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.