They hate Muslims, don’t they?

I don’t usually respond to reviews. To be honest, I don’t really feel it’s any of my business. I’ve done my bit. The book is living its own life out there for good or ill. If there are any stupid slip-ups in it, chances are I know about them already and will nod my head in sheepish agreement with anyone who points them out. If they just don’t like it, well that’s fine too. You can’t please everyone. And you shouldn’t try. If you do, you end up ironing out the wrinkles. Wrinkles are character, and character is what those select few who really, really like it are really, really liking.

It’s also a slippery slope for a writer. Getting into discussions about the ideas, themes or characters in your book? That’s fine. But trying to argue why people should think it’s good? It’s just wrong. And futile. And not at all pretty.

An occasion involving Jeffrey Archer springs to mind. I vividly recall the sense of cringing horror that accompanied it – it makes me shudder even now. There’s the writer, puffed up with indignation and entitlement, angrily listing on his fingers all the reasons why he should be better appreciated. And all around, people falling silent in growing embarrassment, like the ever-widening circle of onlookers about the stamping, red-faced kid who just threw an epic tantrum in the supermarket.

So, of course, responding to a review is exactly what I am about to do. But there’s method in this madness. I hope.

The piece in question is Katie Richards’ assessment of The Red Hand in the Portland Book Review. It’s a short review, and in many ways pretty even-handed. It has both positive and negative points, and while the reviewer clearly wasn’t enamoured of it, it ends with an acknowledgment that some people may be. Can’t really argue with that.

But then, in the closing paragraph, there’s the bit that made me wince:

“Venables also seems to be tripped up by his modern urge to be accepting and multi-cultural, opening the book with Guy’s friendship with an Islamic knight, which breaks with the continuity of the time in which the story takes place.”

What’s different about this is not that it’s saying the prose is dull or the characters thin. It’s saying that in this period Christians and Muslims could not, would not, be friends, and that therefore the facts are wrong. As you may imagine, such things matter to me – but fortunately, they can also be put to the test.

First things first. It’s certainly true that some elements of the story and characters are “modern”. I would argue – and have argued elsewhere – that this is not only desirable, but inevitable. I’m not medieval and nor are my readers. Whilst one of the primary aims is to evoke the period – to paint a picture of those times that seems tangible and convincing, and perhaps even reveals some surprising truths about them – as participants in a story we also want something that we can relate to. To that end, many things undergo some translation into modern terms.

The most significant of these is so big that it affects almost every word in the book, yet we are so blind to it it passes without comment. The language. Virtually none of the words spoken by these characters are true to the times – an issue I have already discussed at length in a blog for Abaddon on historical fiction. For the most part, they would have spoken in one of two languages (or both): Anglo-Norman, or early Middle English. While we have words in common with each, they are modes of speech that are substantially different from our own, to the point of incomprehensibility.

In the book, all action, descriptions and dialogue are naturally rendered in modern English, and we are mostly unaware that there may even different languages operating. Think of a film set during World War II in which both the British and German sides speak English amongst themselves. We understand the Germans are meant to be speaking German, but readily accept the compromise. It’s what makes the work accessible, and the drama possible.

A good translation doesn’t just substitute one set of words for another, however. Sometimes the idiom needs to be translated into modern terms too. So, we have characters using phrases, puns and metaphors that would not have been in use at the time, but whose sense is exactly right for conveying the desired meaning to a modern audience. In the Abaddon blog, I use the example of Hood, trying to tempt Gisburne into a collaboration by saying: “We’d be the talk of the town!”. The words and the idiom are all wrong for a 12th century man, but the sense it conveys to modern readers is absolutely right. And there is nothing to offend, in terms of serious anachronism (one of my rules, such as they are); they had talk, they had towns, and they certainly had the notion of someone becoming notorious and the subject of gossip.

Other forces come into play here. Many of my influences are modern – the majority of them from cinema, as some readers may have spotted. I hope they do. There’s fun in that. Some may not want that from their historical fiction, but that’s OK too. I just don’t want to pretend to be what I’m not. And, while I would hope that the Gisburne novels present the period with all its ugliness, bigotry and cruelty intact – not because we should like them, but because it would be wrong to leave them out – I make no apology for gravitating towards characters of a more fair-minded and liberal bent. These are the characters I prefer to identify with. The idea that no such characters existed in those times is entirely false, although it is certainly the case that being such a character in the medieval world was a far harder struggle than it would be now. Such tensions also make for a good story.

This brings me to the key point: the friendship between an English knight and an Arab which, we are told, is a product of modern multiculturalism and out of kilter with the medieval reality.

The episode in question takes place in Jerusalem, now under Saladin’s control following the failure of the Third Crusade. Gisburne – who had briefly lived in the Christian-held city in the 1180s – encounters an old friend from those days: an Arab named Asif al-Din ibn Salah. Asif is not actually a knight, but a skilled fighter who knows the city inside out and who helped keep the peace in the Muslim quarter during Christian rule. Now, he finds himself working as an agent of Saladin – in effect, Gisburne’s opposite number. They are bound not only by friendship, but by mutual respect, and an understanding of what the other does. On this occasion, it transpires they also have a common enemy.

Such a friendship may well sound unlikely, given the general historical backdrop. But it shouldn’t.

If we know only one thing about the period in which the Robin Hood stories are traditionally set, it is that Richard the Lionheart was on Crusade – battling his way across the Holy Land at the head of a Christian army, intent in liberating Jerusalem. The fall of that city to Saladin’s forces in 1187, following the disastrous battle of Hattin – the 9/11 of its age – had come as a shattering blow to Christendom. For most of the century prior this, Jerusalem had been in Christian hands, and it had been a hard-won prize. When the First Crusade had taken it in the name of Christ in 1099, the religious zeal of the captors had been such that it ended in the wholesale slaughter of every Muslim they found – man, woman and child. The streets, it was said, literally ran with blood.

All this paints a picture of bitter conflict, in which Christians and Muslims seem to be bent on each other’s annihilation – a scenario that has curious resonance with the modern world.

But, as with the modern world, the reality is far more complex. For the Crusaders coming from Europe, many of whom may never have left their own countries before, it would have been easy to hate this unseen enemy in a faraway land. But other Christians were already there. They had been living in Jerusalem and elsewhere in the Holy Land for a hundred years, and calling it home.

Following the bloody conquest of Jerusalem in 1099, Muslims had been banned from living the Holy City. As time went by, however, tensions dissipated, and by the 1140s, under the more enlightened rule of King Fulk and his queen, Melisende (whose name I borrowed for a key female character), the ban was lifted altogether.

Simon Sebag Montefiore, in his epic biography of Jerusalem, relates how in 1140, Unur, the Atabeg of Damascus visited Jerusalem, accompanied by the Muslim writer Usamah bin Munqidh, who recorded all he saw (2012, p.267).

It is far from the picture of antagonism and hatred we might expect to find. On a visit to the Dome of the Rock, Usamah himself “walked over to pray in the Temple of Solomon, formerly al-Aqsa, [and was] welcomed by his Templar friends, even though he was openly reciting ‘Allahu Akhbar’…” (2012, p.274). In the moments that followed, Usamah was accosted by an angry Christian, who told him he was praying wrong. The Templars dragged the man off, apologised to Usamah for the intrusion, and informed him the man was a newcomer from the Frankish lands, ignorant of their ways. Clearly, those ways included a perhaps surprising level of tolerance and respect for Muslims.

This is not an isolated incident, nor was such tolerance reserved for nobility. Muslim peasants came into town daily to sell fruit in the city. The Hospitallers – an order of Christian knights second only to their more famous brothers the Templars – nursed Muslims and Jews alongside Christians in their hospital “and even had a kosher/halal kitchen so they could eat meat” (2012, p.271). Of the Crusader inhabitants themselves, some now spoke Arabic, lived in Arab-style houses that they had built for themselves and even ate Arab food. Many had also adopted Arab styles of dress, which were better suited to the climate. When, in 1174, Baldwin IV – the famous “leper king” – became ruler of Jerusalem, it was an Arab doctor who oversaw his treatment (2012, p.290).

By the time of Gisburne’s stay in Jerusalem, then, it had indeed become a multicultural city – the meeting place of three great religions, a centre of trade, a melting pot of cultures and a focal point for pilgrims from around the world. It was not without its tensions, of course. But even as these were mounting during the 1180s, with the rise of Saladin, life went on. One of the world’s leading historians of the Crusades, Thomas Asbridge, tells us that “a pulsing current of commerce continued unabated throughout these years, connecting the two worlds of Christendom and Islam” (2012, p.331).

Given this reality, friendships between Christians and Muslims were not only possible, but inevitable. They were a fact of life in the city where cross-cultural interactions – over food, over trade, over almost anything – happened on a daily basis, and one that made the looming conflict all the more tragic.

Often, the research that goes into a novel is not obvious. To some extent, it shouldn’t be – it should just tell a cracking story that evokes a real sense of time and place. And it varies. Some authors research down to the finest detail. Others make a lot of it up. Most, like me, are somewhere in between. The history we learned at school is so often about generalities – the big achievements, the big changes, the big battles. A novel, however, is about specifics, and sometimes those specifics may seem at odds with what is “supposed” to be happening. But that’s life. Overall, my experience is that if there is something surprising or seemingly anomalous in a historical novel – one that challenges our assumptions – it has probably been put there for a good reason.

A historical novel is a window onto a lost world – at its best, a means of bringing it vividly to life. Sometimes, it is not what we expected or assumed. While we may sometimes fall into the trap of considering the past an alien world, such novels have the potential to remind us that our ancestors were every bit as complex, creative, intelligent, loving, eccentric and flawed as we are.

This, to me, is what good historical fiction can do – get the reader to look beneath the surface of places and periods, and find out the specifics of what really made them tick. But for that to happen, you do have to entertain the possibility – however remote – that the author may actually be right.

Sources cited
Asbridge, T. (2012) The Crusades: the War for the Holy Land. London: Simon & Schuster
Montefiore, S. S. (2012) Jerusalem: The Biography. London: Phoenix

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