Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

My biographical novel of Balian d'Ibelin in three parts is complete, but the saga continues. Follow me to Cyprus, where Lusignans and Ibelins struggle to put down a rebellion and establish a durable state. Watch for excerpts and updates here.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Writing Biographical Fiction: Saladin

I'd like to close this series on Writing Biographical Fiction with a look at one of the  most challenging characters I had to deal with: the heroic and famous Sultan Salah ad-Din, known in the west as Saladin.

When writing about Saladin in a novel one is always confronted by the fact that he has long been viewed as the epitome of Saracen “chivalry.” Indeed, in the last century it became common to suggest that, while the crusaders were treacherous barbarians, Saladin stood out as a paragon of virtue and honor, a shining light of decency and chivalry in an otherwise brutal age.  This is the view of Saladin that dictated the highly sympathetic portrayal in Ridley Scott's film “The Kingdom of Heaven.” It is the image that dominates the mind of most readers coming to a book about the crusades.

Yet, as Andrew Ehrenkreutz catalogues in his meticulously documented and detailed biography of Saladin published in 1972, Saladin frequently used deceit, hypocrisy, propaganda, bribery, extortion, murder and, ultimately aggressive war to establish an empire in the Near East.  Ehrenkreutz also notes that Saladin spent much more time and money fighting (and killing) fellow Muslims than he did fighting Christians; Saladin was responsible for the loss of many more Sunni Muslim lives than Christian ones.

A depiction of Saladin based on Ehrenkreutz would be too extreme -- and certainly too much to swallow for readers raised on the Kingdom-of-Heaven Saladin. That isn't what I wanted. However, it was important to me that I didn’t simply serve up the legend without any acknowledgement of historical reality.  Thus, in developing the Saladin of my novels, I sought to balance the two views of Saladin and focus on portraying him not as “good” or “bad” but rather as a highly effective political leader. I wanted a “worthy adversary,” for Balian and the crusader states, but not one who was a caricature of either virtue or villainy. I sought to create a man who was ambitious and ruthless in attaining and maintaining power, but also capable of generosity and magnanimity -- when it did not run contrary to his interests. Likewise, I sought to explain Saladin’s behavior by analyzing possible motives.

A particularly good example of this is the famous instance in which Saladin gave Balian d’Ibelin a safe-conduct to cross Saracen-held territory to enter Jerusalem and remove his wife and family after the Battle of Hattin but before the fall of Jerusalem. Not only was this a magnanimous gesture to a Christian lord and a foe, it was topped by Saladin sending some of his own personal body-guard to escort the Lady of Ibelin to safety after her husband broke his word, and — ceding to immense pressure from the Christian population in Jerusalem — agreed to take command of the defense of the Holy City. But the “chivalrous” character of these gestures is somewhat mitigated by the fact that the Lady of Ibelin was also a Byzantine princess and a relation of the ruling Greek Emperor Isaac II Angelus, with whom Saladin had just concluded a treaty of alliance. It was still a generous gesture since Maria Comnena, Lady of Ibelin, was not a close relative of Isaac II, but Saladin’s decision was certainly salted with a pinch of self-interest.

Equally important to me in my portrayal of Saladin was his unbending hostility to Christianity and his commitment to jihad. This has nothing to do with whether Saladin was “good” or “bad” (I’m not trying to make him a medieval ISIS leader), but it is essential to understanding what options were available to the Christian leaders. It is, as Israeli governments can testify, impossible to make peace with people who do not recognize your right to exist. Too many histories and novels are written on the premise that the crusader states could have co-existed with their Muslim neighbors indefinitely. This is simply not logical. Jihadist Islam requires good Muslims to spread the religion ― including by the sword ― and recognizes the right of select other religions to live under Islamic rule only under humiliating and burdensome conditions.

Last but not least, the Saladin of my novels is a man of his age and culture, and I have drawn on Arab chronicles and Islamic writings to depict his probable attitudes toward, above all, women. Muslims in this period found the presence of women in public life (such as queens, castellans etc.) not only incomprehensible but disgusting. The very fact that women had names and faces known outside of the family circle was viewed as immoral and dishonorable. The fact that women had a voice in political affairs, could control wealth, influence politics, and even command men was even more offensive. The differing attitudes toward women was one of the most crucial differences between Christendom and Islam in the 12th century. As a novelist with strong female characters, it would be nothing short of negligent not to highlight this fact.

Likewise, the dependence of 12th century Syria and Egypt on slaves is fact that I had no wish to gloss over or ignore. Particularly in the third book of the series, the contemporary attitudes toward slavery is an important issue and plot-line. Although I use the historical figure Imad ad-Din most directly to address this theme, quoting directly from his own works, Saladin too is consciously used as a representative of the world from which he came. In this sense, Saladin in my novels is both a character and a symbol ― but then so is Balian.

Saladin plays a significant role in the second two books of the Jerusalem trilogy.



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1 comment:

  1. ". . . and certainly too much to swallow for readers raised on the Kingdom-of-Heaven Saladin."

    Lies and misconceptions are still lies and misconceptions, Professor. Don't give in to, or perpetuate them. The truth hurts. As you pointed out:

    "the Lady of Ibelin was also a Byzantine princess and a relation of the ruling Greek Emperor Isaac II Angelus, with whom Saladin had just concluded a treaty of alliance . . . Saladin’s decision was certainly salted with a pinch of self-interest."

    Self-interest "dampens" the generosity part, somewhat.

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