Connections. Discovering the true stories behind the fiction

Having read and reread G G Kay’s The Lions of Al-Rassan some five times in the course of three years it was almost a revelation to read Fletcher’s Moorish Spain. Did I ever think Lions was a work of fiction?!?!?! O my was I deluded!
I had read about the early medieval history of the Iberian peninsula before ever even knowing of the existence of Lions. I had even pilgrimaged to certain sites in southern Spain, like Granada, Cordoba. I had travelled the Andalusian countryside, I had watched Morocco from Gebr al-Tariq – sorry, Gibraltar – thinking how short the distance had been for the Berb conquerors and their Arab masters, back in the early eight century. I thought knowing the smells and the texture and some of the history of the country and its peoples biased my reading.


Only a couple of pages into Moorish Spain I felt the urge to check if Kay mentioned any of his sources for Lions on his website. He did. Top position on the list was this one book – Moorish Spain, by Richard Fletcher. As I continued to read I started to note down obvious references between the two. Remember – one is a work of fiction, the other is a comprehensive history. Not a textbook, sure, but a non-fictional text summarizing a historic period.

These are the connections I found –

The only real person mentioned on Kay’s website is El Cid (Rodrigo Diaz), which is said to be the inspiration for Rodrigo Belmonte.
Others, as I discovered them, are –

I’m quite convinced Ammar ibn Khairan is modelled on a composite of the bisexual muslim poet and petty king Al-Mu’tamid ibn Abbad of Seville and the king’s lover, the poet and statesman Ibn Ammar. Like Ibn Khairan Al-Mu’tamid ended his life in exile (or as a prisoner, depending on source. Either way it was in Morocco).

I also think Tarif ibn Hassan is modelled in part on ‘Umar ibn Hafsun, the brigand leader originally from Rhonda but acting out of the mountains at Bobastro (ibn Hassan, as we remember, was headquartered in Arbastro).

Ibn Ammar and El Cid was both exiled to Zaragoza in the early 1080’s – El Cid for being over-zealous when exacting parias from Toledo, much the same way as Rodrigo Belmonte was. They might have met.
(From this point on the true story of Diaz don’t match the one of the fictional Belmonte).

If Cartada is Seville (even down to the beetles producing the crimson dye) then Ragosa ought to be Granada, with it’s protected location in the mountains, with it’s jewish first minister Samuel ibn Naghrila and with it’s amir Badis. Samuel’s son Josef seems to have come to an end just like Mazur ben Avren. (The splendid Alhambra was a later addition to Granada, but a writer of fiction are allowed some lee).

The Muwardis seems to be related to the Almoravids, zealous Berbers from the Maghrib. The al-Andalusian petty-kings invited them for protection against the Christians. Al-Mu’tamid of Seville seems to have been instrumental in this. He reputedly said that he “would rather be a camel-herder in Morocco than a swineherd in Castile”. This sentiment is echoed almost word by word by Ibn Khairan when turning down an offer from Belmote.
The first I had guessed already but the details looks almost as copyright infringement, if such laws applied to real life.

At last, in the epilogue, Ibn Kharian makes an elegy to Al-Rassan. This elegy echoes the elegy the poet ar-Rundi composed for Seville – “Ask Valencia what became of Murcia…” – quoted in the Fletcher’s book.

Do this lessen the value of Lions? If you ask me the answer is no. Kay uses this setting as background, to tell another story – one of how individuals might want to try to affect what’s happening but that not even the mightiest are truly independent from the whims of others or the realities of economical and social and political factors.

I’m a wee bit disappointed because I thought Kay had created more of this story than he really did. But I can live with that.

Links to my reviews of The Lions of Al-Rassan and Moorish Spain


Review: Moorish Spain, by Richard Fletcher

The author, when writing Moorish Spain, set out on a quest to defuse the popular image of Spain under the Moors as a glamorous, tolerant and enlightened community laid to waste by brute ignoramuses – he states this intention clearly enough in the first chapter.

His success is only partial. Because while the Moors was as brutal and intolerant as the Christians that replaced them this was very much what life was during not only this period of time but the periods preceding and succeeding it, and while the Christians are a known entity to us in western Europe the Moorish Muslims are not. The winner writes the history, and for a very long time the winners had zero interest in preserving anything Muslim. This means very few records or perishable objects are left us from the Moorish era. Thus a lot of our knowledge is guesswork. What objects are left only adds to the enigma. The Alhambra, arab baths, carved objects and learned texts all shows the image of something medieval Europe wasn’t, not to our inner eye.

(This inner image is, of course, a false one. Between the Black Death and the Inquisition there was a place where the seed of science could grow. Not to come to bloom yet, but the ground works were being laid. Part of that came through the area then called al-Andalus in the form of translated and commented texts by Aristotle and the like.)

The book is geared towards the layman, and therefore lacks notes of sources and references. This is both good and bad. It’s good, because it makes the text flow in a pleasant way. It’s almost written as discourse, and he don’t care to hide his disdain for the navel-gazing coteries of historians who spends their time disputing who wrote what in 784 when the real interest lies in why things happened – the patterns and the motivating factors (I happen to share his view).
The lack of footnotes are bad because in some cases references are of interest even to the layman. A special period or person or place has captured your interest, and you want to know more. This is just a minor flaw, though. As a whole it offers a comprehensive overview of early medieval Spain.

If you’re interested in the era this should be a must read.
You should also read this if you’re planning on visiting Spain or Portugal – if you do it will add to the experience and heighten your awareness of what you are seeing (if you venture beyond the beaches of Costa del Sol, that is).

Reread while sick: The Lions of Al-Rassan

This comes labelled as fantasy but the only fantastic elements are the invented, two moon, world and a boy having visions. Even then the place names, religions and geography closely echoes Moorish Spain at the time of the Reconquista.

The story follows a group of people through the ending of Al-Rassan (al-Andalus). A infamous asharite (muslim) courtier, an equally infamous (or famous, depending on your world view) jaddite (christian) captain and a kindath (jewish) doctor. The supporting cast features a young jaddite soldier, the family of the jaddite captain, an asharite merchant, a jaddite king and a selection of asharite ones, a kindath chancellor and zealous desert warriors.

The first time I read this book the likenesses with real history and real geography irked me slightly but as the story began to spin through the pages my (slight) knowledge of the era, and me having visited some of the remnants of it, only worked to paint that important inner vision of the place, with smells and textures and all.

Kay is good at portraying people as people, worthy of themselves and with motives, ridden by their anguishes, their pride and their desires – very few of the characters are truly evil or truly good – almost everyone is a bit of each.
He is good at political intrigue, even the shrewder bits of it, and I appreciate that a lot as I think it adds considerable depth.

Kay uses ambiguity and multiple viewpoints as stylistic tools, and to me that only makes the story stronger. I can see, however, how it can equally irritate as it slows the actual happenings instead of tightening the psychological pressure, if you’re a certain kind of reader.

After the first few reads I also started to discern the fact that while the female kindath doctor seemed to be a main character in reality she’s only a plot device used to give dimension to the real main cast, the real topic – the asharite courtier and the jaddite captain who when meeting in exile starts a friendship, with her in the middle. But seen that way isn’t EVERYONE in ANY story a plot device?

So I can live with that. Because what he seems to say is that religions as religion, all zealots are narrow minded and when big politics takes over the individual can only do so much to steer clear of the shoals.
That the enemy is ordinary people, just like you and me, only with other goals and circumstances.
This reflects my own opinion.

I chose to read this book because with a high fever I needed a story I knew and with some happy moments in it. This should not be taken as a sign that this is an uncontroversial text; it is a cruel romance, full of severed body parts, spilled intestines and explicit sex. And a great deal of political intrigue and religious critique.
But those things only work to make the characters and the world more realistic, with less need for suspended disbelief.

Nevermind the not very good poetry. After this fifth read I still think it’s a good book.

(Anyone reading the book should NOT skip the epilogue.)