Sunday, March 19, 2017

Writing Biographical Fiction: Guy de Lusignan




Writing about Guy de Lusignan in my Jerusalem trilogy posed serious problems for me. He played a fateful (not to say fatal) role in the history of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and hence ignoring him was not an option. Indeed, he is such a significant historical figure that one of my test readers kept urging me to give him a larger role and more space in the novels. To do that, however, I would have had to be able to get inside his skin and see the world through his perspective ― something I found very difficult to do well. I simply do not understand how anyone could have been as stupid, stubborn and arrogant as Guy de Lusignan.

The situation is complicated by the fact that, as with most of these historical figures from so long ago, there are many things we don’t know about Guy ― starting with his date of birth, and hence his age when he seduced Sibylla. Another thorny issue is whether the contemporary allegations against Guy as the murderer of the Earl of Salisbury are true or not. Developing a character depends very much on whether you believe him capable of stabbing an unarmed man in the back―or not.

Even more difficult for a novel set in the Holy Land is the complete blank in the historical record about why the barons of Jerusalem almost unanimously refused to accept Guy as regent after campaigning under him in the fall of 1183. Guy had been named regent, he had called up the feudal army, and they had all come. In short, the subsequent revolt was not a fundamental refusal to serve under Guy. If, as historians suggest, it was just resentment of a comparative new-comer or an “unworthy” husband for Sibylla, they wouldn’t have mustered at all. The barons did  not revolt against Guy until after the campaign of 1183. But then their revolt was overwhelming and emphatic, refusing to go to the relief of the critical border castle of Kerak and the rescue of the the King’s sisters and mother, until Guy had been dismissed and Baldwin IV had resumed the reins of government. Something happened. But we don’t know what, and without knowing what, it is very difficult to craft a character. Something about him that alienated his fellow barons, including Balian and his brother, but just what was it?

Of course, one could argue that the absence of historical documentation opened the way to more creative speculation on my part. True. But, I confess, I drew a blank. I just couldn’t picture vividly enough what sort of man this Guy was.

Several novelists have taken the approach that he was simply a weak-willed dandy easily manipulated by stronger men such as the Templar Master Ridefort and Reynald de Chatillon. But does weakness provoke aversion on the part of stronger men? The absolute hatred that would induce a man to renounce all his titles and surrender all his property (as Baldwin of Ramla and Mirabel did) rather than serve him? Does weakness alone engender so much contempt that a man would prefer to commit treason (as Tripoli did) rather than serve him? Maybe, but I wasn’t entirely convinced.

And what was it about this man ― who provoked such negative reactions from his male peers ― that attracted the love of a twenty-year-old princess?  Sibylla, whether she was seduced by him before their marriage or not, was passionately loyal to Guy to the day she died. Her love for Guy led not only to the loss of her kingdom, it led her into Saracen captivity and finally to her death. Had she not followed him to the siege of Acre, she would not have died along with her infant daughters in 1190. Whatever else one has to say about Sibylla, she was a devoted wife!

So Guy couldn’t have been all bad, right? Again, I’m not so sure. 

It was that uncertainty made it difficult for me to conjure up a character that was credible, convincing and compelling. In the absence of a compelling character capable of telling me what he thought, said and did, I had only one choice: to give him as small a role as history would allow.

Guy de Lusignan is a minor character in my books. He is viewed mostly from the outside, through the eyes of Balian and others. Only very occasionally do I step inside his skin and show the reader how Guy’s might have understood his circumstances and surroundings. These are critical junctures, in which I felt a rare sense of insight, but for the most part Guy remained an enigma to me.  I leave it to another novelist to try to find and reconstruct Guy’s personality in greater detail and nuance. 





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