Miriam's Reviews > Ivanhoe

Ivanhoe by Walter Scott
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's review
Jul 01, 2008

really liked it
bookshelves: adventure
Read from January 01, 2003 to January 01, 2004

In Ivanhoe, Scott skillfully undermines the alienating characteristics of the medieval gothic while taking advantage of its familiarity to and popularity with nineteenth-century audiences. Although containing elements reminiscent of the earlier gothic, such as the corruption and intrigue of religious orders, the madness of Ulrica and the burning alive of Front-de-Beouf in his castle, it also pokes fun at some of the wilder elements of this genre: the resurrected phantom of Athelstane, for instance, turns out to be quite alive and in search of a decent meal. Scott is clear in his rejection of supernatural devices, and rather than the scenes of emotional breakdown and overwhelming passion common in earlier gothics, his characters by and large behave with the rationality and self-control that would have been regarded as admirable by the author’s contemporaries. Throughout the story, Scott attempts to have his characters behave as modernly as they could without ahistoricism. By avoiding the distasteful areas of superstition, madness, and popery, Scott made it possible for nineteenth-century readers to sympathize more fully with the actors and to imagine themselves in the characters’ places without uneasiness or mental strain.

Ivanhoe was presented, in the overtly fictional voice of the translator Templeton, as a medieval account rendered into modern language. Historical anachronisms are thus not authorial errors but deliberate attempts to make the text more accessible to contemporary readers. Scott constructed a debate between Templeton and the likewise-fictional antiquary, Dr Dryasdust, who accuses the translator of “polluting the well of history with modern inventions.” Scott replies, in the person of Templeton: “I may have confused the manners of two or three centuries… It is my comfort, that errors of this kind escape the general class of readers, and that I may share in the ill-deserved applause of those architects who, in their modern Gothic, do not hesitate to introduce, without rule or method, ornaments proper to different styles and to different periods of art.” Scott this warns his audience that Ivanhoe should not be read as an attempt to recreate, nor to modernize as Leland did (and as Scott had done when he wrote in Middle English a Continuation of the poem Sir Tristem, which was intended to be a believable imitation of the medieval text), a medieval romance. Although Scott was widely read in medieval romances and often alluded to them, he did not model Ivanhoe on a particular medieval tale and makes no attempt to imitate an authentic medieval style. Neither his language, his plotting, nor his ideology are, or were intended to be, genuinely medieval.

The plot of Ivanhoe and other of Scott’s works likewise reveals less nostalgia than is often assumed. It is commonplace to state, as Alice Chandler does in her seminal work A Dream of Order: The Medieval Ideal in Nineteenth-Century English Literature, that Scott’s medievalism “brought to an increasingly urbanized, industrialized, and atomistic society, the vision of a more stable and harmonious social order, substituting the paternal benevolence of manor and guild for the harshness of city and factory and offering the clear air and open fields of the medieval past in place of the blackening skies of England.” While this was indeed a part of the appeal of Scott’s tales, it oversimplifies Scott’s complex attitudes toward the Middle Ages and ignores the conclusion with which several of his novels end.
Scott was far from giving unreserved approval to the medieval past. Even in regards to his most sympathetic characters he offers points of criticism. In describing the heroic Richard, for example, he remarked on the “wild spirit of chivalry” which urged the king to risk unreasonable dangers. “In the lion-hearted king, the brilliant, but useless, character of a knight of romance was in a great measure realized and revived… his feats of chivalry furnishing themes for bards and minstrels, but affording none of those solid benefits to his country on which history loves to pause, and hold up as an example to posterity.” Scott goes so far as to imply that the sullen fidelity of the serf Gurth is more admirable than the reckless courage and self-pleasing and licentious chivalry of the royal Richard; freedom and honor rest for Scott on responsibility and loyalty to the social covenant, not on personal glory.

Whereas in medieval tales the focus is almost always on individual heroism expressed through valor and strength of arms, these qualities play a large but ultimately superficial role in Ivanhoe. In the final anticlimactic duel at Rebecca’s trial, for example, Ivanhoe does not defeat the tempestuous villain by skill; in fact, the other characters all agree that Bois-Guilbert would certainly have won the contest were he not so conflicted in his feelings for Rebecca that he collapses on the field without being struck by his opponent. Beneath the exciting trappings of jousts, abductions, and political intrigues, the central motivating tension of Ivanhoe rests on the disruption of familial relationships and the struggle to restore those relationships to their proper order. Even the political struggle between King Richard and Prince John is a fraternal conflict; and Richard recognizes that his royal duties include reconciling Ivanhoe with his father. This reconciliation is, in fact, his most important success: insofar as Scott suggests that Richard is a good king, it is because he unites England in loyalty to his person as he unites the disrupted families he encounters on his adventures.

The emphasis on familial order gives a different role to women than would be found in a genuinely medieval tale. In medieval chivalric romances concerning male competition the female figures occur secondarily, as lesser prizes to be won in addition to glory or honor. The nineteenth-century ideal of domestic harmony, and its association with political order, gave women a more important role than did medieval political ideology. In the jousts and duels of Ivanhoe, Rowena is the primary object of the struggle between the main character and his opponent. Rowena’s genealogical importance to legitimate Saxon claims of rule is emphasized by Cedric, but in the end she encourages Saxon assimilation rather than independence by marrying Ivanhoe, who has cast his lot with Richard. Her rejection of Athelstane signals the end of Cedric’s plan for renewed Saxon dominance, a plan which Scott marks as backward-looking and unrealistic, if understandable.

If Scott in fact advocates a medieval revival, it is not of the feudal system or of Anglo-Saxonism, but of what he understood as medieval virtues: self-sacrifice, emotion rather than sentimentality, loyalty not only to one’s leaders but also to one’s followers. These attributes were based on an integrated system of personal relationships: between members of a clan or family, between lords and vassals or serfs, between subjects and ruler. Scott depicts these relationships as essentially personal and familial, rather than abstract and national or bureaucratic, which they were rapidly becoming in his own lifetime.

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Comments (showing 1-7 of 7) (7 new)

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message 1: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell Wow, fantastic.

message 2: by Kelly (last edited May 19, 2010 06:27AM) (new)

Kelly I've read a lot of Regencies, and there's very frequently some sportsman gentleman character who doesn't read a lot but liked "that ripping novel Ivanhoe"! I've never read the book, so your explanation of Scott making the book more understandable to his audience sheds some light on why that might keep turning up as a character trait.

Not that that's the most important thing to be gotten out of this very thorough and scholarly review. Just the most relevant for my shallow reading tastes in this area. The rest is great too. Thanks! :)

Miriam No, Kelly, you're right. If you look at Scott compared to most writers of his time you can see that he really understood how to appeal to a broad audience.

Of course, he kind of had to be successful after being screwed over by his friend and left with impossible debts...

message 4: by Lisa (new)

Lisa Vegan Wonderful review, Miriam!

Miriam Thanks! I find literature from this period much more interesting if I approach it as a historical source.

message 6: by Buck (new)

Buck Wait, is that a scholarly citation in a GR review? I didn't even know we were allowed to do that.


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