Sept. 28 2011 12:00 AM

Richard I was a man of many faces, according to Sharon Kay Penman


So who is this Richard I, also known as Lionheart? Is he
the crusader of popular myth from tales of Robin Hood and his Merry
Men? Was he the aloof, reckless warmonger and anti-Semite described by
some historians? Or, as historical novelist Sharon Kay Penman describes
him in her new book “Lionheart,” was he a fierce warrior, but also a
realistic diplomat who brought peace to the Holy Lands?

In reality, he was all of those things.

Penman, who has written seven acclaimed novels about
medieval England and four mysteries about Eleanor of Aquitane, has
launched into writing about what could be the most complex time in
medieval history, requiring extensive research to separate the myth
from reality.

“Lionheart,” which goes on sale Tuesday, was originally
supposed to be one book, telling the entire tale of Richard I,
including his Third Crusade, his unusual relationship with his enemy
Saladin, his capture by enemies and his triumphant return to England;
however, the sheer immensity of the tale led to the necessity of a
second book, “A King’s Ransom,” which will be out next year.
“Lionheart” ends as Richard I begins his voyage home.

Rightly so, Penman begins “Lionheart” with a much-needed
list of characters (which runs three pages), without which the book
would be impossible to follow. Also included are maps of Sicily, Cyprus
and the Holy Land, where most of the book is set. The book opens in
1189, as Richard I makes preparations for a holy war to invade
Jerusalem. But before he gets there he stops to rescue his sister,
overthrows a despot or two and finds time to marry. Along the way his
bad brother John — of Robin Hood infamy — begins conspiring to
overthrow him. 

Penman said that keeping the similar names of monarchs
straight “drives historical novelists to drink. The name problem is a
bane to the historical novelist.”

She said to maintain her sanity she writes extensive outlines to keep the confusion to a minimum.

Penman said in writing about Richard the Lionheart she
was assisted by the extensive number of first-person memoirs — called
“chronicles” — which were written at the time of Richard’s reign. She
said what makes this period so unusual is that the chronicles were not
only written by English and French writers but also by Saracens,
including Saladin himself.

The writings are a virtual treasure
trove of tales about the first King to “take up the Cross,” some might
say in penance for his previous indiscretions and brutality. More
important, the chronicles contain descriptions of the battles by seven
men who were actually there, including three Saracens.

Penman said the writings show Richard to
be “a military genius pure and simple. He was one of the best generals
of the Middle Ages. He was almost invincible in hand-to-hand combat.”

She said if the chronicles had only come
from one side she would have thought the “chronicler was acting as his
(Richard’s) p.r. agent.”

“The most incredible thing he did was
ride his stallion up and down the Saracen line, challenging anyone to
come out and fight him. No one did.”

She said two of the Saracen chroniclers, including Saladin, had identical descriptions of that encounter.

“The Crusade was the defining part of Richard’s life,” Penman said.

In Penman’s view, Richard was not only a fierce warrior
but also showed immense respect for Saladin, even knighting one of his
Muslim enemies on the battlefield and proposing a marriage alliance
between the two enemies.

The novelist also makes it clear that Richard was a
pragmatist who decided that even though he may have been able to take
Jerusalem, he would not be able to hold it, which is why he withdrew.

Penman, who has a bachelor’s degree in history from the
University of Texas, said she began writing a novel about Richard III
while in her second year of law school at Rutgers.

Her 400-page manuscript, which had taken 12 years to
write, was stolen — in its own Hemingwayesque tale — and she was left
with no copy.

“It was a very traumatic loss and I was unable to write for six years,” she said.

Once she got over writer’s block she became prolific,
publishing “The Sunne in Splendour,” her 900-pages-plus Richard III
tale in 1982.

She has not left the Middle Ages since. In 1996, she published her first medieval mystery.

Although unable to visit the Holy Land for research for “Lionheart,” Penman said she usually visits the castles, walks and  battlefields she writes about.

“I felt bereft I wasn’t able to visit, but it’s not essential anymore: Thank God for YouTube,” she said.

Sharon Kay Penman

7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 6

Schuler Books & Music

2820 Towne Center Blvd.,



(517) 316-7495

Read the first chapter of "Lionheart" at Penman’s website,