Ivanhoe by Walter Scott is an intriguing mix of romance, historical fiction, adventure, and myth about knights and chivalry, the Crusades, the legend of Robin Hood, and the well-loved King Richard the Lionheart. This was one of the rare classics that didn’t take much effort to read, especially considering the dated language used.
Though written in 1820, Ivanhoe takes place in 1194, about 128 years after the Norman Invasion of 1066 that toppled the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy. At this time, King Richard was returning from the Crusades. Richard’s brother, Prince John, was in charge of the country and his erratic, harsh behavior was causing problems among the nobles and the peasants. In fact, John was seeking to seize the kingdom for good by rewarding his loyal “followers” (aka, a few treasonous nobles who had no problem trying to oust King Richard) with land and holdings in return for military support.
In the middle of this mess, John holds a tournament with jousting and sword fights among the knights of the land. Wilfred of Ivanhoe, one of King Richard’s faithful retainers who fought with him in the Crusades, enters the tournament in disguise. He takes on the best of the Knights Templar and John’s loyal retainer: Brian de Bois-Guilbert. However, this book is more than just two knights, representing the royal brothers, fighting each other. There’s a star-crossed love story (or two), a siege and battle, and a royal personage in disguise.
What I love most about this book—other than the love story, daring sword fights, disguised heroes, and myths come to life—are the themes that Walter Scott broaches.
One is the Saxon versus Norman theme. While it’s been more than 100 years since the invasion, there’s no guarantee that the Normans and the Saxons have melded in culture and beliefs. In fact, historians are unsure about how long it took for the Normans to become Anglo-Saxon-ized (and they did go native. The Saxons adopted some Norman culture and beliefs, but for the most part the Normans—the conquerors—became the conquered).
Second is the Jew versus Gentile theme. Within this morass of political unrest, Saxon and Norman hatred, is the hatred toward all to the Jews, a people that were universally loathed during this time. I mean, seriously loathed, abused, and used inasmuch as they could loan out money.
Ivanhoe is our hero, a young knight who is completely loyal to King Richard, his friend king, and fellow Crusader; and faithfully in love with Rowena, a Saxon princess. Unfortunately, Ivanhoe’s father wants her to marry another Saxon royal and seize control of England, thus refusing to let the two lovebirds marry. In fact, he disinherits Ivanhoe, leading Ivanhoe to join the Crusades where he becomes loyal to King Richard, a Norman (and another strike against him, as far as his father is concerned).
King Richard (or the Black Knight in disguise) comes back to England at the same time of Ivanhoe in disguise (to his brother’s consternation). He’s loyal to his people of all races and cultures, sacrificing bodily harm to help them.
During Ivanhoe’s adventures, he meets Isaac and—more importantly—his daughter, Rebecca who are Jews. Rebecca is compassionate and loving, helping those in need whether fellow Jews or non-Jews. Here bigness of heart, her love, her defiance against evil, make her one of the best characters in the story.
One of the objects of Rebecca’s defiance is Brian de Bois-Guilbert, a Knight Templar who lusts after her. While he has evil intentions in mind, he soon passionately loves Rebecca, and this tears him apart because she’s a woman, a Jewess, and refused to have anything to do with him. I think he as a character fascinated me most because he went from a villain to a villain with a heart.
Robin of Locksley is a yeoman (or small landholder) who enters the tournament in the bow category. He’s also an honest highwayman (I know, an oxymoron) who steals from the rich to feed the poor. When he finds out that good people are in danger, he joins King Richard in freeing them.
The Storyline. (Contains Spoilers)
As people travel to the tournament site at the beginning of the book, Ivanhoe helps Isaac, keeping him from being attacked and imprisoned by those who hate Jews. This service earns Rebecca’s eternal gratitude. Ivanhoe then proceeds to trounce all his opponents at the tournament, a commentary on his goodness and righteousness. After all, he’s a Saxon who is faithful to the Norman King Richard, a Gentile who had compassion and kindness toward Jews, and a knight with humility.
After the tournament as people are traveling home, King John’s cronies, including Brian de Bois-Guilbert, attack the caravan containing Rowena and Rebecca. One of the knights wants to force Rowena to marry him, and the other just wants Rebecca however he can get her. What nobody but a few know is that during the last fight in the tournament, Ivanhoe was injured, and Rebecca and Isaac are caring for him; he’s carried off with the rest of the caravan to the castle of the villains.
Robin of Locksley discovers the attack and vows to help the people (his thing is helping), and enlists the Black Knight’s aid. Together with the merry men, Friar Tuck, and a few loyal servants, they storm the castle and rescue the afflicted. Except for Rebecca. While Rebecca’s care saved Ivanhoe’s life, he wasn’t strong enough to stop Brian de Bois-Guilbert from carrying her off when the castle fell.
This starts a whole new drama with the head of the Knights Templar trying Rebecca as a witch. After all, she’d have to be a witch to ensnare Brian de Bois-Guilbert and save lives with her medical knowledge. Plus, she’s a Jews. She’ll be burned as a witch unless she can be vindicated by trial of arms. Problem is, no one wants to fight on the side of a Jewess. Except for Ivanhoe. He might be injured and half dead, but he’s willing to fight for the woman who saved his life. And win.
Do the two, Ivanhoe and Rebecca, end up falling in love though neither says a word? Probably. But this is the 12th century: Jews and Gentiles did not intermarry. Ever. The words go unsaid, and their lives diverge. Plus, Ivanhoe now has Rowena, thanks to King Richard’s words to his obstinate father on his behalf. But still, they’re both a little haunted by the road not taken.
The writing takes a little getting used to at first, but then it flows. It transports a person back to this world of chivalry and knights (a world that likely never existed except in imagination). The chivalric talk was a little ridiculous at points, but it was meant to be, a sort of tongue-in-cheek, mocking commentary on our flowery, skewed view of the chivalry of the past. But Walter Scott still manages to broach those themes that likely existed, making this world a little more realistic. He also makes some very interesting points:
“For he that does good, having the unlimited power to do evil, deserves praise not only for the good which he performs, but for the evil which he forbears.”
“I have heard men talk about the blessings of freedom,” he said to himself, “but I wish any wise man would teach me what use to make of it now that I have it.”
This book was amazingly enjoyable, it fed my love of history, my sense of adventure, and my inner romantic. It illustrated dry English history into something fascinating. It’s well-worth reading. Now that I finished it, I want to read more of Walter Scott’s works.
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