Monday, September 20, 2010

Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott

One of the great historical adventure novels, Sir Walter Scott's best-known work was read avidly for generations until the great Scott fell into disfavour with modern literati. Now he's criticised for his wordiness (skies in Scott are always azure and never blue) and noses are turned up at his characterisation. Little may we care: like all truly great novelists, Scott knew how to write a gripping story, and his characters are always extremely vivid.

Ivanhoe deserves its fame. Though it's set in the Merrie England of good King Richard Lionheart, wicked Prince John, and even Robin Hood, it provides a good feel for the anarchy, lawlessness, and danger of those times. England is clearly divided between the Norman overlords and the Saxon serfs and middle-class. The Conquest is still sore in the memory of most Saxons, and especially in the memory of the franklin Cedric, who is something of a figurehead for a simmering Saxon nationalist movement. Cedric's ward, the noble and beautiful Lady Rowena, is a direct descendant of Alfred the Great and his young friend Athelstane is descended from another of the old kings. Cedric's master-plan involves marrying Rowena to the dull but amiable Athelstane, uniting the suffering Saxon serfs, and restoring the line of Alfred to the throne.

Tragically for Cedric, the big spanner in the works came from within his own family. His only son Wilfred began badly by falling in love with Rowena, went on to worse by becoming a loyal knight to the Normal King Richard and receiving the fief of Ivanhoe at his hand, and finished up, worst of all, running off to the Crusade with said Norman King! Cedric, of course, cuts Wilfred off with a shilling, forbids his ward to see him again, and continues undaunted in his great plan—even though Rowena still plainly loves Wilfred, and Athelstane has humbler and pleasanter aspirations than to the English throne.

But all that is some years in the past when this book opens. The Crusade has petered out in the Holy Land—Richard is goodness knows where, perhaps in an Austrian dungeon—Wilfred is likely dead—the dubious John Lackland is anxious for the return of neither—and Cedric doggedly continues throwing Rowena and Athelstane together in the hope that one will conceive a grand passion for the other.

When Prince John holds a great tournament at Ashby, the plot doesn't take long to get started. First of all, there's the mysterious “Disinherited Knight” who sweeps all dramatically before him. Then there's the even more mysterious “Black Sluggard” who doesn't unhelm, even at the end of the tournament, before slipping away into the woods. Then there's the old archer who at times shows a flash of Lincoln Green below his grey robes!

Intrigue also seethes among the spectators: three of the Prince's cronies, three Norman lords of easy morals each sees something he likes. Maurice de Bracy sees the fair, wealthy and noble Rowena and decides, without consulting her, that she is just the bride for him. Reginald Front-de-Boef sees the extremely wealthy and not at all charming Isaac of York, a Jew, and conceives a well-advised passion for the financier's money-bags. And finally, Brian de Bois-Guilbert, a Knight Templar, on being asked to help, decides to help himself to the Jew's beautiful, smart, and courageous daughter Rebecca.

Well, it's true that faint heart never won fair lady, but then neither did mass kidnappings. Neither the captives nor their friends outside Front-de-Boef's evil castle are about to give up easily!

I love this book a lot: it's thrilling, the characters are heaps of fun, and I could read a whole book about the lovable highjinks that occur when King Richard and Friar Tuck spend an evening together over a stoup (or five...) of wine!

I shall try not to say too much more about the plot lest I give it all away, but some of Scott's most lovable characters are in this book. There's Cedric, the crusty obstacle in the path of true love who is nevertheless smart, brave, and patriotic. There's Athelstane, one of the most lovable lunkheads in literature. There's dour Gurth and brilliant but unbalanced Wamba; and the opposites of Robert Locksley (jolly woodsman with a streak of avarice) and Isaac of York (avaricious with a real streak of kindness). And Rebecca, the heroine, is one of the great female characters of Victorian literature, being clever, smart, and basically twice as impressive as everyone else in the whole book. But my favourite character is Rowena, that high-born but somewhat underhanded lady, who twists everyone around her little finger, routs fearsome warriors with floods of tears, and always, always gets her own way—I wouldn't call her manipulative; just a bit less direct than some!

Ivanhoe is a real treat. Read it for the characters or for the plot, you won't be disappointed. It does take about seven chapters to warm up and get going, but important plot points occur in those seven chapters and you'll be glad you made the effort!

Librivox recording
Gutenberg etext

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed "Ivanhoe" immensely. However, I find Scott is at his best when he sticks to Scotland. "The Tale of Old Mortality", "Guy Mannering", "The Antiquary", "Waverley", and "The Fair Maid of Perth" are my favorites. By the way, you forgot to mention the best part of "Ivanhoe"--the Dedicatory Epistle by Laurence Templeton to Dr. Drysasdust. I found the sly references in the letter to Jonathan Oldbuck and Sir Arthur Wardour brilliant. I love Scott's fictional antiquarians--the above mentioned Messrs Templeton and Dryasdust and Captain Clutterbuck, Peter Pattieson (with Jedidiah Cleishbotham), and Chrystal Croftangry.

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