Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott
I first encountered Ivanhoe in, of all things, Zits, the comic strip. The teenager of the family, Jeremy, was forced to read it for class, and his father decided to read it along with him–with hilarious results, as both father and son couldn’t stand it. Ivanhoe, then, has always been an impenetrable classic to me ever since I was a wee lass. However, as my reading has expanded and I’ve gotten older, bits and pieces about Sir Walter Scott and his writing have filtered through to me and put several dents in my old conception. Needing a lengthy read for a bit of travel, I decided to dive in headfirst and take a library copy of Ivanhoe with me.
Yes, its reputation for downright debilitating prose is well-earned, but there’s an amazing story once you acclimate.
Ivanhoe focuses on the conflict between the Saxon natives and the Norman conquerors of England, four generations after William the Conqueror and during the period of time that Richard the Lionheart was absent from England. The titular Ivanhoe, a knight disinherited by his fiercely Saxon father for allying himself with the Norman Richard, is just one of many characters in a cast that includes the famous Robin of Locksley, Prince John, the fair Lady Rowena, Wamba the jester, Gurth the swineherd, and, perhaps most importantly, Rebecca, a beautiful Jewish healer whose work is unparalleled but is despised for her faith and her steadfast devotion to it.
The main challenge Ivanhoe presents to the modern reader is readability. Scott’s syntax can be especially tortured, as he often inserts so many asides that the noun and the verb are often left waving to each other from a distance. His prose can be very thick, especially when we meet a new character or enter a new setting–Scott establishes every last detail that he possibly can. It occasionally feels like you’re wading through marshes, trying to get to dry land. I don’t mean for this to sound bleak. Scott’s writing can be charming; I laughed and read out loud to my mother the passage where Scott pointed out that the characters were speaking in Saxon, but it would be useless to transcribe it as such for the reader. He also occasionally gets melancholy, reflecting on the future of sites important to the story that will one day be in ruins or forgotten. However, there were passages where I felt I was slogging through narration to get to the action. Ivanhoe is a novel that requires patience with the text to fully appreciate. But your patience is amply rewarded.
The story is fairly straight forward–while Prince John plots to take over the throne of England, three of his supporters antagonize Ivanhoe in his quest to get back into his father’s good graces and wed the fair lady Rowena, which throws Ivanhoe’s bevy of friends, including the even fairer Jewish healer Rebecca, into plenty of hot water. There’s plenty of battles, rescues, besieged castles, and sumptuous dinners for anyone who enjoys adventure, historical fiction, or just a good bit of swashbuckling. The story is massive because of its characters–Scott takes time to investigate what each member of his cast are doing, often backing up to explain why someone has just arrived at the right moment. I really enjoyed the thought and detail put into it, but it’s also a very good example of another barrier between Scott the nineteenth century novelist and Clare the twenty-first century reader. He wanted things neat and orderly by character; I would have preferred things neat and orderly by chronological order. Still, he unfailingly selects good moments to jump backwards, so it doesn’t get grating or interrupt the flow too much.
Ivanhoe is credited by John Henry Newman to have started the medieval revival of the Romantics (including a sanitized version of the past, which is quite apparent when it comes to Richard the Lionheart), and it’s easy to see why Ivanhoe would give people a new appreciation for the medieval era–Scott’s characters are wonderful and, for a pretty straightforward adventure tale, quite complex. Even the conflict between Saxons and Normans is complex–one is not better than the other. Cedric, our Saxon representative for the beginning of the novel, is much too stubborn, turning out his own son for his own ideals. While Robin of Locksley and his merry men are presented as decent, patriotic gentlemen, their lax view of morality (one good makes up for many ills) is questioned. Even Brian de Bois-Gilbert, a dastardly Templar who abducts Rebecca, is given depth and perhaps even redemption while still remaining our main villain. The women don’t fare as well; Rowena, while occasionally spunky (the novel points out it’s only because she’s quite spoiled), is not very interesting. Rebecca fares much better; a Jewish woman who stands up and would die for what she believes in, helps everyone she can, and is conflicted by her growing attraction to Ivanhoe–which, because she’s Jewish, can never truly be. (If we can play teams for classics, I’m on Team Rowena.) Characters are the heart and soul of novels, and this is a wonderful cast.
Scott himself admitted that Ivanhoe wasn’t flawlessly historically accurate in the Dedicatory Epistle to Ivanhoe–one character apparently invents burning witches at stake, characters use a few terms from the future, and Scott invented the name Cedric by misspelling Cerdic. But it certainly fares better than some other historical novels or films in that department. Interestingly, Ivanhoe is the origin of a lot of Robin Hood mythology–the connection to Locksley is first used in fiction here, the very impressive arrow-splitting stunt (although hitting a slim rod at a hundred paces ought to be up there too), and placing him at the time of Richard the Lionheart. Even his occasional identity as a gentleman returned from the Crusades is thought to be borrowed from Ivanhoe himself. That’s half the fun of reading classics we think we know; discovering where some of our pop culture comes from.
Bottom line: Yes, Ivanhoe’s reputation for debilitating prose is true–but once you adjust to such thick prose and endless establishing narrative, you’re rewarded with a classic adventure story with wonderful characters. Everyone should read it at least once.
I rented this book from the public library.