently triumph over the barriers created by race and religion.  In the initial conflict between Kenneth and Saladin, Scott explains that “[t]he distinction of religions, nay, the fanatical zeal which animated the followers of the Cross and of the Crescent against each other, was much softened by a feeling so natural to generous combatants, and especially cherished by the spirit of chivalry” (18). Crusading thus plays a curious role within the text.  While it motivates the ideological zeal that precipitates conflicts between Christian and Muslim knights, the physical act of chivalric battle simultaneously erases these ideological distinctions.  The crusade’s ideological and military components both operate in direct opposition, ultimately allowing fraternal bonds between honorable Christian and Muslim knights to supersede their ideological differences.  Richard himself, during his illness and in the heat of his frustration with the inactive Christian armies, cries, “My life for the faith of the Soldan!  Would he but abjure his false law, I would aid him with my sword to drive this scum of French and Austrians from his dominions, and think Palestine as well ruled by him as when her kings were anointed by the decree of Heaven itself” (142).

Indeed, Scott hints that the conversion of the Eastern knights has already taken place, fostered by the bonds of chivalric masculinity.  Even in the early pages of the novel, he asserts that “[the Saracens] were indeed no longer the fanatical savages, who had burst from the centre of Arabian deserts, with the sabre in one hand and the Koran in the other” (18).  This alteration, Scott argues, is the result of the Saracens’ contact with the Western Christians.  Like Sophie Cottin, Scott argues that the superior military skill and higher standards of courage and honor exhibited by the Christian knights inspired their Eastern counterparts.  He writes that:
[I]n contending with the Western Christians, animated by a zeal as fiery as their own, and possessed of as unconquerable courage, address, and success in arms, the Saracens gradually caught a part of their manners, and especially of those chivalrous observances which were so well calculated to charm the minds of a proud and conquering people.  They had their tournaments and games of chivalry; they had even their knights, or some rank analogous; and, above all, the Saracens observed their plighted faith with an accuracy which might sometimes put to shame those who owned a better religion. (19)
This passage suggests that western chivalry has superimposed its structures upon the Muslim knights.  In the context of the nineteenth-century crusades romance, this assertion is particularly important. Scott and the later participants in the genre were doomed to record a failed enterprise: the city of Jerusalem did not, in fact, return to Christian hands during Richard’s crusade.  Replacing a narrative of military conquest with one of moral and ideological transformation therefore mitigates the failure to retake Jerusalem. Within a nineteenth-century ideological framework, the aims of imperialist ventures into the East are fulfilled by the superimposition of Western culture onto the “fanatical savages” who had previously inhabited the region.  Indeed, when confronted with the suggestion that he should marry Edith to Saladin, thereby gaining control over Jerusalem, Richard initially reacts with anger and horror, but subsequently muses, “For why should I not seek for brotherhood and alliance with a Saracen, brave, just, generous, who loves and honours a worthy foe, as if he were a friend, whilst the princes of Christendom shrink from the side of their allies, and forsake the cause of heaven and good knighthood?” (273).

The Talisman is thus populated with Muslim knights who exhibit supposedly Christian virtues and Christian knights who profess great affection for their Eastern counterparts; Scott has effectively erased the dichotomy between the races.  Kenneth’s initial encounter with Saladin, disguised as the emir Sheerkohf, sets the tone for the novel’s engagement with the East and Oriental culture.  Although Scott initially establishes the physical differences between the Eastern and Western knights, directly inviting his readership to read both as the physical prototype of their cultures, he ultimately emphasizes the interchangeability of western and eastern identities.  Saladin’s flexible identity appears even in the very early pages of the text: he initially appears as Sheerkohf, is later addressed as Ilderim, and subsequently takes on the identity of the physician Adonbec before at last appearing in his own person.  Although Saladin never alters his race or religion, the multiple roles that he assumes within the text nonetheless indicate a certain mutability of identity which allows him to move easily among Christians and Muslims.  Sir Kenneth himself demonstrates more clearly that this flexibility can transcend race as well as profession: banished from Richard’s camp for obeying the ladies’ summons and failing to guard the cross, he returns disguised as “a Nubian slave, whose appearance was nevertheless highly interesting” (294).  Scott specifically notes that the transformed Kenneth bears none of the features that nineteenth-century culture would have associated with African descent: “He was of superb stature and nobly formed, and his commanding features, although almost jet-black, showed nothing of negro descent” (294).  Nonetheless, the willingness of Richard’s associates to accept this figure into their camp indicates a certain flexibility in racial stereotypes that appears consistently in the novel.

If virtuous Muslim and Christian knights are essentially the same, there is no need for them to battle one another.  Scott therefore focuses more intently on internal, domestic discord within the crusaders’ armies, a focus of much more immediate interest within early nineteenth-century England’s social and political climate.  Indeed, this internal discord among the knights drives the majority of the novel’s plot.  Saladin, in his disguise as the emir Sheerkopf, signals this conflict early on in the narrative: “By the beard of Saladin, Nazarene, I could laugh at the simplicity of your great Sultan, who comes hither to make conquests of deserts and rocks ... while he leaves a part of his narrow islet, in which he was born a sovereign, to the dominion of another scepter than his” (41).  Sir Kenneth’s role highlights the conflicts between the aims of the crusade and the national loyalties represented in Richard’s army.  His status as a Scottish knight who has joined Richard’s army for the purpose of the crusade causes considerable tension within the novel. In a moment of passion, he exclaims, “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” (41).  Although Kenneth swiftly retracts this statement, it aptly demonstrates the tensions among religious and political loyalties in the crusade.  Scott also touches briefly on the discord between Richard and Phillip, playing upon the typical nineteenth-century British distain for France.  He writes that “Philip might be termed the Ulysses, as Richard was indisputably the Achilles, of the Crusade” (180).  He further lauds the French king’s sagacity, but notes that “in the Crusade, itself an undertaking wholly irrational, sound reason was the quality, of all others, least estimated, and the chivalric valour which both the age and the enterprise demanded was considered as debased if mingled with the least touch of discretion” (180-1).

Whereas Kenneth’s loyalties remain with Richard, Conrade de Montserrat and Sir Giles de Amaury, Grand Master of the Order of the Templars, constantly scheme against Richard’s authority and deliberately provoke internal discord.  Like the villains of subsequent nineteenth-century romances, these European knights appear to have been corrupted by Eastern principles. Conrad exclaims, “I have caught some attachment to the Eastern form of government: a pure and simple monarchy should consist but of king and subjects. ... A king should tread freely ... and should not be controlled by here a ditch, and there a fence ...” (153).   These hints of Eastern despotism in the personalities of Western lords are echoed by Edith, who, when told by Richard that “Kings ... do not counsel, but rather command,” responds, “Soldans do indeed command ... but it is because they have slaves to govern” (214).  Scott’s comments, filtered through Edith, emphasize nineteenth-century fears about the transformation of British imperialists’ values as a result of their exposure to the East.     

Primary Sources
Scott, Sir Walter. The Betrothed. In The Highland Widow, The Betrothed, and Other Tales. London: J. M. Dent & Co., 1907. Pp. 3-320.
Scott, Sir Walter. The Talisman. London: Collins’ Clear-Type Press, 1832. 
Yonge, Charlotte M. Abbeychurch, or Self-Control and Self-Conceit. Maimi: HardPress, 2010.
Tales of the Crusaders. By the Author of "Waverley", "Quentin Durward", &c. In Four Volumes. Vol. I. Edinburgh and London: Printed for Archibald Constable and Co., Edinburgh; And Hurst, Robinson and Co., London, 1825.
Secondary Sources
Bann, Stephen. Romanticism and the Rise of History. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1995.