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`Only a blind man would not know that he was looking at a king.'
on November 19, 2011
Richard I known as Richard the Lionheart (8 September 1157 - 6 April 1199) was King of England from 6 July 1189 until his death. Richard was the third surviving son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine and, almost as soon as he is crowned, makes plans to lead the Third Crusade (with Philippe of France) to reclaim Jerusalem for Christianity. In the 570+ pages of this novel, Ms Penman covers the period of Richard I`s life from July 1189 to October 1192. A second novel `A King's Ransom' will pick up from where `Lionheart' ends.
Ms Penman has woven an interesting novel around the historical facts: we see the legendary military genius of Richard I; the internal politicking and fighting amongst the Crusaders; and a portrayal of Saladin as being significantly more virtuous and noble than the European Christians allied (in the loosest sense of the word) against him. The journey to the Holy Land, via Sicily and Cyprus, has its own challenges: storms at sea which divide the fleet, fierce battles and political rivalry. There is always a degree of tension between Richard and Philippe of France, and the arrangements Richard has made for the governance of England in his absence cause additional problems. And the Holy Land itself presents Richard with a complex new set of problems to address.
But the story is not just about the men and the battles: Ms Penman also provides us with perspectives from Eleanor of Aquitaine, his sister Joanna the widowed queen of Sicily and Berengaria, the princess of Navarre whom he marries. Berengaria and Joanna accompany Richard to the Holy Land, while Eleanor keeps an eye on Richard's European interests. There are some fictional characters as well, particularly Morgan (a Welsh cousin to Richard) and the Lady Mariam (the daughter of a Sicilian king and a Saracen slave who has been raised as a Christian) who add a different dimension to the story.
I enjoyed the description of the battle scenes - especially those that showed elements of the military genius for which Richard was legendary, and also those depicting Saladin's strategic skills. I also enjoyed Ms Penman's depiction of Berengaria and her relationship with Richard. Be warned, though, that there are a large number of characters in this book (the character list occupies three pages) and it can take some effort to keep track of them.
In an Author's Note, Ms Penman states: `Richard I was never one of my favourite kings, although my knowledge of him was admittedly superficial.' In contrast, he has always been one of my favourite kings, based on superficial and ahistorical representations in various portrayals of Robin Hood. Entertainment and imagination are not always well supported by facts. As a king, Richard I was viewed as a failure in his own time because of his failure to retake Jerusalem, and as a relative failure in comparatively modern times because he spent so little time (about six months) in England. Based on Ms Penman's research, this novel paints a more nuanced picture of Richard.
I am looking forward to `A King's Ransom'. I am interested in reading how Ms Penman will present the rest of Richard's story.