I bought Ivanhoe two years ago (or was it three?) and it has lain quietly in my stash of books, waiting for me to pick it up ever since. Finally a fit of madness took me mid-December, and I decided that I would close out the year by racing through this famed classic. Surely, surely it would be no problem. Five hundred pages, two weeks to do it in? Just a bit of application, and we have a goal well met.
You may or may not have noticed it on my list.
Floundering through really captures my experience, for after 2012 changed hands with 2013, my interest in Ivanhoe fizzled out. Granted, for the first couple of weeks of the year I had a hard time applying myself to any book, but take a 500 page classic that does not race ahead like Great Expectations, and you can picture my perturbation. Who gets stuck in Scott? Maybe many do, and I don't blame them after my experience.
But now that a couple of weeks separate me from the finish line, I have had some time to reflect on the history and the plotting techniques Scott used, and I find many points of interest to share. I would definitely read it again, though maybe I wouldn't attempt it in December.
Cedric the Saxon wants the glory of his people restored to it's full height after the oppression of the Normans, and to do this he is determined to marry his ward, Rowena, off to Aethelstane, the last of the Saxon royal line. Rowena's love for Cedric's son Wilfred, however, throws off his plan to unite the Saxon people with this politic marriage. Cedric the Saxon has already disinherited him, both for his political and romantic affiliations. Thus, the conflict begins.
Prince John takes over the throne in his brother's absence, giving rise to the oppression of various Norman nobles on their tenants, particularly Reginald Front-de-Bouf and Maurice de Bracy. Against such designing villains Rowena's beauty stands no chance.
After a disastrous tournament for all concerned, in which two strange knights recently returned from the Holy Land sweep the honors, de Bracy plots to make Rowena his fair bride, and takes her, her father, Aethelstane, and two Jews under their protection to the castle of Front-de-Bouf for safekeeping. Things look ill for Ivanhoe, who they discover was one of the knights in the fair, wounded after his last contest. The Saxons must face threat of fire and torture at the hands of their Norman oppressors, while Prince John grows ever more desperate at rumors of his elder brother's return. If Rowena will not marry de Bracy, he tells her that he will show no mercy to the wounded Ivanhoe.
Damsels in distress with a vengeance. And rest assured the book contains much more than I've mentioned here.
Ivanhoe fascinates the reader just as much with its history as with it's fiction. Set after the disappointing results of the Third Crusade (possession of Jerusalem meant everything to the Norman invaders) Scott dives into the muddy waters of British history, and makes them even more murky with his fictional embellishments.
I know not exactly how the Saxons invaded Britain. Theories abound, ranging from a peaceful settlement alongside the Celtic Britons to a wholesale massacre of the inhabitants after the Romans deserted their outer stronghold. However sorry I felt for Cedric at the mistreatment by the Normans, I didn't sympathize with him too much over losing the chance to reclaim his people. After all, he's merely taking the medicine that his people dished out a few centuries before. It's hard to take sides during this era, for most of the monarchs had their good points and their bad, while peoples invaded continents and then wept and shook their fists when they were invaded themselves.
Aside from World War Two and the turn of the 20th century, I have probably read the most in the era of the Crusades. Between Robin Hood, The Brethren, Brother Cadfael, and other stories, the wicked machinations of Prince John are more familiar to me than what happened in yesterday's news. I did enjoy Ivanhoe's different perspective on King Richard, to expand my understanding of him. And it's always good to have Robin Hood as long as he's properly understood, like Scott and Creswick portray him.
Along with the politics, the corruption of the church provides further cause for interest. Priests who blatantly disregarded their holy vows practiced about the same level of corruption as the Roman Catholics during the Reformation. Maybe it never stopped; I really couldn't say. The legalistic dedication of Lucas de Beaumanoir, leader of the Knights Templar, contrasts strongly with the indifferent corruption of Prior Aymer. At a time when holiness could be bought, what need had they to become conformed to the image of Christ? The people vacillated between relying on works or indulgences, and it's a pretty depressing image of Christianity in England. Truly, when the ministers don't teach their people the Word of God, the main flock is cast upon the darkest ignorance.
That leads us to the treatment of the Jews. It really is tragic, in Ivanhoe, how God's chosen people bore the contempt of the general populace. True, Isaac of York's greed is almost ludicrous, and the average Jew had sunk to the position of an avaricious money lender, but the fact remains that Jews are God's chosen people. Though they are in ignorance of salvation while the Gentiles are brought in, they will one day be brought to a knowledge of repentance. We Gentiles are wild branches, grafted into the olive tree of Israel.
Again I ask: Did they [Israel] stumble so as to fall beyond recovery? Not at all! Rather, because of their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious. But if their transgression means riches for the world, and their loss means riches for the Gentiles, how much greater riches will their full inclusion bring!
I am talking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles, I take pride in my ministry in the hope that I may somehow arouse my own people to envy and save some of them. For if their rejection brought reconciliation to the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not consider yourself to be superior to those other branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you. You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but tremble. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either.
-Romans 11:11-15, 17-21
Scott's motto: Why say in one sentence what can be said in four? I couldn't help falling into fits of laughter over the length of his character's homilies. Draw a sword? Why don't you take a breath first? After a while it looked like he was trying to herd chickens towards the climax point, and the chickens had a mind of their own. Darting up passageways, threatening fair maidens, going off for a drink of ale and a song with their monarch. You name it, they did it. Oh, yes, it was exciting, and I wish more of us had the turn of phrase that Scott was able to command. But dear me, he took his own sweet time about it.
I think that's what threw me off about Ivanhoe: I was used to Scott's wanderings before, but in the form of poetry. I've enjoyed The Lady of the Lake four or five times, and long rantings over wild eglantine suit the rhythm of the book. The wild fury of an oppressed people sounds heart wrenching with a few well-turned lines. Even if it goes on as long as an entire Canto, put it to rhyme and the reader no longer cares about such ordinary things as a deep breath. Draw your swords, comrades! The prose, however, is quite poetic without having the structure of regular poetry, and therefore gave me some difficulty.
Scott employs the literary technique of stringing his readers along so that they can't put the book down, keeping them in torment the whole time. Adding insult to injury, he doesn't even employ myriads of scene breaks like modern readers do. He can build up the tension in a 17 page chapter with one object: to get a monk past the castle gates. Oh, to be so talented at saying so much to say so little.
Ivanhoe contains occasional language, but most of the statements, though a little more comfortable in talking about the devil than the average reader is used to, are not profane in nature.
By far the largest literary debate surrounding Ivanhoe begs the question Rebecca or Rowena? On a similar level to Masouda and Rosamund in Haggard's The Brethren, both women are matched in beauty, and both have brains to couple with their grace, which is not often the case where two women are pitted against each other. I thought Rowena was a bit spoiled, and didn't have much backbone with men, though perhaps she used the best technique in her confrontation with de Bracy--tears. I would like to see a woman in literature who uses both wits and tears to good purpose, just to add a little variety. But I couldn't warm to either of them. I liked Wilfred and Robin Hood best.
Scott may be a bit slow (try Howard Pyle's Men of Iron if you want a similar, quick read) however it's fascinating history and interesting plots more than make up for any difficulties with wordiness.