Reviews and Critiques by Rictor Norton

A Just and Holy War

A review of Warriors of God: Richard the Lionheart and Saladin in the Third Crusade by James Reston, Jr. (London: Faber and Faber, 2001)

When Hyacinthus Bobo was consecrated as Pope Celestine III, he wisely observed that the Crusaders were stirred not by penitence, but by pride and vainglory. Reston’s lively narrative of the Third Crusade comes as a salutary reminder that the Christians were regularly more guilty of wanton cruelty in the conduct of their ‘Just War’ than the Muslims were in the conduct of their same ‘Holy War’. Abundant instances of rape, mutilation, pillage and massacre by the Soldiers of the Cross go a little way towards explaining why the past thousand years has seen the Arab world trying to present a united front against the European occupation of Palestine. Both sides found in either the Bible or the Koran their consolations for defeat and justifications for slaughter. The epic struggle of 1187–94 ended in farcical stalemate, both sides forced to sign a treaty of peace after having exhausted all their resources.

This is not a deep socio-political analysis, but a stirring Boy’s Own story of colourful spectacle, of purple pavilions and chivalric knights in fantastic silver armour sitting astride magnificent horses caparisoned in crimson velvet, laying siege to awesome fortresses perched high atop rocky outcrops – towers and lances all aflutter with yellow silken banners. King Richard I in particular cuts a splendid figure, always dressed up to the nines (with spurs of solid gold) even while performing those bloody deeds that earned him the name ‘Lionheart’. Everyone agreed he was a magnificent specimen of manliness.

The older Saladin hovers in the background as the patient, contemplative foil to the reckless Richard, while Richard’s former young lover Philip Augustus, King of France, is portrayed as the prissy, simpering Lamb to Richard’s frisky Lion. Reston accepts all the evidence for Richard’s homosexuality (he confessed publicly to accusations of sodomy, and vowed to change his ways) and integrates Richard’s sexuality with his personality and motivation, but the interminable struggle between Philip and Richard for the Plantagenent kingdom is too neatly portrayed as a lovers’ spat. Though hounded into a late marriage by his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard was deeply disinterested in women and preferred jousting with knights and singing with the troubadours.

(This review was originally published in London's Gay Times in February 2002, Issue 281. Copyright 2002, 2018 Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited.)

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