Sir Walter

Sir Walter Scott:

John Derbyshire over at The Corner states this:

Readers of my own pro-Crusader piece will be aware, but others may not be, of the greatest of Crusader novels, Sir Walter Scott's THE TALISMAN.

I am amazed that there aren't periodic -- once a decade, perhaps -- Scott revivals. He is a wonderful storyteller (though you can't take the history too seriously).

John earlier wrote a piece on the crusades which cited The Talisman and a book by Alfred Duggan called Knight with Armour. I actually ran down copies of both of these and read them, being a fan of historical novels, and particularly Medieval ones. The Duggan novel is without question the most concentrated piece of despair and misery I have ever read.

The Scott novel, however, is indeed grand, though it's not only the history that is implausible--the geography, and one of the key plot devices are equally so. By far the most excellent piece of Scott's writings is Ivanhoe, parts of which I can quote from memory.

In any event, I've been trying to spark a Scott revival for some time. For a while now, Scott's collected works have been listed under "Honor & Virtue," to the right and down. His poetry is good too, although it lacks the power and the variety of Chesterton's. Still, some of it is rollicking, like "Harold the Dauntless," which is about a Viking:

Woe to the realms where he coasted, for there
Was shedding of blood and rending of hair,
Rape of maiden, slaughter of priest,
Gathering of ravens and wolves to the feast!
When he hoisted his standard black
Before him was battle, behind him was wrack!
If you're looking for a hearty way to spend a day or two, take up Ivanhoe. It's worth the time and effort, if only to read the scene where Richard Coeur de Leon shares wine and songs with Friar Tuck.

UPDATE: I had forgotten how good John's piece on the Crusades was. He has a habit of saying things that challenge the ear, but he doesn't do it to shock or get attention. He does it to knock you out of the easy assumptions we all rely upon. One of these things, taught as Gospel in most textbooks, is that the Crusades were bad. John replies:

Is there anything at all redeeming that can be said about these sorry episodes? Well, yes....

[I]f we are to take sides on the Crusades after all these centuries, we should acknowledge that, for all their many crimes, the Crusaders were our spiritual kin. I do not mean only in religion, though that of course is not a negligible connection: I mean in their understanding of society, and of the individual's place in it. Time and again, when you read the histories of this period, you are struck by sentences like these, which I have taken more or less at random from Sir Steven Runciman's History of the Crusades: "[Queen Melisande's] action was regarded as perfectly constitutional and was endorsed by the council." "Trial by peers was an essential feature of Frankish custom." "The King ranked with his tenant-in-chief as primus inter pares, their president but not their master."

If we look behind the cruelty, treachery, and folly, and try to divine what the Crusaders actually said and thought, we see, dimly but unmistakably, the early flickering light of the modern West, with its ideals of liberty, justice, and individual worth. Gibbon:

The spirit of freedom, which pervades the feudal institutions, was felt in its strongest energy by the volunteers of the cross, who elected for their chief the most deserving of his peers. Amidst the slaves of Asia, unconscious of the lesson or example, a model of political liberty was introduced; and the laws of [the Frankish Kingdom of Jerusalem] are derived from the purest source of equality and justice. Of such laws, the first and indispensable condition is the assent of those whose obedience they require, and for whose benefit they are designed.
No sooner had Godfrey of Bouillon been elected supreme ruler of Jerusalem, eight days after the Crusader victory (he declined the title of "king," declaring that he would not wear a crown of gold in the place where Christ had worn a crown of thorns), than his first thought was to give the new state a constitution. This was duly done, and the Assize of Jerusalem--"a precious monument of feudal jurisprudence," Gibbon calls it--after being duly attested, was deposited in the Holy Sepulchre (which had been reconstructed some decades before)....

[T]he virtues of men like Saladin rose as lone pillars from a level plain. They were not, as the occasional virtues of the Crusaders were, the peaks of a mountain range. The Saracens had, in a sense, no society, no polity. Says the Marquis to the Templar in another great crusader novel, Sir Walter Scott's The Talisman: "I will confess to you I have caught some attachment to the Eastern form of government: A pure and simple monarchy should consist but of king and subjects. Such is the simple and primitive structure--a shepherd and his flock. All this internal chain of feudal dependence is artificial and sophisticated." Well, artificial and sophisticated it may have been, but in its interstices grew liberty, law, and the modern conscience.

If we are to have the Crusades thrown at us by the likes of Osama bin Laden, let us at least not abjure them.

There is much to be said for that position. Leaving aside the question of whether the Crusaders are "spiritual kin" in terms of religion after all--not only is the West less united on the question, but also their particular form of Catholicism would be hard to find today--he is certainly right about the early developments of Western liberty. The Roots of Liberty has been a frequent topic of discussion here. A good bit of it predates the Crusades, as we talked about when discussing the question of paganism in schools. But this part does not: the idea of a separation of powers in government, and their balance. As John correctly writes, it was the tension between those opposing powers that provided the space for our idea of liberty. That tension opened spaces where a man couldn't be pushed around by one power without having an appeal to another. Having done so, we that human nature flourishes when liberty is assured. The Magna Carta, the Declaration of Arbroath, the Scottish Covenanters, the English Civil War, the Jacobite Risings, the American Revolution, and even the American Civil War have been battles in the attempt to preserve and reinforce those spaces, and to maintain that tension. We owe its origin to feudalism, and the kind of men who went on Crusade.

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