YOU GUYS. I read Ivanhoe and it was the most amazing thing. Walter Scott was extremely popular in his day and had legions of adoring fans and was invited to a private dinner by the Prince Regent so they could discuss his books and was very influential on other authors and I CAN SEE WHY. This book, which takes place in 12th century England, not long after the Norman Conquest, is a thriller. It is a roller coaster ride. It has everything you want in it (and a few things you don’t) including knights, jousts, disinherited sons, brave fair ladies, archery contests, Robin Hood, Richard Lionheart and Bad King John, a jester who can’t shut up, last-minute rescues, resurrections, English-French hostility, and lots of ballads. There is no time to catch your breath. It just goes from one amazing scene to another. For those of you who don’t like spoilers, stop here. For those of you who don’t mind them or have already read it, AHOY.
The first thing that smacks you in the face about this book is that Saxons=Good and Normans=Bad. All the Normans are nasty, cruel, oppressive, and fond of excessive frippery, whereas all the Saxons are kind-hearted and true (if perhaps a little crude in their manners.) This is complicated slightly by the fact that Good King Richard is Norman, but since he’s the only Norman who isn’t bigoted against the Saxons, we let it slide. The arc of the novel doesn’t allow us to gain any appreciation for the Normans at all. What it does is to allow a rare opportunity for Saxons to best Normans in battle, and then reluctantly bow to their new Norman sovereign, once they’ve proved they’re as brave, strong, and chivalrous as their conquerors. I wonder what was going on in England at the time. Ivanhoe was published in 1820, so Napoleon had abdicated just six years earlier. Anti-French sentiment was likely still pretty high. Still, the actual Norman conquest is still a sore spot?
The plot is thick with excitement. We go from a joust (which reminded me of nothing so much as the Super Bowl, since it takes place in a little valley lined with cheering onlookers, and the narrator takes pains to notice that the women, who you would think wouldn’t like such a bloody sport, are cheering just as much as the men) to an archery contest which Robin Hood wins handily, to a battle to a scene where the Black Knight is singing rude songs all night in Friar Tuck’s hut. Then more battles, with grievous wounds and rescues and mysterious healing. Then there’s a fabulous scene where we discover that an old Saxon woman, Ulrica, was captured when she was young and forced to work for the Normans. Naturally the Saxons now despise her and think she should have killed herself rather than work for them (even though she was forced into it and raped and so forth.) So Ulrica swears REVENGE and she goes off and actually LIGHTS THE CASTLE ON FIRE. And there’s an amazing climactic scene where she’s standing on the battlements (!) while the castle is burning down, (!!) with her white hair blowing around her, (!!!) singing a revenge song in Saxon about Hengist and Horsa (!!!!!) Does this remind you of anything (Jane Eyre, Rebecca, etc etc etc)? It is the best thing EVER.
Maybe the most interesting thing about the book is Scott’s treatment of his Jewish characters. There are two: Isaac of York, a moneylender, and his daughter Rebecca. I found this theme, which runs throughout the book, to be fascinating. The narrator mentions frequently that people in 12th-century England were bigoted and unjust to Jews, and he shows it: everyone, even the best characters, treat Isaac and Rebecca like garbage. If they want something from the moneylender, they are distantly polite, but they all obviously think that at best the Jews live on another, lower plane and are lesser beings. The worst characters are, of course, far worse: they hurl slurs and seize the chance to stalk, harass, and even torture these people, hoping to gain something if possible.
Isaac and Rebecca are painted very differently. Isaac is just slightly more than a Jewish caricature. He’s avaricious and grasping, so worried about money that at times he forgets about his daughter. He’s timid, too. But Rebecca! She may be the strongest character of the entire novel. She’s chaste, modest, strong, intelligent, wise, compassionate, and kind. There’s a scene in which the villain, a renegade Templar knight named Brian de Bois-Guilbert (can you GET any more Norman?) has approached her to take her as his mistress. She has refused him several times, but he advances to take her by force. Rebecca sizes up the situation, then springs into a high tower window. She is utterly fearless for her life, but she won’t brook dishonor. Stunned, Bois-Guilbert swears he won’t touch her — and he doesn’t. Offered several chances to convert, Rebecca holds to the teachings of her ancestors, and to her faith in a God who made both Jew and Christian.
With all this, though, Rebecca and her father are the Other. She wears “oriental” robes, and there are cushions on the floor in her home, instead of chairs. She has mysterious healing arts that no one in England understands. Eventually she is accused of witchcraft. Why should any of this be, since she was brought up in England and speaks English? Because she is a “different race” and “has no country.” Scott was clearly trying to point out injustices toward Jews, and successfully made a wonderful Jewish character, but there’s still not the subtlety and deep understanding that George Eliot would show a few decades later in Daniel Deronda.
This novel was extremely influential, and inspired a wave of interest in medievalism and the Gothic. In fact, you can see its impact later still — if any of you have read Edward Eager’s books, Ivanhoe shows up as one of the main influences. Knight’s Castle is essentially based on it (and on one of E. Nesbit’s books) and it also shows up in Half Magic. Which is how I wound up knowing Ivanhoe before I read it. And you probably have, too. This book was fantastic — exciting, interesting, funny, unexpected. Definitely recommended, maybe for this winter break.