Tuesday, November 22, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott

I’m a devoted fan of medieval romance, so I’ve no excuse for not having read Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott before now. Fortunately, I chose it for my nineteenth-century classic for the Back-to-the-Classics Challenge, and I’m making a last-ditch effort to get all twelve books read. (Now just two to go!)

I’ve read Scott before, Waverly and The Heart of Midlothian, and while I admired the author’s skill and enjoyed both books, they were a bit dated in terms of readability. So I approached Ivanhoe with some trepidation. And it does start off slowly. We are introduced first to a variety of peripheral characters with the principals shrouded in mystery. The reader has to be patient to get into the actual tale.

The hero of the story, Wilfred of Ivanhoe, is a young Saxon knight who served King Richard on Crusade, much to the annoyance of his father, Cedric, an old-blood Saxon nobleman who despises the Normans on principle as well as for good reasons. (Prince John is causing mischief in England, proving that the Normans are no good.) Cedric has a good friend, Athelstane, who is the last in the line of old Saxon kings. And he has a beautiful ward, the Lady Rowena, who is descended from King Harold. He wants them to wed and found a new dynasty to throw off the Norman oppressors. The fact that Rowena and Wilfred are in love is an obstacle to Cedric’s plans, so he disinherits his son. That’s the backstory.

Now, Wilfred returns in disguise. He comes partly to show Rowena he is still alive and still faithful. But he’s also staying more or less close to his king, who has returned from the Crusade after being freed from captivity in Austria. Richard has come to reclaim England from John. He’s also disguised and traveling in secret until he can amass his followers.

In addition, the reader meets Isaac of York and his beautiful daughter, Rebecca. They are Jews, and much of the plot revolves around the persecution of Jews as well as their avarice and wealth. Scott manages to both expose the bigotry of the times and to reinforce the stereotypes, which makes this part of the book doubly disturbing.

The good guys (the Saxons, Richard the Lionheart, and Robin Hood) must contend with the powerful bad guys (the Knights Templar and the barons supporting John.)  There are sieges, battles, tournaments, and ambushes as well as knights courting their ladies. The adventures pile one on another, interspersed with the narrator’s commentary. It’s great fun, especially with the witticisms of Cedric’s jester and Friar Tuck added in.

I can understand why Ivanhoe is one of Scott’s best known and most popular books. For old fashioned medieval adventure, it’s truly a classic.