Pillars of Light by Jane Johnson – book review

by Edith Cody-Rice 

Pillars of LightIt has been said that literature is the hot truth and history the cold truth. This certainly is the case in this new book by Jane Johnson, an historian who has authored three previous novels. We may read many accounts of the real events in the book, but nothing brings them to life like the intimacy of a novel.

Pillars of light has a dual theme: the now acknowledged influence of Islamic architecture on the amazing European Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages and the two year siege of Acre from 1189-91 by the Christian armies during the third crusade. As the author states, much has been written about the Crusaders in the Middle East and about the siege of Acre, a port city valuable for its ability to allow the landing of Christian ships and for the belief held by the Christians that the great treasures of Jerusalem, including the true cross, were being held there.The siege began two years after the defeat of the Crusaders at Jerusalem by the Islamic leader Saladin  or Salah ad-Din, his Muslim name, which is used in the book. In 1187, Saladin had defeated the Christian armies at Hattin, ending nearly 100 years of Crusader rule in Jerusalem. Ms. Johnson notes, however, that little has been written about the ordinary people who participated in the siege which starved the inhabitants of Acre and proved the most deadly to the Christian armies of the Crusade who camped outside the city for two years in abominable conditions.

This novel concentrates on those ordinary people. This is historical fiction in that it presents a real event and the novel includes real people, principally the leaders who participated in the siege, but the central characters are ordinary men and women represented by a group of English wanderers who join the Crusade unwillingly, and a Muslim family caught in the city.

The story shifts between the two principal groups. It also includes the Saladin war camp where Malek, the son of the Muslin family is a “burning coal” or guard to the warrior leader. On the Christian side, the story is told in the first person by John Savage, an orphan and one of the ill fated English group. On the Muslim side, there is a third person narrator.

Although the point of view is evenly balanced between Christian and Muslim forces, the moral authority is given to Saladin, who is shown as unfailingly courteous, wise and merciful in his dealings. The Christian princes are portrayed as venal, disputatious and gratuitously cruel. Saladin is ultimately defeated and is betrayed in the resulting truce by Richard I of England, the Lion Heart who, contrary to the terms of the surrender, parades 3000 hostages out of the city and butchers them within view of the Muslim camp. Although the novel ends shortly after this disaster, history does tell us that Richard abandoned the battlefield without entering Jerusalem, the goal of the Crusade, although the Muslim forces were so weakened that he would have had little resistance in taking it.

The other theme of the book, which actually gives the book its title, is interwoven in the story, but is definitely secondary. There is now evidence that the pointed arches of the Gothic cathedrals in Europe which allowed more windows and light-filled glorious interiors, originated in ancient architectural practices of the Islamic world. The device the author uses to convey this theory is a mysterious Moor, who befriends and becomes the love interest of John Savage.

The novel is well written with good solid prose, but does not sparkle with life. Characters are thinly drawn and the action carries the novel along. The most compelling scenes are set at the siege of Acre. It was a brutal merciless affair, thoroughly researched and well described by the author. Jane Johnson, an English historian married to a Moroccan and living in Morocco, comments at in the author’s note at the end of the book

There have been many times I’ve had to stop work, as the stories of the destruction and violence suffered by the ordinary people of Syria eclipsed the historical event I was trying to recapture. In particular, witness accounts of the siege of Homs paralleled so closely the worst details of the siege at Acre that it was hard not to despair at mankind’s inability to develop empathy and decency down the ages. Likewise, the vile beheadings carried out by Daesh in the full glare of modern publicity, so reminiscent of the crazed Fundamentalism of the Hashshashin, also mirror uncomfortably the cold-blooded execution of the Acre hostages by Richard II (sic), deliberately within view of the Muslim  army.  Terrorism is nothing new and is not limited to a single culture or religion. There is a tendency for the modern reader to look back on people of the past and dismiss them as less cultivated, less civilized than we are. But if history teaches us anything it must surely be that we rarely learn from the mistakes and atrocities of the past

Pillars of Light is published by Doubleday Canada