Historical Fiction, Scott, Sir Walter

Review of Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott

Early last week, I finished reading Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott.

What is it about?

Below is a Goodreads summary of the book:

Set in England just after the Third Crusade, Ivanhoe is the tale of Wilfrid, a young Saxon knight, and his love for the royal princess Rowena. With his father against their union, Wilfrid embarks on a series of adventures to prove his worth, finding himself in conflict against the Normans and the Templars, and allied with such larger-than-life figures as Robin Hood and Richard the Lion-Hearted. A timeless story of courage, chivalry, and courtly love, Ivanhoe is a grand epic, and its place in classical literature is assured.

What did I think about it?

Ivanhoe is widely credited for having inspired people to learn more about Medieval England and the Crusades. Scott’s novel takes place in the midst of the Saxon-Norman conflicts in England and at the end of the Third Crusade. In his preface to the novel, Scott attributes the Norman invasion and the subsequent conflicts for the birth of the English language.

“[T]he necessary intercourse between the lords of the soil [The Normans], and those oppressed inferior beings by whom that soil was cultivated [The Saxons], occasioned the gradual formation of a dialect, compounded betwixt the French and the Anglo-Saxon, in which they could render themselves mutually intelligible to each other; and from this necessity arose by degrees the structure of our present English language, in which the speech of the victors and the vanquished have been so happily blended together; and which has been so richly improved by importations from the classical languages, and from those spoken by the southern nations of Europe.”

This explanation for the birth of a standard language is very insightful. Power is often behind the birth of a language. In many countries, the dominant language became dominant because of the type of people who spoke it. In France, the language Oïl (la langue d’ oïl) became standard French because this was the language spoken by those in power. Oïl and Oc were the terms for “yes” in Northern and Southern France respectively. Because Oïl was the language of the royalty and the aristocracy, Oïl was adopted while Oc almost completely disappeared. Notice that Oïl ≈ Oui. Scott argues, however, that the  birth of the English language was influenced by both the Anglo-Saxon and Norman (or French) languages.

In addition to exploring the nature of the Norman-Saxon conflict, Scott offers a pretty sympathetic, albeit stereotypical, view of the Jewish experience in medieval England. Rebecca is a strong woman who endures a lot of abuse from both Saxons and Normans. While many of the characters were very one-dimensional, Rebecca is a complex character. She is a woman whom I admire. Rebecca cares for Ivanhoe even though he barely acknowledges her. Yet, she is no one’s carpet mat. She defends her faith and her independence even in the face of death.  The Jews are still presented as lovers of money, but the author deplores their unjust treatment at the hands of certain Catholics.

The stereotypes in the book are its greatest weakness. The Jews worship money and the Catholic clergy are lovers of women and booze. The lack of character development renders the story boring at times. But because I am a sucker for medieval literature, including contemporary fiction set in the Middle Ages, I enjoyed reading Ivanhoe.

I would like to learn more about the reign of King Richard I. Scott presents him as a very irresponsible king. Because I don’t want to spoil this book for those who haven’t read Ivanhoe, I will not reveal much more about this character. Suffice it to say, that King Richard’s qualities are not always those of a good king.

Favorite quote:

“Glory?” continued Rebecca; “alas, is the rusted mail which hangs as a hatchment over the champion’s dim and mouldering tomb – is the defaced sculpture of the inscription which the ignorant monk can hardly read to the enquiring pilgrim – are these sufficient rewards for the sacrifice of every kindly affection, for a life spent miserably  that ye may make others miserable? Or is there such virtue in the rude rhymes of a wandering bard, that domestic love, kindly affection, peace and happiness, are so wildly bartered, to become the hero of those ballads which vagabond minstrels sing to drunken churls over their evening ale?”

I recommend Ivanhoe to anyone interested in medieval English history.