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The Story Never Lies

I was 300,000 words into writing the first draft of Outremer, a historical fantasy series set during the 200-year history of the medieval Crusader states, when I realized something had gone wrong.

  • Suzannah Rowntree,
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I was 300,000 words into writing the first draft of Outremer, a historical fantasy series set during the 200-year history of the medieval Crusader states, when I realized something had gone wrong.

The story I had written was deeply pessimistic.

How could this have happened? I hold a lot of theological positions, but none with quite the same energy as my postmillennial eschatology. My first novel, Pendragon’s Heir, applied postmillennialism to the medieval Arthurian legends. I was proud of how I’d infused this bleak story with hope and encouragement. In Outremer, I planned to work similar themes into the equally tragic history of the Crusader states.

And yet somewhere in the transmission from mind to page, that vision got lost. The final quarter of the story confirmed my suspicions: Outremer ended on a whimper. There was a resolution, but it was trivial, neither crushing enough to be a grand tragedy nor eucatastrophic enough to be a comedy.

If I was going to be honest with myself, Outremer wasn’t postmillennial at all. It didn’t even have the tragic grandeur of premillennialism. Its structure much better resembled amillennialism.

Maybe the history itself was to blame.

“God Wills It!”

The Crusader states of the medieval Levant were founded in the euphoric aftermath of an extraordinary military campaign known today as the First Crusade. Following appeals from the Eastern Roman Empire, Pope Urban II urged the knights of France to undergo a mass pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulcher at Jerusalem. Their mission: to serve Christ by liberating the people of the Eastern Church and the shrines and relics of the Holy Land from the oppression of the heathens.

It was the first time that knights—then a byword for rage, lust, violence, and rapacity—had been encouraged by the Church to think of themselves as knights for Christ, valuable believers whose everyday occupation was something through which they could serve God. The results were electrifying.1 In 1096 thousands of laymen, nobles and commoners, took arms and travelled east.

All of them recognized that success depended on God, not on themselves. The Turks they faced commanded immense resources of land and manpower, and the crusade faced mounting danger, even as it was whittled down by starvation, disease, war, and desertion. Three separate times—at Dorylaeum in Asia Minor in 1097, Antioch in 1098, and Ascalon in 1099—they faced annihilation at the hands of a well-fed, well-equipped, and numerically superior foe. On one occasion as the starving pilgrims were trapped inside Antioch by an immense Turkish army—which had already managed to penetrate the wall—a meteor fell from the sky into the Turkish camp, starting a fire which panicked the intruders into retreat.

After such deliverances, the crusader battle-cry “God wills it” seemed a description of obvious fact.

The First Crusade was marred by episodes of brutality, significantly the bloody massacre of the Arabs in Jerusalem with which it culminated. But in the immediate aftermath of the crusade, the Frankish pilgrims acknowledged their responsibility to guard what they had liberated. So, a mere three hundred knights, together with their entourages, settled in Palestine under the leadership of Godfrey of Bouillon. Other states were founded in Tripoli, Antioch, and Edessa.

Thus, began the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. It would last 192 years.

A Loss of Nerve

For the next century the Kingdom of Jerusalem prospered, fueled by lucrative trade routes, a booming pilgrimage industry, and constant injections of money and manpower from the West. Local Greek, Syrian and Armenian Christians welcomed the Frankish newcomers and worshipped alongside them in harmony.2 Muslim prisoners of war were enslaved,3 but local Muslim peasants spoke well of the justice of their Frankish overlords.4

In the 1180s, the Kurdish conqueror Saladin, criticized for his wars against fellow Muslims, vowed to force the Christians out of Palestine, then follow them to Europe to impose Muslim rule there.5 In 1187 Saladin succeeded in provoking the Frankish army into crossing the dry hills of Galilee at midsummer to offer him battle. At Hattin, within sight of Lake Tiberias, he crushed the largest army ever fielded in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Moving quickly, he then captured Acre, Jerusalem, and all but a handful of fortresses along the coast.

Europe responded with the Third Crusade in 1190, but the campaign stagnated until the arrival of Richard the Lionheart in 1191. Richard was a brilliant general, and over the next two years he defeated Saladin twice, first at the siege of Acre and then at the battle of Arsuf. Turmoil in his French lands eventually forced him to leave, but Saladin died shortly after Richard’s departure, leaving a power vacuum which once again fractured the Muslim world. Jerusalem remained in the hands of the Saracens, but thanks to Richard, the fertile coastal lands of Palestine remained Christian.

Many factors contributed to the Kingdom’s decline through the next century. They included dynastic problems, financial strain as major trade routes moved north to the Black Sea, infighting between different Christian factions, and the rise of an aggressive military junta, the Mamelukes, in Egypt. However, the most significant factor seems to have been a crisis of nerve. As defeat followed defeat, the Franks of Palestine began to suspect that God had become their enemy. They noticed what appeared to be the superior piety showed by the Muslims. They knew God must be punishing them for their sins, but depended on increasingly Biblically illiterate leaders to coach them into godliness.6 Trapped in a cycle of sin and judgment which they did not know how to escape, the final crusader strongholds at Acre and Beirut fell in 1291.

Discerning Historical Truth

Initial success followed by judgment, mounting fear, apostasy, and more judgment: this was the tragedy of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem. Historical fantasy of the kind I attempted in Outremer is rigorously historically accurate, so despite my postmil credentials, I wasn’t going to alter it in an attempt to construct an imaginary happy ending. More to the point, the primary purpose of Christian art is discernment,7 and above anything else I wanted to discern God’s purpose and will in the history of the Crusader states. Why did God bless this deeply flawed endeavor so richly? Why, after sustaining them so long, did He ultimately spit the crusaders out of their promised land, exposing so many native Christians once again to the rigors of Muslim rule? More than anything else, I wanted to know how this apparent failure might have contributed to the advance of God’s Kingdom on the earth.

Clearly God brought covenant sanctions against His people in the Frankish East. Possible reasons may include the worship of relics: the Holy Land was called the Holy Land because the whole thing—land, shrines, relics, tombs, churches, and hermitages—was believed to have absorbed the holiness not just of Christ but also of the thousands of saints who had lived there. The earthly Jerusalem has often been a temptation to idolatry; perhaps that’s why Providence has so rarely entrusted it to Christian hands. Another reason might have been simple violations of justice: covenant-breaking, fornication, murder, theft, war crimes, slavery.

The crusades accomplished much good. Local Christians welcomed them with jubilation, and peace treaties between the crusader states and their Muslim neighbors guaranteed protection for Christians living in Muslim lands (as well as for Muslims living in Christian lands). After forcing the Turks to retreat to Mesopotamia from the very shores of the Bosphorous in 1097, the crusaders absorbed the warlike energies of the Muslim world for another two hundred years. Not until 1453 did the Turks finally capture Constantinople and open Europe to invasion.

The other thing the crusader states absorbed was huge quantities of the money and best blood of Europe. With their fall, these resources were freed up for the coming age of exploration. As the Turks consolidated their grip on the markets and trade routes of the eastern Mediterranean, Portuguese sailors pioneered new routes to Asia via the Cape of Good Hope. And Columbus dreamed of crossing the sea to Cathay with a new crusade to catch Islam in the rear.

So, the Crusader states served their purpose and passed from history. Despite the tragedy I saw hope in this story, because there’s always hope in the judgments of God. I knew that firsthand from my first novel, which contained a similar story. So why did I fail to communicate the same thing in Outremer?

Encountering Islam One of my intentions

with Outremer was to provide a sort of fictional apologia for the way that I viewed Muslims. Much in the history bore out my perspective. When the First Crusade conquered Palestine, their chroniclers recorded local Christians flocking to greet them with joy in a land filled with cities so ruinous that the Muslim garrisons abandoned them rather than try to defend them.

By contrast, when Saladin reconquered the same cities a hundred years later, he marveled at the beauty and richness of the Christian cities: from a rocky hill devoid of trees after the First Crusade, Jerusalem had become “a garden of paradise” under Crusader rule.8 Where Christian chroniclers shied away from detailed descriptions of sex or violence for the sake of decency, Muslim chroniclers devoted pages of semi-pornographic fantasy to the gory sights of the battlefield of Hattin or the fate they expected to inflict on Frankish women enslaved after the surrender of Jerusalem.9 Meanwhile, at least one Muslim traveler marveled at the contentment of Muslim peasants living under Christian rule.10 Clearly even crusader Christianity was preferable to Islam.

But as I wrote about all this, I was faced with something I wasn’t prepared for: the need to write realistic Muslim characters. Of course, I knew what was involved in constructing compelling characters. I must understand and empathize with their motivations. I must connect with them based on the one universal which all humans share: the shattered image of God. I must write them, as I write every character, with a keen sense of how I might sin as they sin. And so the question ceased being how are Muslims different to me? and became how am I like them, even in the things I fear most?

I began to read the testimonies of Muslim-background Christians as a way to ease myself into the empathy I so badly needed. As I did so, I became convicted of responding to Muslims not with the grace of the gospel but with fear. Then a Pakistani man told me how he never took Christianity seriously until he finally found Christians willing to look him in the eye. And this in a modern cosmopolitan city filled with an abundance of people of every kind of lifestyle.

But surely, I reasoned, if Christians fear Islam, they do it no more than the justice it deserves. Obviously many Muslims are peaceable people who do not follow their faith to what I believe is its logical end, but many do. As of 2017, terrorist attacks seem to occur on a monthly basis, all to the tune of the Muslim confession of faith. Meanwhile, I’d read harrowing tell-alls of life behind the burka from women living in Muslim countries, more frightening than any HarperTeen dystopia. And all the time, our headlines solemnly inform us that this kind of violence has nothing to do with Islam and that Christianity has committed comparable atrocities.

I had begun writing Outremer with a good deal of pent-up frustration at this manifest untruth. If people weren’t every bit as scared by Islam as myself after reading these books, it wouldn’t be my fault.

Functional Idolatry

So I wrote all my worst fears into the story. Outremer was grimmer and darker than anything I’d written before, and for a while I congratulated myself on being All Grown Up Now. But little by little, the grimness and darkness in the story stifled that all-important message of hope.

I was listening to a podcast on Islam when Scripture verses concerning fear began to convict me. God had not given me a spirit of fear, but a spirit of power (2 Tim. 1:7). I was to fear God and serve Him alone (Deut. 6:13). Most sobering of all, the fearful would not enter the New Jerusalem but be cast into the lake of fire along with murderers and sorcerers (Rev. 21:8). For the first time, I began to apply the Word of God to my fear of Islam—and what it said horrified me.

I had put my faith in man, not in God. I had feared Islam, not God. I had not just become a pessimist: I’d become an idolater.

Scariest of all, I knew that imitation and emulation are basic facts of human worship. If our fears are our false gods, and if we become like what we worship, then was I too on the road to violence and oppression? I took a second look at my novel. I had my characters fighting Islam using weapons of power and violence. I thought about my reactions to some recent headlines. Too often, my thoughts had been of retaliation or isolation. 

I realized that “Islamophobia” was actually the perfect word to describe what I’d felt. Of course, those who use it mean that the Christian or conservative fear of Islam is irrational, a chimera, a mental disorder. There I disagree. I think it is entirely rational to fear Islam.

I also believe it’s a sin.

The Covenantal Option

The story never lies, because the Story is the Gospel. Writing about my fears was not cathartic in the least; it only crippled my story. But I’m grateful for the experience, because it exposed my fear for what it was.

Jeremiah 17:5 exhorts us: “Thus saith the Lord: Cursed be the man that trusteth in man, and maketh flesh his arm, and whose heart departeth from the Lord.” Repenting of idolatry meant putting my faith where it should be: in an all-powerful, covenantally faithful God.

No doubt God overcomes the wicked, and sometimes He does it through military victories. Self-defense is a Biblical concept, after all. But ultimately Islam will not be defeated through the use of raw power and violence. As the Crusades demonstrate, such things may win a modicum of peace for a little while, but ultimately, they will breed more violence.  Rather Islam will be—it is being—won over through justice, mercy, and humility; through love and service of widows, orphans, and strangers; through God’s blessings as Christians faithfully keep His covenant.

1. J. Riley-Smith, The First Crusade and the Idea of Crusading (Philadelphia, PN: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986).

2. C. MacEvitt, The Crusades and the Christian World of the East: Rough Tolerance (Philadelphia, PN: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007).

3. B. Kedar, “The Subjected Muslims of the Frankish Levant,” in J. M. Powell (ed.), Muslims under Latin Rule 1100–1300 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Legacy Library, 1990), pp. 135–174.

4. Ibn Jubayr, The Travels of Ibn Jubayr, trans. R. J. C. Broadhurst (London: Jonathan Cape, 1952), pp. 316–317.

5. T. F. Madden, The New Concise History of the Crusades (Washington, DC: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), p. 69.

6. While reading a collection of letters [M. Barber (ed.), Letters from the East (Surrey: Ashgate, 2013)] from crusaders in the east, I noted that over the course of two hundred years, Scripture references and quotations in the crusader correspondence steadily declined in number and frequency.

7. M. Minkoff, According to His Excellent Greatness (Sugar Hill, GA: The Nehemiah Foundation for Cultural Renewal, 2015), states “The Christian artist’s tool is not transgression, because he does not aim primarily at novelty. His tool is discernment.”

8. M. C. Lyons, and D.E.P. Jackson, Saladin: The Politics of Holy War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), p. 276.

9. See, for example, F. Gabrieli, Arab Historians of the Crusades (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 1984), pp.  80–81, 96–97.

10. Ibn Jubayr, The Travels of Ibn Jubayr, trans. R. J. C. Broadhurst (London: Jonathan Cape, 1952), pp. 316–317. 

  • Suzannah Rowntree

When Suzannah Rowntree isn’t travelling the world to help out friends in need, she lives in a big house in rural Australia with her parents and siblings, writing and publishing historical fantasy fiction informed by a covenantal Christian perspective on history. Visit her online at 

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