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.
Scott’s “Ivanhoe” 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.
These are 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.
Now Wilfred 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.
“Ivanhoe” can 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.
For Scott, 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.
The second 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.
Sir Walter 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.