It has been twenty years since I read Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott for the first time. Twenty years? Ack, that means I graduated from high school twenty years ago and college fifteen years ago. Has it really been that long? If anything, that twenty years has given me a world of experience I could only imagine as a teenager, which has, in turn, changed my perceptions and perspectives quite a bit. It is, therefore, appropriate that I revisited this work of literature as part of the 2016 Back to the Classic Challenge by Books and Chocolate.
Sir Walter Scott was a wordy wordy wordy writer of prose twenty years ago. I’d be lying if I said that I approached this reread of a book I read in high school with anticipation. Trepidation is a much more accurate description. From my high school perspective Sir Walter Scott did not know the word pithy or its meaning. According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary website pithy was in use by 1562 so I guess Sir Walter Scott might have been familiar with it. Anyway, in my humble high school opinion, the plot of Ivanhoe was buried underneath a veritable load of words, a good story disguised by verbiage.
As I read the first chapter or so I waited for the wordy deluge to begin, but to my surprise and delight Sir Walter Scott was not the spewer of extraneous paragraphs that I recalled. To be pithy, he crafts an exciting adventure set in a beautiful, if occasionally over-described, setting. Isn’t it exciting to know that my taste, ability, and adaptability in reading has grown and transformed over the last twenty years? Hurray me!
With that said, I enjoyed Ivanhoe much more than I really expected. Scott did tend to be a little over descriptive for my taste, but it truly wasn’t terrible or out of place. In fact it was a nice change of pace for more modern writers who write nothing but dialogue with nothing to flesh out the story. The plot advanced at a nice pace and with enough twists and turns to keep me glued. I barely remembered the story from high school so it was rather akin to reading it for the very first time.
The antisemitism of that time is very evident in the plot and attitudes of the characters. Its blantantness made me feel a little uncomfortable since I don’t identify myself or my Christian beliefs that way, but I know enough history to know that was common during that era. The general treatment of the Jews in the story sounds about right for the 12th Century. The cowardice and conciliatory manners of Issac of York along with his greediness were reminiscent of general attitudes, although I did wonder how Scott himself felt about Jews because the character of Rebecca is so much more nuanced and prominent than that of the imperious but insipid character of Lady Rowena, her rival for the affections of the Knight Ivanhoe. Of the two of them I feel that I would rather be friends with Rebecca because she promises to be much more interesting and fun to be friends with of the two. Lady Rowena, for all that she is the love of the title character, seems insignificant.
Something else I noticed this time is that Ivanhoe doesn’t actively participate in a lot of the story. He is the character that ties everyone and the action all together, but he spent a lot of the time injured and lying on a pallet being tended by Rebecca. Unlike the One Direction Song, this novel is not really the “story of [his] life.”
The perception we have of Robin Hood as cheerful thief who helps the poor if directly correlated to Ivanhoe. In fact his name Robin of Locksley seems to have been an invention of Sir Walter Scott in this novel. Robin and his band of merry men, including the Friar, play a crucial part in the action. I enjoyed the Friar immensely this time around, especially when the Black Knight shows up and plans to share his humble abode for the night. I had figured out who the Black Knight was at that point which just made it all the more enjoyable. What really cracks me up is that the illustration for the Kindle version (pictured above) is an illustration of Robin of Locksley, not Ivanhoe.
Something that I noticed in particular is the hypocrisy of many of the Christians in this novel. The worst ones were the very people who were sworn to love Christ and lead virtuous lives. The Prior Aymer and the Knight Templar Brain de Bois-Guilbert were both very corrupt men. The Prior used every excuse he could find to indulge himself in rich clothing, food, and wine. The Templar used his service in the Crusades as an excuse to ravish any woman he wanted, and woe to the women who caught his eye. His battle with himself at the end of the novel did not raise him in my estimation at all, but it did make him seem a little more human. Even the Friar didn’t escape a touch of hypocrisy with his love of rich food and wine and willingness to fight.
This story is set in medieval times when chivalry was the thing, and yet, most of the people fall quite short of the ideal. The most heroic of the knights ends of being King Richard and Ivanhoe. By all accounts in the book Richard ends up being a capricious ruler. As for Ivanhoe, he is heroic and chivalrous, and yet I’m not entirely sure that he ends up living happily ever after. Scott wrote that he wouldn’t say whether or not thoughts of Rebecca and her dark beauty ever crossed Ivanhoe’s mind after she left England for Granada. I confess that it made me wonder if Scott himself didn’t really prefer Rebecca over Lady Rowena.
All in all, I am grateful that I chose this book to reread. I was right for liking the story in high school. The story sucked me in, and I enjoyed it even more than I did in high school. In fact, I am going to be looking for Rob Roy, another Scott novel, so I can read some more.