Tuesday, August 3, 2010

IVANHOE by Sir Walter Scott

Ivanhoe is an 1820 historical novel by Sir Walter Scott. In 1194, in the time of King Richard the Lionheart, Prince John and Robin Hood, disinherited Saxon knight Wilfred of Ivanhoe returns from the Crusades and seeks revenge against his Norman nemesis Brian de Bois-Guilbert.

But the story is so much more than that. Ivanhoe features an ensemble cast with perhaps a dozen noteworthy characters, and of these, Ivanhoe himself plays a supporting role at best, as he’s absent from massive portions of the novel. Yet it is he who ties all the characters together.

The modern reader may be put off by a number of things, particularly Scott’s tendency to devote entire pages to the descriptions of his characters’ garb, and the unnaturally expository dialogue he puts in their mouths. But Ivanhoe is nearly two hundred years old, and some of these things we just have to get over. More just criticisms might target the book’s sometimes too leisurely pace, the somewhat anticlimactic conclusion, and the unquestionably contrived and hackneyed, silly and pointless return of Athelstane, which is so literarily amateurish that Scott felt compelled to insert a footnote to acknowledge this fact, but that he was doing it anyway.

Ivanhoe is a three-act quest/reward adventure, and in spite of the book’s more plodding characteristics, Scott usually keeps the pages turning in an impressive manner. His writing is clever as well as verbose, and quite frankly, there are a lot of exciting things going on here.  

As far as the narrative, Scott sometimes has difficulty juggling all his characters, as he has to jump around chronologically, impeding the novel’s flow. Neither does Scott feel compelled to wrap up all his many plot threads; some prominent characters, notably Prince John, are dropped by the wayside as the novel progresses and then only mentioned in passing later on.

Ivanhoe features an astounding degree of anti-Semitism from virtually every character, whether hero or villain (in addition to a historically accurate depiction of medieval persecution, this is also a political commentary contemporary to Scott’s day, as England was moving toward the emancipation of its Jews). Yet for the point Scott is trying to make, Isaac of York fits very well the stereotype of the miserly Jew. But his daughter Rebecca is the noblest character in the novel.

Of similar historicity is the frustrating level of ignorance and superstition displayed by so many characters – it makes something like Monty Python and the Holy Grail’s witch/duck scene seem hardly a bit farcical. And saddest of all is the time’s horrendous misunderstanding of Christianity – the finding of virtue in unvirtuous acts, particularly the slaughter of any and all unbelievers.

While Scott took a number of liberties with other historical matters in Ivanhoe, no offense is egregious, and because of the degree of detail Scott provides, most everything is believable enough to the uninitiated. Ivanhoe is also noteworthy for its lasting influence. It sparked a renewed interest in the Middle Ages. And every single Robin Hood tale or film I’ve ever seen has used it in some way as source material, as have a large number of other medieval and fantasy stories.  

In spite of its flaws, Ivanhoe remains a pillar of medieval historical fiction, and is a must for fans of that period.