I grew up
with “Ivanhoe”. That is, I grew up with the movie “Ivanhoe”. Danish television,
back when we had only one channel, would have an afternoon showing of “Ivanhoe”
every year on Christmas day. I also remember reading it as a child. Then it fell
out of my scope, and it must be twenty or even thirty years since my last contact
with the story, until now. The images I have are therefore scattered and
confused, some clear, others blending into a mish-mash. Approaching the story
again, so many years later, is a strange mix of a familiar and a new experience.
is a classic knight’s tale and in a British context there can only really be
two such scenarios: King Arthur or Robin Hood. “Ivanhoe” takes place in the latter
but manages to infuse it with a lot of the spirit and mythology of the former.
dark times in Britain. King Richard has disappeared, presumably imprisoned in
Austria, and Prince John is contemplating usurping the crown. In the power vacuum,
it is the jungle law. Feudal lords are abusing their power, and nobody is safe.
In this environment, Scott introduces an additional conflict between the
conquering Normans and the native Saxons, a conflict which historically would
have ended at least half a century earlier. Cedric, the Saxon, is a minor lord
who schemes to marry the heir apparent to the Saxon throne, Athelstane, with a descendant
of King Alfred himself, his ward Lady Rowena and present this as a rallying
point for a Saxon uprising against their Norman lords. To further this scheme
Cedric has disowned his own son, Wilfred of Ivanhoe, who has gone into Norman
service with King Richard in the Crusades and, his biggest crime, declared his
love for Lady Rowena.
is back in England, challenging the Norman lords at the grand tournament at
Ashby and he will need all the support he can get from the outlaws in the Sherwood
Forest and the mysterious Black Knight. Yet, his most important ally turns out
to be the luckless Rebecca.
of course be read as a regular adventure story, the stuff boy’s dreams are made
of, and this is presumably why this novel was a big hit in the nineteenth
century. It can also be credited with an immense cultural influence, forming or
shaping many of the public images of the entire scenario around Robin Hood,
Richard the Lion-hearted and the despicable Prince John. As such a story it is
quite readable even today, though fairly dated in places. Scott had a real
issue with pacing, must blatantly in the storm of Torquilstone where we get the
same scene played out four or five times from different viewpoints, a delay
that was seriously taxing my impatience.
From my present
point of view as an adult and modern reader, I find two different angles to the
story that I consider more interesting than the simple adventure.
turning to writing a medieval tale seems like quite a departure from his
Scottish novels, until you dig into the Saxon-Norman conflict. The conflict
Scott had repeatedly dealt with, and which I reviewed in “Rob Roy” is that of the
Jacobite movement and the healing of it. It is not difficult to see a parallel between
that and the Saxon-Norman conflict. An ousted elite trying to restore their
former glory by overthrowing the new regime despite their claim being
increasingly tenuous and futile. The solution, Scott suggests, is to give up
the struggle and the division and instead accept that the future is a merger
between the two groups, and only that merger will be the new Britain.
Translated to Scott’s own time, the Scottish need to give up their Jacobite
dreams of independence, while the English should abstain from lording it over
the Scottish and instead embrace them as equals. Some might say that two hundred
years later we are not quite there yet.
reading is that of the Jewish cause. Here Scott appears strangely ambiguous. He
goes a long way to describe the Jewish moneylender, Isaac of York, with all the
stereotypic and antisemitic libels available. He is avaricious of wealth and a sniveling
coward. He has no concern for people outside his own wealth and is a usurer to
everybody but his friends. You can almost hear the Nazi propaganda. Yet, the
incrimination of the Jews is put in the mouth and actions of all the Gentiles
around the Jews. Their antisemitic views and actions are presented by Scott as
completely unjustified, based on religious superstition and bigotry. Add to
this that Isaac’s daughter, Rebecca is the true heroine of the story. She is
proud to be Jewish and is portrayed contrary to all the stereotypes as a
generous, intelligent and courageous woman. This portrayal is not made as an exception
but in defiance of prejudiced stereotypes, and Scott lets both her and Isaac
and their plight take up a very large portion of the story. Rebecca with her
character shames the proud templars and their bigotism and I cannot but read a
lot of sympathy from Scott. At some point near the end Scott lets Rebecca say
that her people will never be safe in the lands of other people. And this is
seventy years before Theodore Herzl.
Am I the
only one who felt that Wilfred should have ended up with Rebecca rather than the
bland and one-dimensional Rowena? Maybe that is the provocation Scott wanted to
make, it his readers would have been up for that, challenging their prejudices.
Scott’s “Ivanhoe” is both a bold medieval adventure and commentary on his own
time. It is antiquated and modern at the same time, it had immense cultural
influence and offers the reader something today. For all, and despite, these
reasons it is still recommended reading.