Monday, November 5, 2012

Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott

The epic that launched a genre
If you enjoy tales of knights, castles, and kings, then you owe a huge debt to Sir Walter Scott. A literary superstar and pop culture phenom in his day, this master of the historical novel was instrumental in reviving the public’s interest in medieval times. With the publication of Ivanhoe in 1820, Scott created the sword-and-chivalry genre that is now represented by countless books, movies, TV shows, and Renaissance fairs.

The story of Ivanhoe takes place at the end of the 12th century. While his knights return from a failed crusade to the holy land, King Richard the Lionheart is held captive in Austria. In his absence, his brother Prince John rules England with an oppressive and avaricious hand. The Normans, having conquered England in 1066, continue to treat the native Saxons as second class citizens in their own lands. One powerful Saxon noble, Cedric of Rotherwood, maintains a defiant attitude toward the Norman oppressors. He has even disinherited his son, Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe, for serving the Norman King Richard. Cedric acts as guardian to Lady Rowena, a beautiful Saxon maiden, whom he hopes to marry off to a Saxon prince. Her heart, however, belongs to Wilfred of Ivanhoe. After an exciting tournament of jousting and melee, a group of Prince John’s Norman minions led by Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert, a fierce Templar Knight, captures Cedric and his retinue for nefarious reasons and holds them captive in the Castle of Torquilstone. To free them from the clutches of the Normans, a ragtag band of fellow Saxons lead a desperate attack on the castle.

This is a rich, deep story with dozens of characters and a complex plot. Even Robin Hood and Friar Tuck make supporting appearances. Also included in Cedric’s party are two Jews, Isaac of York and his daughter Rebecca, a mysterious beauty who practices the healing arts. The undeserved persecution of the Jews is one of the main themes of the novel, and Scott shows a great deal of sympathy for their plight. Rebecca forms one corner of a love quadrangle with Ivanhoe, Rowena, and Brian de Bois-Guilbert, yet her devotion to the faith of her ancestors places an impenetrable wall between the Jewish maiden and the gentile man she loves.

The main problem with Ivanhoe is that it peaks in the middle. The siege of Torquilstone is really the highlight of the book, but when it’s over there’s still half a novel left. The plot of act two has the potential for an equally high level of drama, but gets sidetracked with several chapters of long conversations that just seem to lead circuitously to foregone conclusions. The back half of the book is satisfying, but lacks the drama and excitement of the front. It all leads to an ending which is a bit anticlimactic. Nevertheless, even in its dullest moments, Scott’s prose is a joy to read. Each sentence is an elegantly crafted exemplar of the English language, and perfectly captures the romantic atmosphere of the middle ages. With so much epic grandeur, a story like this runs the risk of getting bogged down by its own pompous gravity, but Scott never fails to inject a refreshing dose of humor into the proceedings.

Though it dabbles in folklore and myth, this is no fantasy novel. The story of Ivanhoe is firmly grounded in English history. There are plenty of thick woods, clammy dungeons, and fog-shrowded bogs, but you won’t find any dragons, sorcerers, or supernatural apparitions. Ivanhoe is a great read for anyone who enjoys historical novels or adventure fiction. Its epic story and remarkable characters are truly unforgettable.

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