Back to top

Gertrude Hollis's A Slave of the Saracen: A Tale of the Seventh Crusade


Gertrude Hollis's A Slave of the Saracen: A Tale of the Seventh Crusade

A Slave of the Saracen, by Gertrude Hollis (1845-1943), appears to have circulated widely, to a transatlantic audience; although it is preserved by few modern academic libraries, it was simultaneously published in London, Edinburgh, and New York. Although most sources do not list a publication date for this novel, the British Library General Catalogue indicates that it was published in 1904. This work resonates well with texts such as Paul Creswick’s With Richard the Fearless and Emily Sarah Holt’s Lady Sybil’s Choice. About Hollis herself, little information is available, despite her many publications in the early twentieth century. Many of Hollis’ essays and stories were published by the Christian Knowledge Society; like Emily Sarah Holt, Hollis appears to combine a passionate interest in Protestant evangelism with an interest in England’s medieval past. For many late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century writers, medievalism and Protestant evangelism were a fruitful combination; they attempted to re-inscribe a Protestant ethos onto historical heroes to trace the supposed development of Protestantism in England from early times. Hollis’ works are far too numerous to list in full here, but then include several publications on Jerusalem [The Land of the Incarnation (1922), Jerusalem the Garden (1917), The Land Where Jesus Lived (1912)], many historical pieces that trace the development of the early English church, and many historically themed pieces [Philip Okeover’s Page-hood: a Story of the Peasants’ Rising (1907). In Crazy Times: A Tale of King Charles the Martyr (1914); Leo of Mediolanum: A Tale of the Fourth Century (1909), The Son of AElla: A Story of the Conversion of Northumbria (1900), and many others].  Unlike Holt, Hollis appears to direct the majority of her historical publications toward a young male audience.  Her works privilege the male chivalric ethos over the domestic sphere and tend to employ the genre of the boy’s adventure novel to promote their religious themes.

Like F. Bayford Harrison’s Brothers in Arms and H. Rider Haggard’s The Brethren, Hollis’ A Slave of the Saracen features paired male heroes. The elder brother, Raimond, is captured by a traitorous French knight in the early pages of the novel, and his younger brother, Zanekin, who “hath neither his years nor his muscles,” must achieve the nineteenth-century ideals of knighthood and masculinity in order to rescue him. This search for the missing Raimond leads Zanekin to join Louis IX on the Seventh Crusade, which took place from 1249-1254. A critical facet of Zanekin’s development is learning to operate within the boundaries of rank and precedence; as his father asserts in the early pages of the novel, “Methinks 'tis not always good for little Zanekin to be lord; and the day will come when he will have to take the second place, when Raimond takes his inheritance” (10). The novel traces Zanekin’s path to knighthood and chivalry, stimulated by through the loss of his brother and his desire to locate and rescue him.  Zanekin asks his father if he may search for his brother, and the lord responds, “If thou dost enter the king’s household thou wilt be his man, and must in all things render him obedience.  But humble and faithful, learn all that a true knight should know, love God and Holy Church, and perchance if thy brother should still be missing, then—” (47). In this configuration, a successful quest—and, for that matter, a successful crusade—becomes the direct result of submission to both religious and secular authority. Zanekin discovers his brother’s kidnapper, dying from burns caused by Greek fire, and pardons him for his crime. The priest who has served as the man’s confessor tells the young page, “He has made a clean shrift, and received absolution, and will doubtless find the mercy that never faileth. And thou, my son, hast borne thee as a true knight should towards him.  God will lead thee to thy brother, for that thou dist pardon thine enemy in his hour of dire distress” (155). The priest’s absolute certainty is justified; Zanekin’s obedience to his lord’s commands and to the broader aims of the crusade ultimately permits him to rescue his brother.

This novel reproduces the tensions between domestic national obligations and crusading that is a familiar motif in nineteenth-century crusades romances.  In this novel, however, these tensions apply principally not to Zanekin, who attempts to restore his family’s domestic unity by rescuing his brother, but to King Louis.  Louis, desperately ill, recovers miraculously and instantly takes a vow to go on crusade, despite the concerns of both religious and secular authorities.  The bishop himself remonstrates with the king: “Thou art placed on the throne of this realm of France by God, to rule His people according to His laws.  Will it indeed be his pleasure that thou shouldst go on so dangerous a journey, even though it were to succour His Holy Places from the infidels?” (59). The unified, unselfish aims of Louis’ crusade, however, exempt him from the drastic domestic consequences that befall the crusading lords of romances such as Sir Walter Scott’s The Betrothed or Letitia Elizabeth Landon's The Crusader.

According to Hollis’ portrayal, Louis essentially purifies crusading ideology, which is frequently portrayed as corrupt in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century texts.  The novel constantly emphasizes the importance of humility and self-abasement for the achievement of the crusade’s religious goals; Zanekin gains the king’s favor by joining him in serving a leper with great respect and due reverence.  Moreover, when Guilliame, a servant of Zanekin’s family, joins the young squire on Crusade, he is unable to identify the king, who wears “brown cloak and chaperon, with the wallet strung round his neck and the staff at his side” (108). This plain garb, Hollis emphasizes, in no way undermines his authority: Zanekin assures his servant: “Yet take care thou dost not contravene his orders . . . If thou dost, I warrant thee thou find him no monkling” (108). The king sets before Zanekin “a totally unexpected example, and show[s] him a royalty of which his boyish mind had hitherto had no conception” (81). Louis consistently refutes the possibility of personal gain in the context of crusade.  For instance, as the French king’s train passes Avignon, his knights urge him to permit the sack of the city in revenge for his father's death.  Louis responds, “My lords . . . take shame on yourselves for your unholy words.  I am here to avenge Jesus Christ, not my father, nor any other earthly ill.  Hasten back without sparing spur, and command that no solider of the Cross shall strike blow in Avignon” (103). He presents a crusading ideology that is remarkable in its simplicity, particularly in view of the nineteenth century's ambivalent relationship to the crusade's imperialist overtones and domestic implications. Upon his army’s arrival in Egypt, he announces,
My faithful friends . . . yonder is Egypt, yonder is the foe, yonder is the road to Jerusalem.  We shall be invincible if we are inseparable in our love.  Let us land on this coast and occupy it in force.  If we are conquered, we shall go to heaven as martyrs; if we triumph, the glory of the Lord will be made manifest, and that of France, or rather all of Christendom, will be increased.  The Lord has not raised us up in vain. (113) 
The simple, unilateral mission that Louis articulates in this passage reflects the typical concerns of the nineteenth-century crusades romance: absolute unity and absolute devotion to the cause will result in both a successful Crusade and domestic tranquility.  National interests must be subsumed to the crusade's broader religious goals.  Although Louis’ crusade is not successful in recovering the Holy Land, Hollis portrays it as a successful enterprise because, under Louis’ guidance, the crusade ultimately increases both national cohesion and personal faith.

Nonetheless, the Christian army’s ability to maintain this cohesion and unity of purpose comes into doubt at several points in the text.  Hollis describes relatively few direct conflicts between the Moslem and Christian armies within the text; she focuses chiefly on Zanekin's quest for his brother and development into an honorable knight.  She does, however, describe in fairly extensive detail the first conflict between Louis’ forces and the opposing armies.  Her descriptors concentrate on the confusion generated by the conflict between East and West: she reports that “[The Saracens] made several charges, bewildering to the Western chivalry from the barbaric noises and strange wild yells with which the mixed Arabs, Turks, and Egyptians were encouraged by their leaders” (118).  Despite the potentially threatening bewilderment caused by this encounter between East and West, however, “The soldiers of the Cross. . . remained motionless in the formation they had first adopted, their lances forming a bristling barrier impenetrable to the Saracen cavalry, so that Fakareddin’s charges did no damage” (118) Their repulsion of the Saracen armies reflects also their rejection of the values represented by the “barbaric noises and strange, wild yells (118)."  The potential corruption of the French armies remains as a specter within the text. Hollis records that
The long delay, both in Damietta and in the camp before Mansourah, had gone far to unfit the Frankish soldiers, both physically and spiritually, for their holy object.  Not even King Louis’s presence and commands could prevent the dissipation to which idleness had led, and the disorders of every kind had increased in the camp to an extent which made the right-minded amongst the leaders anxious beyond anything else to get their enervated troops once more under strict discipline. (162)
Crusade thus becomes the primary means of maintaining the armies’ adherence to the Christian cause.  Typically for a children's crusading romance, A Slave of the Saracen does not name the “dissipations” into which the Christian armies fell, but the sexualized implications of contact with the East are clear to an adult readership.  Moreover, the terms “dissipation” and “enervation” are typical of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century post-colonial texts, which frequently assert a fear that contact with the East will undermine both the virtue and the manly vigor of their colonizing troops. 

The cultural tensions engendered by Europe’s contact with the East appears constantly throughout the novel. Like The Brethren, A Slave of the Saracen employs a traitorous European knight as the agent of the kidnapping.  The knight Jean de Clairveaux, who was humiliated by the boys’ father in the lists and subsequently engaged with him in a dispute over lands, is described as being of “a dark and jealous nature,” terminology that associates him with the East even before the castle’s lord asserts that he has been receiving “men of foreign aspect, wearing garments that savoured of the East.”  He further maintains that de Clairveaux has been “in Egypt and at Constantinople, though I think not that his feet have touched the Holy Ground” (16; 17). The positive portrayal of Muslims which characterizes early nineteenth-century Crusades romances (Sir Walter Scott's The Talisman, for instance) is largely absent from this novel.  The royal retinue’s departure for the Holy Land is described in terms that clearly establish a categorical opposition between Muslims and Christians:
The day upon which the king had set his heart, and for which his young page Zanekin had longed, had come at last, and they left Paris for that strange, mysterious East, where Christ was dishonoured and Christians were suffering, and where the wild Moslem fanatics were waiting to give their rescuers battle. (97)
Hollis’ unilateral characterization of the Christians’ opponents as the “wild Moslem fanatics” sets the broader tone for the novel, which, unlike many nineteenth-century crusades romances, generally resists equating Eastern and Western chivalric practices.  There are a few exceptions in the text (the merchant who shows Zanekin where to find his brother, for instance), but the leaders of the opposing forces lack the elaborate characterization that, in other texts, develops them in sympathetic, albeit heathen, figures.

As the text progresses, however, the dichotomy between the Christian and Muslim groups dissolves somewhat. Zanekin and the other page “gazed with keen interest at these magnificent specimens of Moslem chivalry [the Mamelukes]. . .and . . .could not help admiring the splendour of their equipment, and the lithe yet powerful movements of their bodies” (183). The Mamelukes return the favor by indicating on multiple occasions that they admire Louis’ dedication to his cause and would prefer to have him as king of Egypt.  Louis’ enactment of idealized Christianity is continually reinforced within the text.  During Louis’ captivity, Hollis asserts,
[H]e still showed so serene a courage and steadfast a faith, such unselfish thought for others, and such an ascetic disregard of his own sufferings, that the infidel leaders themselves were compelled to show him an involuntary respect and consideration, coupled with a half-unwilling admiration of a consistency beyond what their own faith could have inspired.  Once of the emirs did not scruple to assert that if Mohammed had led him into the same evil fortunes, and given the same sorrows to sustain, as the Frankish king bore at the hands of his God, he would have forsaken him long ago. (187)
These shifting lines of allegiance ultimately culminate in a conversion narrative that crafts a symbolic, non-military victory of Christianity over Islam.  Eventually, Zanekin and King Louis discover that Raimond, the long-missing brother, has been captured by a second group of kidnappers—this time, Bedouins.  The leader of this group wishes Raimond to convert to Islam and enter into his service. When the young Frenchman refuses, his hand, in a clear echo of the crucifixion, is nailed to a tree.  Safed, a Moslem camel-driver, is deeply impressed by his fortitude, and therefore expresses his willingness to convert to Christianity: “[T]his I know, that not for the camel-driver could I have borne what Salih [Raimond] was willing to undergo for the Carpenter, and I would fain hear more of Him.  Therefore, if the monk yonder is a Christian priest, I will hear his words” (257).  Just as Raimond represents Christ in this scenario, Safed represents Mohammad; his occupation, emphasized within the text, links him to the founder of his religion.  Thus, although the Crusade ends with Louis' capture by his opponents and enforced retreat from the Holy Land, this novel nonetheless ends with the triumph of Christianity and a joyous return to France.

Primary Source:

Hollis, Gertrude. A Slave of the Saracen: A Tale of the Seventh Crusade. London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1904.