Book Review: LIONHEART, by Sharon Kay Penman

Lionheart, Sharon Kay Penman -
Lionheart, Sharon Kay Penman –

Medieval British History is my wheelhouse. I’m not an expert by any means, but learning about the English royalty is actually what first sparked my academic interest in history during high school. Who was the Black Prince and how did he get such an awesome moniker? How accurate were the popular tales about Richard I’s crusade? I just wanted to learn more, and I did throughout college.

Popular History

One oft-lamented aspect of the field of history by academics is the prevalence of popular history, particularly in film, television, and non/fiction. Popular history tends to take a wide, mass-appeal approach to the telling of history. The argument against these forms of history is that they are often more focused on a gripping narrative than on actual historical accuracy or objectivity. This is undeniable in many such works.

Take the depiction of the siege of Jerusalem in 2005’s Kingdom of Heaven. In this film (which I love, but not for its accuracy), Orlando Bloom plays a French crusader named Balian de Ibelin, raised in France and brought back to defend the Holy Land by another French nobleman (Godfrey de Ibelin, played by Liam Neeson) during the Third Crusade. Orlando Bloom’s character decides to stay and fight with whatever soldiers would join him as the Christian army of Jerusalem marches off on what ends up being a massacre (the Battle of Hattin).

While the real Balian d’Ibelin did indeed lead a defense of Jerusalem and saved its inhabitants from being massacred by brokering a deal with Salah al-Din, his depiction in Kingdom of Heaven alters a few major pieces of his life. First of all, the real Balian was born in the Holy Land to the lord of Ibelin. Secondly, Balian did not end up running away with Sybilla, the once Queen of Jerusalem, to wrap a nice bow onto his life of heroism and graciousness.

That should give you an idea of how easily historical fact can be manipulated to drive fictional narrative, even if it is done so compellingly.

Historical Novels

In her story Lionheart, Sharon Kay Penman brings weighty research and an academic sense for accuracy to depict in captivating detail the trials of Richard I’s crusade. The majority of the narrative is given in scenes of dialogue between the prominent characters: Richard I, Eleanor d’Aquitaine, Berengaria (Richard’s betrothed and wife), Joanna (one of Richard’s sisters), and a host of other noblemen and knights accompanying the crusade.

The point of view moves fluidly throughout each scene, like a camera rotating to focus on different characters in particular moments. This can be confusing at first, but once you get used to the rapid change in perspective, it adds an engaging inter-character dynamic to the story.

Most of the major events of the Third Crusade are told through these vignettes of character interaction, which can sometimes jump forward in time by several months. Penman’s vignette style lends a certain gravity to each scene. Rather than shine a light on the duller, in-between moments, Penman cuts through the filler content to give the reader important character or narrative insight in every scene.

Richard Couer de Lion

Obviously, the most important character in this story is Richard himself. Penman admits in the Afterword that she had not previously been interested in writing about Richard, saying that she did not like what she had previously read about him – that he was an arrogant, reckless man who became legendary only through his ruthless battlefield prowess.

Through her extensive research, Penman manages to tame the legend of Lionheart and show us the complex, flawed man that he was. Progressing through the campaign of Richard’s crusade, the reader comes to understand how Richard earned his moniker. As both an inspiring leader and brilliant battlefield tactician, Richard’s own knights are often left in awe – and later in concerned frustration – of his reckless acts of heroism, such as leading a charge onto a beachhead without wearing full armor. His confidence in his soldiers’ loyalty is so complete that he does not even bother to look back to ensure they’re following his charge.

This public image of Richard is built extensively through the first third of the book. Richard is not introduced directly as a character until chapter 4, his entrance enrapturing for Isabel de Clare, Countess of Pembroke:

“As she watched, he pulled back his hood, revealing a handsome head of bright coppery hair, piercing grey eyes, and the whitest, cockiest smile Isabel had ever seen. As he swung from the saddle into a circle of light cast by the flaming torches, Isabel squeezed her husband’s arm. ‘You were right, Will. Only a blind man would not know he was looking at a king.'” (p. 47)

What is perhaps more fascinating is how the very real hero worship of Richard among his peers and followers is contrasted with how the members of his inner circle manage to challenge him, especially the women in his life.

Eleanor, the Duchess of Aquitaine and one of the most respected ladies in Christendom is Richard’s most trusted confidant in the early chapters of the book. Richard’s sister Joanna carries her mother’s sense of propriety with Richard’s fiery temper, making her the one character who can truly stand up to Richard, even if it is only in private. And Berengaria, Richard’s betrothed and wife, while young and often naive in worldly matters, also learns how to come into Richard’s confidence.

This intimate perspective of Richard’s flaws and shortcomings is continuously juxtaposed with his public displays of bravado and the Christian army’s sense of awe whenever he appears. In Richard, Penman has developed a historical character who is empathetic while living up to his own legend.

Story becomes Legend

Lionheart delivers a thoughtful, engaging portrayal of Richard I. The variety of point-of-view characters used also keeps the narrative fresh with different perspectives and interpretations of the tense months of the Third Crusade. Penman crafts a protagonist deserving of respect and yet deeply flawed. Richard is cocky and tactful; headstrong and calculating; courageous and reckless; compassionate and ruthless.

Penman does not worship her character, but it is clear that she comes to respect him, and she admits as much in her afterword. Lionheart is an intimate and believable interpretation of Richard I and his crusade. Anyone who is remotely interested in this period in history will find a richly intricate narrative of the events from July 1189 to September 1192.

Steve D

4 thoughts on “Book Review: LIONHEART, by Sharon Kay Penman

      1. I think she is excellent and really takes you into the character. I would also recommend Elizabeth Chadwick. My two favorite historical fiction writers.

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