Harold Ogle's Reviews > Ivanhoe

Ivanhoe by Walter Scott
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Apr 06, 12

Read in February, 2010

** spoiler alert ** I've had this copy for years, passed to me by my friend Fred when he unloaded the bulk of his book collection in an effort to simplify his life, but it was only this week that I finally read it for the first time. It's an interesting book written at the beginning of the 19th century, not long after Jane Austen wrote her novels, but intended for a very different audience. This is an adventure novel, but it is interesting in that the title character, Ivanhoe, is the hero but not actually the protagonist.

The book follows a number of different characters, chiefly Gurth, an indentured servant working as a swineherd, and Wamba, a fool (jester). They are both in the employ of Cedric, who is a Saxon noble within a generation or two of the Norman conquest. Saxons are treated as scum by their Norman (that is, French) conquerors, second-class citizens who are reviled and mistreated. So Cedric has a fierce hatred for all Normans, and he has disowned his son, Ivanhoe, for joining the hated Norman King Richard (the Lionheart) on his crusade to the Holy Land. Cedric's ward, the gorgeous Rowena, pines for her childhood friend Ivanhoe. Meanwhile, the villain Sir de Bois-Gilbert, a Knight Templar who cannot control his desires, is traveling in the country with a corrupt Abbott, looking for places to wench and carouse. The Abbott bets de Bois-Gilbert that he has never seen a beauty like Rowena, and they set out to Cedric's rude court to see the truth of the Abbott's claim.
Gurth and Wamba play a trick on de Bois-Gilbert to get him lost in the woods, but sadly the villain finds a mysterious Palmer also heading to Cedric's court, who leads them to the correct place.

The book is actually an interesting treatise on prejudice, because we first see how badly the Saxons are treated, and then we are introduced to the other primary characters, an elderly Jew named Isaac and his stunningly beautiful daughter Rebecca. These two are reviled everywhere they go, by Normans and Saxons alike, for being heathen in general and Jewish in particular. They are only tolerated for Isaac's great wealth, which he lends to various nobles to fund their enterprises. Before Cedric can slay him, Isaac is freed from Cedric's court by the mysterious Palmer, and Isaac thanks him for saving his life.

Meanwhile, Gurth and Wamba wander in the forest, having fled Cedric's court as they helped the Palmer and Isaac escape. In the forest, they encounter Robin Hood and have several interactions with him.

A tournament is held soon after, humorously called the Gentle Day of Bliss, for less than ten knights died outright, and only about 30 succumbed to the mortal wounds they received in the tourney (a similar number were maimed for life). The tournament is held between de Bois-Gilbert, four other valiant knights, and any challengers. Isaac is publicly humiliated by Prince John, who also publicly notes Rebecca's great beauty. de Bois-Gilbert's lust is stoked to a frenzy. But, after two days' battle, the champion of the tourney turns out to be the Palmer - actually Ivanhoe - recently returned from the Holy Land, and the only one able to unhorse de Bois-Gilbert. There was a hairy moment where it seemed he would be overwhelmed in the general melee by three opposing knights, but a mysterious Black Knight comes to his rescue, evening the odds somewhat by nonchalantly unhorsing one of the attackers and then retiring to let Ivanhoe settle the other two. However victorious, Ivanhoe received a grievous injury of a lance head piercing his side, and passes out before he can accept his victory prize from the hands of Rowena. Isaac and Rebecca whisk the wounded knight off in their baggage train before he can be captured by his father Cedric, and they head off into the woods. There they are captured by the lustful de Bois-Gilbert and his confederates and whisked away to a friend's castle. In parallel, Cedric and his companion, another rebel plotting to take the throne from the absent King Richard, are captured and imprisoned in the same castle. Isaac is tortured while de Bois-Gilbert puts the moves on Rebecca, who threatens to kill herself instead. Gurth and Wamba appeal to Robin's sense of justice to rescue their lord Cedric, and Robin begins to gather both his merry men and a host of Saxon sympathizers. They lay siege to the castle, and a great battle is fought with the Black Knight and Robin leading the charge. The Black Knight storms into the castle almost single-handedly, cutting down almost all the defenders while a crazed Saxon crone - the last survivor of the original noble family who owned the castle, kept and used as a wench when she was young and beautiful, then tossed aside when her beauty faded - sets fire to the castle. Cedric, Isaac, and Ivanhoe are all rescued but de Bois-Gilbert and some of his confederates escape with Rebecca while the castle comes crashing down in flames and smoke. de Bois_Gilbert unwisely seeks refuge with the Templars, but they are horrified that he should disgrace them with a woman, much less a Jewess (which in their eyes in synonymous with a sorceress). Rebecca is put on trial as a witch, and she sues to a trial by combat.

The book is very exciting, if understandably archaic in its prose style. It's very plot-driven, but it sympathetic to the Jews in the story, as well as to the humble swineherd and jester who are all the main characters. It is both critical of the Saxons and Normans, presenting them as abusive of their power over their lessers. In a way, "Ivanhoe" is a social justice story - the only people who are truly virtuous are the ones who use their power in defense of the disenfranchised and downtrodden. As I understand it, "Ivanhoe" is one of the first books to be written about Robin Hood, so that's appropriate. A number of the features that we've come to expect of the Robin Hood myth were introduced by Scott in this novel, so it's also interesting for Robin Hood fans, too.

The ending smacks a good deal of "what happened next", with a couple of pages devoted to resolving loose ends, but overall it was a very satisfying read.
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