Sir Walter Scott's own biographer did not hesitate to point out that some of his books were, well, awful, claiming that The Betrothal "would score high marks in a competition to decide which was the dreariest and stupidest book ever produced by a writer of genius."
However, the sequel to said dreary book was delightfully entertaining. And, thanks to Librivox, it kept me company through many a stack of dishes.
Set in the tumultuous and chivalrous days of King Richard the Lionhearted, the story opens in the Palestinian desert with a lone man, Sir Kenneth, making his way to meet the mysterious prophet of En-gedi.
Challenged on his journey by an emir, or wealthy Muslim leader, the knight combats his mighty foe. When neither man prevails, both step back in exhaustion and Sir Kenneth produces his safe conduct. Taken aback, the emir offers to conduct him to the prophet of En-gedi.
Many a heated discourse ensues as they journey together, but I think one speaks to the very heart of the story. Sir Kenneth asks the emir what the worth of a magnificent diamond would be if shattered into many small fragments.
"That is a child's question, the fragments of such a stone would not equal the entire jewel in the degree of hundreds to one."
Sir Kenneth continued by saying that such is the Christian knight's view of woman. "Believe me, couldst thou look upon those... to whom, after Heaven, we of the order of knighthood vow fealty and devotion, thou wouldst loathe for ever ... thy harem. The beauty of our fair ones gives point to our spears and edge to our swords...."
Thus begins this fascinating tale and through many a twist and fanciful turn, Scott weaves his tale of passion and anger, love and treachery, honor and deception.
As a historical novel, Scott masterfully intertwines the current events into the fabric of the story. But I think his real excellence lies in giving a sense of the culture that differs so much from our own and in making the great figures from history come alive. Whether it was King Richard's intense love of battle and chivalry or his fitful passions that hazarded the entire crusade, I came away from the book feeling like I'd had a glimpse into a real day with the Lion-Hearted King.
And all the while you are in suspense as to whether the romance will end happily like Ivanhoe or miserably like St. Ronan's Well. Whether honor and love will triumph in the end.
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