The Talisman contains all the ingredients of a romantic adventure: faraway lands, love, mystery, chivalric courage, and daring. Sir Walter Scott weaves these ingredients together with his usual skill and brings the various subplots together in the final scenes. As is his custom, he makes history serve his own purposes by inventing characters and situations and blending them with real people and historical events. The result is a masterful combination of fact and fiction that makes it possible for readers to ignore any discrepancies and simply enjoy the well-told tale.
The Talisman functions very effectively as entertainment, but it also operates on a more important level of expression. Throughout his life, Scott was committed to moral truth; he chose the historical novel as the medium for his artistic expression because the genre encompasses the facts of time as well as the truths of morality that endure the tests of time. Furthermore, he was a thoroughly eighteenth century man, concerned with the triumph of reason over passion and with proper conduct in an orderly society. These are the elements that inform The Talisman.
Using a particular historical period as the framework for each of his novels, Scott seeks to reveal an era or a way of life representative of that particular period and to demonstrate the relationship between past and present, thereby pointing out attitudes, conflicts, and behavior common to all human beings at all stages of history. To create the historical setting, Scott introduces a character who embodies the period or manner of life with which the novel is concerned, thus avoiding unnecessary detail. In The Talisman, King Richard represents the chivalric code and way of life as it was known in England during the Middle Ages. Richard also represents the excess pride and imprudence that can infect anyone, which shows that certain attitudes, weaknesses, and behavior patterns are universal to humankind. Similarly, Sir Kenneth represents the seeker of order and honor through proper conduct. Saladin, although a pagan, symbolizes the object of Sir Kenneth’s quest. Clearly, Scott’s approach to history relies less on facts than on general historical context. He realized that a reader required more than fact and that reality must be altered and improved to correspond with the desire for unexpected developments. Scott did not abuse history, as he has sometimes been accused of doing, but he made use of it as narrative fiction demanded.
Scott’s dual purpose in The Talisman is at once to reveal the decadence of the chivalric code and to determine if there is intrinsic value in it. To this end, King Richard the Lion-Hearted symbolizes chivalry, its ceremony, and its power over individuals. This power has become tainted, however, as evidenced by Richard’s impetuosity and prideful acts; he represents the fanaticism that blocks clear, rational thought. Honor, as represented in Richard, has become an empty ritual, arising from rashness rather than judicious thought and conduct. Moreover, the presence of such evil forces as the Grand Master and the marquis of Montserrat further demonstrates the degenerate state of the chivalric order.
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