The Land Beyond the Sea: the literal meaning of the medieval land named Outremer- the region now including Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Syria- the Holy Land fought and bled over, scene to countless unimaginable tragedies, witness to the death of hopes and dreams, a home and a promised land for millions down to this very day.
Just over a thousand years after the death of Christ, in the city where he was put to death Jerusalem, the Christian boy king named Baldwin IV is stricken with a mysterious disease at a crucial time when his country most needs hope. Christians just barely cling to the holy land won at great cost during the First crusade just under a hundred years earlier in 1099, and after the much more recent defeats of the recent Second Crusade, leaving little money and little manpower to hold onto the land.
It is the year 1174 as the Amalric King of Jerusalem dies, and his young son Baldwin becomes king against staggering odds. He clings to his faith, his belief that it’s God’s will to hold the land for Christianity; and it’s mixed with the bitter reality of his failing body. This is all the more so tragic to the people around him who love him, and the people who depend on him for safety as Baldwin has all the makings of a great king- at the age of 13 he was courageously in the forefront of battle riding at the forefront of victory- with a useless arm at a time when kings must be healthy and whole.
When I was reading the first part of the book a name drifted into my head and at once I realized how the story of Baldwin turns out but I don’t want to spoil it, likewise with the ultimate fate at this period of time for Jerusalem. His ailment was a curse in medieval society, but he became a much-loved king and hero to his people.
In The Land Beyond the Sea Baldwin holds power with the help of his overbearing mother Agnes whose viewpoint ushers us into the story; her arch-enemy William of Tyre, Baldwin’s beloved instructor who is also the historical author and eyewitness to many of these events; and Baldwin’s young stepmother who the former Queen of Jerusalem from Greece who has made Outremer her home. Many interesting and fiery characters abound, apparently Jerusalem bred extremely hardy people; and they would have to have been because the Christian lords and the knights Templar with their vast looming fortresses protecting the trade routes and entrances/exits to the land between Damascus in the north and Cairo in the south. They were the thin lines of defense standing before the prowling forces of the Muslim armies led by Saladin, or, Salah al’din.
The Land Beyond the Sea is a heartbreaking struggle for survival in the most inhospitable of time and circumstance. You may feel one way or the other about which peoples or religion should inhabit Jerusalem, but the facts were that any given time the land was filled with people who called Palestine home; and were consistently affected by warfare and tragedy. At the time of the second crusade, there had been born to the original crusaders children grown who in some cases now had children of their own. As humans have such short time spans, this is often enough time for a people to consider the land theirs.
Historically the Palestinians were always there always tending the land, raising crops and living in villages, and there was a sizable portion of Jews and Christians mixed in with them, although most of the Christians lived near the power bases built at the great fortresses, aforementioned guardians of the roads and strategic military places that were run like little kingdoms under lords; famous places such as Ascalon, Acre, Beirut, Antioch and Kerak.
Penman does a fantastic job of weaving the story of the back and forth tit-for-tat battles between the lords of Outremer and Saladin, leading up to the ultimate battle for Jerusalem; and the very real people who were there, who fought for life and love.
Until I read this book the Crusades and the Templars were a vague event that always happens in the peripheral, somewhere over there in time.
I knew the famous English king Richard the Lionheart had gone on the third crusade, and I’ve even read Penman’s book about his experience but it was adrift in a sea of time. When was the third crusade? When was the second? Why did they think they belonged there in the first place. Where are we and what are we doing here?! This book filled that gap in knowledge and made names and places suddenly real and recognizable enabling me to go on to further reading now about any of the crusades or figures who lived then, heroic and tragic, courageous and cowardly, so many stories to be told. I hope that this book can fill out a similar page of knowledge in history for others too, through the lens of these powerful events.
PS. I realize I may have said very little about the actual book, I’m a year two! years out of practice writing :/ big oof. I fully recommend to everyone. Violence level is pretty PG for those worrying about the battle parts, but very striking still to contemplate.