Ivanhoe, Sir Walter Scott

Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott

Publisher: Collector’s Library
Pages: 680 – including introduction and afterword (Hardback)
Form: Novel


First published in 1819 when Sir Walter Scott was at the height of his powers, Ivanhoe is a spellbinding tale of adventure, chivalry and romance in twelfth-century England where the Saxons are at loggerheads with the occupying Normans. Young Wilfred of Ivanhoe has been disinherited by his father because he has fallen in love with his father’s ward, Rowena. It takes the help of Richard the Lionheart and of Robin Hood and his Sherwood Forest outlaws to ensure that the gallant Ivanhoe can claim his inheritance on his return from a crusade to the Holy Land.

Full of memorable characters – Cedric of Rotherwood, the diehard Saxon; the fierce Templar knight Sir Brian de Bois-Gilbert; the Jew, Isaac of York, and his beautiful, spirited daughter Rebecca; Wamba and Gurth, Jester and swineherd respectively – Ivanhoe is rightly considered one of Scott’s finest achievements.

I first started reading Ivanhoe when I was eight and promptly managed to lose my copy among the piles of books lying around the house. Although I didn’t get very far it stuck with me – mainly because of the cover, a knight on horseback – and is something I’ve been meaning to pick up again ever since without really knowing much about what it was about. So naturally when I spotted this beautiful little edition in the ‘three for two’ pile I grabbed myself a copy without even bothering to read the blurb. And boy…if I had actually finished reading this when I was eight it would probably be one of my favourite books ever. Everything about the story is practically designed to appeal to eight-year-old, Robin Hood loving, King Arthur obsessed, me; jousts and tournaments, conniving villains, witch trials, castle sieges, nobility in disguise, plots of high treason…Robin Hood himself even puts in a pretty major appearance! From twenty-three-year-old me, however – who expects a bit more in terms of characterisation and knows a lot more about medieval history – it only gets a 4 star rating. While I had immense fun with it I just can’t quite love it with the passion I know that little-me would have.

It’s ‘historical fiction’ with the emphasis firmly on the ‘fiction’ and there are some truly glaring inaccuracies and anachronisms. But that’s part of the charm, I think. Sure I could pick a thousand little and not so little holes in the story and details, but I enjoyed myself too much to feel the need. As the afterword in this edition succinctly puts it it’s more ‘Robin Hood land‘ than ‘medieval England’ and historical accuracy doesn’t really matter for the story it’s trying to tell. And ‘Robin Hood land‘ is a fitting description – despite the King Arthur-like trimmings of Knights errant, jousting tournaments, and damsels in distress – it’s a Robin Hood story through and through, although one where Robin Hood himself plays only a secondary role.

England after the third crusade, Richard the Lionheart in prison, and  his brother John plotting and scheming to seize the throne  – it’s a setting familiar to anyone with even just Disney knowledge of Robin Hood (an underated Disney classic that needs far more love). What Scott does with it though is shift the focus from the oppression of one greedy monarch on the poor to a more systematic and widespread racial tension; the Normans (descendents of William the Conqueror’s army) oppress the ‘native’ Saxons, nobility and laymen alike, and both the Normans and the Saxons oppresses, misuse, and hate the Jews. The Saxon-Norman tension is certainly an interesting twist on a familiar setting and it was nice to see the widespread antisemitism of medieval England acknowledged and criticised, I just wish that the Jewish characters, particularly Isaac, hadn’t conformed so damn much to antisemitic stereotypes themselves – it undermined the point in places and made portions of the book downright distasteful to read.

Ivanhoe, though, is definitely an action rather than character-driven story and relies on this sort of stereotyping to work. While there is a large cast of pretty wonderful characters – Cedric the Saxon and Wamba the Jester being my personal favourites – there’s not that much depth to any of them. Which to be honest is mostly fine with me considering the clear action-adventure slant of the story. Apart from my feelings about Isaac, the only characters I wish we could have seen more of  were Ivanhoe himself (who for the title character does surprisingly little and is far less interesting or fleshed out than almost every other character) and his love interest, Lady Rowena (who, when compared to the Jewish heroine, Rebecca, comes off incredibly lacking in the personality department). That, the antisemitism, and a truly implausible event near the end of the book is really what stops me from liking this more because, blandly perfect main characters aside, the events and the supporting cast are both great fun.

It’s not a fast paced book my modern standards, there’s probably too much ponderous description and historical asides, but I quite like that; it’s a style that fits the setting and there’s plenty to enjoy in the way of unlikely character interactions even when there’s not much action going on. When the action does come round though it’s exactly the sort of chivalric knights and castles stuff you expect – which is exactly what I was reading for. Tournaments, sieges, out of control fires…the only action scene I found disapointing was that the final showdown ended on a bit of an anticlimax – more swordfighting would have been nice.

If you’re into tales of King Arthur, medieval chivalry, or Robin Hood and don’t mind your historical fiction very heavy on the ‘fiction’ side it’s definitely worth a read. In the end though, if you’re looking for a ‘serious’ classic rather than a fun (if wordy) adventure story, this one is rather more style than substance.


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