Sunday, February 5, 2017

Writing Biographical Fiction: Balian d’Ibelin

Having discussed the problems of writing biographical fiction generally, I now want to bore down to examine the problems encountered in depicting the key historical figures of my Jerusalem trilogy, starting with Balian d’Ibelin himself.

The obvious fact is that Balian d’Ibelin did not leave any diaries, letters or documents in which he recorded his view of himself, his contemporaries or his world. All we have are references to him, accounts in which he plays a role, even descriptions of him by others, few of which knew him personally, and many of whom were hostile to him for political reasons.

In trying to re-create Balian d’Ibelin I had to start with this eclectic collection of references and then try to piece together a comprehensible picture. This is where the novelist’s duty to create a coherent and compelling story takes precedence over a historian’s duty to address every single fact or shred of evidence. While a historian needs to examine all the evidence ― even if it only to explain why it is irrelevant, forged, falsified or anachronistic, a novelist needs to pare away superfluous and contradictory facts in order to create a character that is convincing at a human level. That doesn’t mean a character can’t have contradictions and complexity, but they must be plausible and understandable so that readers find the character credible and have the desired reaction.

Furthermore, because my novels are not merely reflections of reality but also intended to stimulate thought and reflection on a variety of issues of more universal relevance, I consciously fill in the blanks of the historical record with material that suits my ends as a novelist.  In other words, as a biographer I strive to accurately reconstruct the object of my study, but as novelist I strive to deliver by own message through the character.

When creating the character Balian d’Ibelin, I started from a recorded historical fact: that he successfully bargained with Saladin for the surrender of Jerusalem on the basis of an agreement that ransomed the poor and destitute. Furthermore, when the sum of money raised from public and private sources proved insufficient to ransom all the poor in the city, he offered himself as a hostage until the balance could be raised.  This was an act of man who took his responsibilities as a commander and a Christian seriously; it was also an act of exceptional compassion. It is hard to imagine any other crusading nobleman doing anything similar ― except St. Louis himself. And, significantly, it was recorded in Muslim sources, not by sources biased in Balian’s favor. It was this single fact that made Balian thematically worthy of a biographical novel―particularly when combined with a host of other fascinating facts such as marrying a dowager queen when just a landless knight, seeking to bridge the differences between Tripoli and Lusignan, escaping the debacle at Hattin and negotiating Richard the Lionheart’s peace with Saladin.

Having decided that Balian’s essence was his ability to identify with the poor and his willingness to make sacrifices for others, my Balian novels had to incorporate all known facts in such a way that when combined they show how Balian developed and evolved into the type of man who would fulfill this destiny. Where I lacked historical material, I interpolated and invented events and episodes, but always with one end in mind: preparing the reader for Balian’s historical role by describing characteristics and feelings consistent with a person who would behave as the historical Balian did.

It also meant that I had to discount or dismiss some historical references to Balian which did not fit into the overall picture (and my interpretation of it). For example, French chronicles written more than thirty years after the fall of Jerusalem during a bitter court battle over the succession to the County of Champagne use disparaging language when referring to Balian and his wife. Yet while the language is intemperate and hostile, these sources site not a single fact or act to justify their negative opinion ― beyond the (undeniable but fully justifiable) fact that Balian supported the divorce of his step-daughter from Humphrey de Toron (as did the Duke of Burgundy, the High Court of Jerusalem, the Papal Legate and many others).

Likewise, the insults heaped on Balian d’Ibelin in the English Itinerarium are empty insults without a shred of evidence to support them. The Itinerarium calls Ibelin “treacherous” only because he acted as Conrad de Montferrat’s envoy to Saladin in November 1191. Yet less than a year later Richard the Lionheart used him as an envoy to Saladin too. Clearly, King Richard didn’t think Ibelin was “treacherous.”  The Itinerarium also calls him “cruel,” again without siting a single example. Without any example, however, the accusation is not credible and unworthy of inclusion.

Another problem I had to deal with is the tendency of modern historians to refer to “the Ibelins” as ambitious and grasping based on the astonishing success of Balian’s descendants. It is true that the Ibelins became the most powerful non-royal family in Latin East from the 13th to 15th century, but Balian was a landless knight and his elder, more powerful brother just one of a score of barons. In Balian’s own lifetime there is no reason to impute particularly sinister motives to every action, or to justify the vicious hostility of the Courtenay’s with insinuations of probable disloyalty based simply on the fact that the Ibelins were later so powerful.

Furthermore, while it is plausible that Ernoul, as a former squire of Balian, was biased in favor of his former employer/patron, that does not mean that we have to turn everything Ernoul says into its opposite in order to get the true picture. Certainly, not everyone would have had a positive view of Balian d’Ibelin, but the fact that his squire was loyal even decades later suggests that he might indeed have been an exceptionally good lord, a man who earned loyalty.

Without doubt, by focusing on the negative commentary available in hostile sources and discounting the commentary of Ernoul and the Arab chronicles, it would be possible to build and even justify a character in a novel that is very different from my own. That is the nature of historical fiction. But my Balian d’Ibelin is completely compatible with the historical record and, as my readers have attested, also an attractive, engaging and inspiring character.

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1 comment:

  1. Helena, Well put, and thank you for sharing your know how. I'd like to imagine how things would be now if all the other barons had the decency, chivalry and real Christian values Balian D'Ibelin possessed....