Critical Evaluation

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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.

To illustrate this deterioration most clearly, an antithetical figure, Saladin, is presented as a basis for comparison. He represents the rationality, fidelity, and compassion that are missing in the Crusaders’ camp. Saladin does not symbolize a code, but rather the honor that evolves from the organic growth of right conduct nourished by the use of reason and common sense. The character who experiences the influences of both forces and must choose between them is Sir Kenneth, who occupies the middle ground. From the beginning, he is susceptible to the positive...

(This entire section contains 1324 words.)

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influence of Saladin, as is required for the young knight’s structural role. Already schooled in the chivalric code and displaying the narrow vision that brings with it, Kenneth meets Saladin, disguised as Sheerkohf, in a duel and emerges victorious in might but not in honor. Afterward, Kenneth doubts the Saracen’s sincerity in offering peace between them. When Saladin convinces him of the earnestness of his pledge, the “confidence of the Muslim” makes Kenneth “ashamed of his own doubts.” Thereafter, Saladin’s wisdom, rationality, and sense of honor affect Kenneth’s development.

Saladin’s impact on Sir Kenneth succeeds largely through the Saracen’s many disguises. Just as King Richard’s irrational interpretation of the chivalric code holds sway over the young knight principally for reasons of rank, so too Saladin’s influence is an artificial imposition because of his sovereignty. It is Scott’s purpose to show that reason, prudence, and moral conduct must grow organically from within the individual rather than be imposed by external forces or rituals. Scott illustrates this truth in disguising Saladin as El Hakim, the wise Muslim healer. In this role, Saladin appears as a more common individual, like Kenneth, and one who has objectively witnessed the course of events leading to the young knight’s conviction and impending execution. The Saracen tries to reason with Kenneth, pointing out that it is foolish to die for a crime of which he is not entirely guilty. In any case, the knight’s guilt is to some extent the result of Richard’s pride, which has created the precariousness of the situation in the first place. Kenneth ignores the Saracen’s advice, and it is his irrational adherence to the code of honor based on ritual, not careful thought and action, that induces El Hakim to bargain with Richard and his rash pride for the young knight’s life. The Saracen’s wise and compassionate intervention enables him to convince Kenneth later that it is more practical to stay alive and redeem himself and his reputation by revealing the real culprit to King Richard and to the entire camp.

Shortly thereafter, when El Hakim spurs Kenneth and himself away from the attacking band of Templars in the desert, the Saracen demonstrates to Sir Kenneth that more good can be gained in living and accomplishing their positive goals than in dying foolishly at the hands of the traitorous Templars. When El Hakim becomes identified with Sheerkohf, a character with whom Kenneth can relate more closely because of their previous relationship, Kenneth begins to recognize the value of Saladin’s code of honor, based more positively on reason, common sense, and prudent action. Sheerkohf convinces Kenneth that he is free to choose whatever path he wishes to follow, either to wander off aimlessly or to move forward in seeking his redemption. As Sheerkohf unfolds his plan to disguise Sir Kenneth as a mute Ethiopian slave and thus secretly to infiltrate the Crusaders’ camp and reveal the real thief of England’s banner, the young knight this time chooses to follow the Saracen’s advice. He is beginning to absorb the value derived from reason and prudence and to appreciate the efficacy of judicious thought and self-restrained action. From this point on, the positive resolution of the conflict is inevitable.

Richard seems to learn the lessons of prudence and self-restraint, and the victorious Sir Kenneth enjoys his rewards: the announcement of his real identity and sovereignty and the hand of Lady Edith Plantagenet in marriage. The positive influence of Saladin’s character becomes clear as he is identified by all concerned with his various disguises and his valuable deeds; his impact is apparent also in Kenneth’s potential as a great leader, for the young knight has matured largely because of Saladin’s influence. As a final act in the story, the talisman—essentially the symbol of reason, order, and correct conduct—is transferred from East to West, from pagan to Christian, to carry on the magical curative work that it had already begun. This somewhat ironic turn reaffirms Scott’s belief that human beings, regardless of origin, share a common nature throughout history and that reason and order in society, by exposing the imprudence of outdated codes such as chivalry, transcend the boundaries of race, creed, nationality, and time.