ivanhoeYOU 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.

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31 Responses to Ivanhoe

  1. Anne Simonot says:

    I don’t remember it popping up in Half Magic (but it’s been a while) which is a lovely little book! Great to hear of someone else who’s read it!

    • Jenny says:

      Oh yes, I’ve read all Edward Eager’s magical books for children. And passed them on to my own children! In Half Magic I am thinking of Katherine wishing she was a knight and becoming one while she is still a child. Lots of Ivanhoe-inspired language there.

  2. Jeanne says:

    You make this sound like fun, especially with the reminder about how it influenced E. Nesbit and then Edward Eager.

    • Jenny says:

      And so many others! I’m guessing A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and countless more. This was just such plain fun.

  3. lbloxham says:

    Your review made me so happy. I am, as you know, a huge Scott fan. I can hardly wait for you to read The Antiquaries.

  4. Rohan Maitzen says:

    What a delightful post! Your enthusiasm is a real shot in the arm on an otherwise dreary day. I remember enjoying Ivanhoe when I read it but I haven’t gone back to it in ages; now I want to. I assign Waverley pretty often and it is a hard sell: compared to Ivanhoe, it is a pretty slow burn, but it too has lots of action, humor, and pathos. I really enjoyed The Bride of Lammermoor when I finally read it a few years ago.

    • Jenny says:

      I just loved Old Mortality (Tom’s recommendation) and this was also wonderful. I bet if I’d lived in the early 19th century, I’d have been asking at the bookseller for The Author of Waverley.

  5. Elle says:

    You know, it’s been ages since I read this and since I read it directly after I finished my Finals, it turns out I remember VIRTUALLY NOTHING of it. Certainly not the bit about Ulrica burning down a castle and singing a revenge song, which sounds amazing. The only bits I do remember are the bits that I was primed to recognise from reading Edward Eager as a kid! Perhaps I should go back to it.

  6. We all read Ivanhoe at school in the 60s in the UK and it has been made into many films TV series etc. Of course the Normans were the bad guys- they were the invaders. I think they mostly have a bad press in English lit and of course Robin Hood is the one who stands up to them. I never met anyone who wouldn’t have rooted for King Harold at the battle of Hastings. However, although the Normans won the physical battles, English won the language battle -it’s not Norman that is the world lingua franca, is it! We were always told that the Bible translators (for the King James Authorized Version) avoided the French origin words in favour of the English ones (where there was a choice), presumably to get the people onside. Certainly some of the occasional hostility to and rivalry with France is a lingering legacy more of the Norman Conquest than the Napoleonic Wars. I think it was exploited subliminally in the Brexit campaign. Curious that the French seem to get more resentment for a war a thousand years ago than the Germans or Japanese do for a war that is still in living memory for a substantial number of people. History works very strangely. Scott did great things for Scotland in reviving its culture which had been repressed after the Jacobite rebellions of 1715 and 1745- he is regarded here as a sort of one man tourist industry.

    • Jenny says:

      It’s hilarious that you say that about the language, because of course English is at least half Norman (French) today — so I’m not sure that battle was “won.” I noticed that though Scott describes Saxon as “manly and expressive,” his own language in Ivanhoe, which is very high-flown “medieval-sounding” language, is stuffed with words of French origin. Try reading the chapter on the joust! I’d be interested to hear why you think resentment against France is (still) due to the Norman Conquest than to the Napoleonic Wars, too. But certainly Scott does marvelous things with that particular bit of hostility, however rife it was.

      • I think Napoleon was regarded as an individual dictator/leader depending on your standpoint and the line is that he was just another despot with the desire to invade, but nothing personal against the French, similarly with Hitler, although obviously it took time for reconciliation after the bombings and also the death camps. However, the Normans actually invaded and subjected the people to slavery (in the form of the feudal system), so that is what rankles. So maybe the attitude is more like ex-colonial countries feel about their colonisers or African Americans feel about their history. History casts a long shadow. Interestingly, the Norman monarchs did not prevail, but were replaced by the Welsh Tudors then the Scottish Stewarts and finally we just imported Dutch then German monarchs, as they were cheaper to run and less prone to become drama queens.
        Can I defend Scott against historical inaccuracy? He was one of the first to draw popular attention to the appalling treatment of Jews in Medieval England through his sympathetic portrayal of Rowena. (Shakespeare only did it in the Italian context). His Scottish novels are usually regarded as historically accurate, I think, and he was involved in uncovering Scottish history- he actually located the Crown Jewels which had been lost after James the 6th became King of England as well (you can see them in Edinburgh Castle). His novels are incredibly topographically accurate – especially the Bride of Lammermuir and Heart of Midlothian- you can visit all the places still and even the beach where the baddy met his just demise (oops, hope that wasn’t a spoiler!)

      • Forgot to mention, David Crystal’s Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language is a great read for tracking all these weavings of history and language, right through to other versions in the US and other anglophone countries. It is really entertaining and well illustrated. Good ask for a Christmas present for book lovers everywhere :)
        By the way think you for all these lpvely reviews- I now have a huge list of books to read.

  7. I love it when someone loves a classic novel so much. I’ve not read this and had no plans to but this is making me reconsider.

  8. realthog says:

    It always warms my heart when someone discovers and enjoys a Scott novel. Ivanhoe wouldn’t be my favorite (that’d be Guy Mannering, at a guess) and like all Scott’s novels it’s a bit slow to get started, but, once it does, it becomes, as you say, a thriller. As for Rebeca, well, I was about twenty when I read the novel and I must have stayed in love with her for at least a year.

    • Jenny says:

      I didn’t think it was slow to get started! Unlike lots of 19th-c novels, which take 50 or 100 pages, this one started pretty fast. But I liked Old Mortality at least as well as this, maybe better (more humor) and I’m looking forward to more!

  9. Jeane says:

    I read it so long ago- must have been in high school. I can’t believe I don’t have my own copy yet. The one I read was from my father’s collection of classics. I don’t remember Ulrica, but I recall Rebecca pretty well, and all the tournament stuff. I bet I would like more of Sir Walter Scott.

  10. Kristen M. says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever even considered reading Ivanhoe … but I did grow up with a Chinese boy whose parents seriously named him Ivan Ho — he has since changed his last name. Anyway, now I am interested! Woo!

  11. Although Scott is NOT easy, I find him incredibly rewarding. I like the Scottish novels more than the others, although I liked The Talisman a lot (I had to read it to finish up the Scott titles in the “Authors” playing cards deck). I wasn’t too crazy about “Heart of the Midlothian,” because I thought it was just too long for the story (something that doesn’t seem to bother me with Henry James, but I find Scott’s filigree even harder to wade through than James’s sometimes). I loved “Rob Roy” and “Waverley” and “The Antiquary.” And Scott led me to James Fenimore Cooper, who did for America what Scott did for Scotland–create a national identity through fiction. They’re both steeped in the Romantic tradition, have little concern for facts as history, but are deeply in love with the idea of what makes the national character. I hope you keep reading him. I’ve got a number of the “lesser” works on my groaning TBR shelf, along with some of Cooper’s non-Leatherstocking novels. (I hope this didn’t get posted twice–I’m having trouble with passwords these days).

    • Jenny says:

      I definitely plan to read more Scott. Given his long list, he’s like Trollope in that you don’t run out quickly. I have read exactly zero James Fenimore Cooper — I wouldn’t have classed them together, so now I’m intrigued! Cooper doesn’t call to me, but if he and Scott have similar sensibilities, I might like him. Does he have a sense of humor?

  12. Hi, Jenny. I too first encountered “Ivanhoe” in another form or format: when I was 10 or 11, I found it in one of those once ubiquitous “Classics Illustrated” comic books (a staple of my late childhood). I have to thank those comics for other things too, such as introducing me to the only version of “Moby Dick” that I find even remotely palatable. Be that as it may, it had an influence, a huge influence, on my childish writing. Funnily enough, I didn’t pay much attention to the actual history. Due to a certain prejudice of mine towards Normans engendered by a previous reading of a romance by Georgette Heyer about William the Conqueror and Matilda, I decided to make the Normans the sympathetic ones and the Saxons the obnoxious invaders in a story I wrote in 6th grade! Though it might seem ingenious now, that was years before Dr. Who or time travel and all that sort of stuff entered my awareness, so I wasn’t being a young genius, just being goofy. The characters romped around in battle calling each other “pigs” and “dogs,” and etc., which caused my sixth grade teacher to take me to the principal’s office for him to ask me some questions, most of which I only figured out later. They not only couldn’t figure out my literary influences (small wonder, when they were so scrambled), but they were also concerned about the abusive language. Ah, to be young again! As to “Ivanhoe” in the original, all I can say is that I find it much better than “Waverley,” the main character of which strikes me as a bit of a bore. What about you?

    • Jenny says:

      I love this story! I can hardly imagine a sixth-grader’s Ivanhoe-based story getting anyone to the principal today! This is wonderful. I haven’t read Waverley, so I can’t compare them, but I did find Ivanhoe extremely gripping. I don’t think Ivanhoe is the main character, though! I’d give that to Rebecca or King Richard, don’t you think?

  13. You read Knight’s Castle as well, right? That’s the one where they actually travel into the world of Ivanhoe and like hang out with all the Ivanhoe characters. Knight’s Castle is the reason I read Ivanhoe when I was, I don’t know, nine? But it sounds wonderful and you’re totally making me want to reread it.

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, I mentioned Knight’s Castle in the last paragraph of my review! I’ve read all Eager’s kids’ books. I tried to read Ivanhoe when I was nine for the same reason and didn’t get very far (I guess I needed the Illustrated Classics version.) But now, oh so awesome.

  14. The Heart of Midlothian has a slow start, but the central story is essential. It stars the strongest Strong Female Character in, I don’t know, English literature. She is one of the Scott characters that writers name-drop for the next century. Of course their readers know her. The Antiquary has another of those characters.

    Cooper does not have Scott’s sense of humor, but he has a stronger, darker mythic sense, more like a great fantasy writer.

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