Welcome to Classic Friday with Nisha Moodley, your monthly journey into Classic authors and their Literature!
Nisha is a South African writer, blogger, amateur historian, mystery-chaser and former ghost-hunter who, with a completed collection of short-stories under her belt, is currently working on her first full-length novel.
I hope you enjoy this ‘Classic Friday’ entry and I’ll be back next month for some more.
This novel has been credited for influencing our current perceptions of the Middle Ages. A romantic medieval indulgence, Ivanhoe is also noted for perpetuating the famous Robin Hood legend and giving us the now popular attributes assigned to the famous outlaw. As a result Ivanhoe is probably the single most influential novel in the historical fiction genre.
Set in the 12th century, King Richard the Lionheart returns from the Crusades in the Holy Land but is captured and taken prisoner on his way home. Of his favourite knight, Wilfred of Ivanhoe (who fought by his side), there is no news. Prior to leaving England, Ivanhoe was disowned by his father Cedric the Saxon for pledging allegiance to Richard, a Norman king, and for falling in love with Cedric’s ward, Lady Rowena.
In Richard’s absence his brother Prince John is plotting to take over the English thrown. With the King’s imprisonment, the avaricious John is confident of his plans and makes progress in trying to secure the Crown for himself. But when Ivanhoe returns to England and makes a dramatic reappearance in a jousting tournament hosted by Prince John, the tables start to turn. And when Reginald de Front-Beouf, a Norman nobleman, and his henchmen kidnap Cedric and Rowena for ransom, the enmity between the Saxons and the Normans comes to a head.
Ivanhoe is a story set 600 years before Walter Scott’s time and despite scholars verifying the historical accuracy of certain aspects of the novel, they also agree that the author did exercise poetic licence and the result is a romanticized fictional tale. It’s important to note that Scott himself did explicitly state that Ivanhoe was not meant to be read as a historical treatise but as a work of fiction.
However it would not be a surprise if one had to hear that every cliché about the Middle Ages was borne out of this novel. From beautiful damsels-in-distress to jousting tournaments to comical, witty jesters, it’s all in there. However, saying that, Scott’s portrayal of a medieval jousting tournament was
one of the best scenes in the book. Beautifully descriptive, the difficult prose does not prevent us from imagining exactly what is happening in the tournament.
In the novel we also encounter numerous colourful characters, the most famous of which (for many reasons) is Locksley, the Lincoln-green clad outlaw, along with his forest-dwelling band of followers. The story might be entitled Ivanhoe but it is the character of the dashing Locksley (or Robin Hood) who
The damsels in the story might find themselves in distress much of the time but from a modern, feminist point of view, it’s refreshing to see how they stand their own. Rebecca, the beautiful Jewish healer, in particular, is definitely one of the most memorable characters in the book.
On first impressions, Ivanhoe comes across as a typical romance, possibly an out-dated morality tale that harps on about the codes of chivalry. But thematic references to religion and the Norman-Saxon feuds points to something far more poignant and universal. The apparent racist, and religiously intolerant dialogue between the characters may be unsettling to some readers but the extreme prejudices portrayed in the novel provide some important messages (albeit subtly). Reading between the lines, Scott seems to be hitting out against racial and religious discrimination. One of the most memorable quotes from one of the characters:
‘Will future ages believe that such stupid bigotry ever existed?”
Even though Scott, in the process, perpetuates some awful stereotypes himself it was slightly reassuring to see that he didn’t take any sides, choosing instead to show the mindset and prejudices of each person in relation to each other. The message seems eerily relevant and familiar for a story set so long ago.
Is this book for you? Since Ivanhoe is considered the benchmark of historical fiction, it therefore goes without saying that if you love History then the answer would be an absolute YES! Although I would not recommend you substitute this novel for a reference book, Scott does paint a vivid (some would say romanticized) picture of 12th century England and he does pass off certain passages as if they were a History lesson. But as stated above, Ivanhoe is a fictional story whose beauty lies in Scott’s re-creation of Medieval England.
The language however might prove problematic. Scott’s English prose can be difficult to follow sometimes. You will end up re-reading passages for clarity. It’s not what you would call ‘light-reading’. It does require concentration and variant spellings of common English words needs getting used to. If you’re used to reading old Classic novels however, then I would highly recommend this novel.
About the Author
Walter Scott was born in 1771 in Edinburgh, Scotland. He trained as a lawyer after leaving school but started writing professionally at the age of 25. Scott achieved fame as a poet first before turning to full-length fiction. His first novel Waverly was published anonymously in 1814. Many more novels were to follow, most notably Rob Roy (1817), Ivanhoe and Redgauntlet (1824). In 1820, the same year Ivanhoe was published, he was knighted by King George IV. One of Scotland’s most celebrated writers, since his death in 1832, numerous monuments and plaques have been constructed in honour of Sir Walter Scott, not only in Edinburgh and Glasgow, but across the Atlantic in New York as well.