Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe marked the
beginning of what we now call ‘historical fiction’
First published in 1820 In three volumes (subtitled A Romance), Ivanhoe was an instant success. The entire first printing of 10,000 copies sold out in less than two weeks. In part, Scott’s success is attributed to establishing guidelines for the genre of ‘historical novel,’ combined with his considerable skill in creating a vivid and engaging sense of place and time, rather than merely repeating historical data.
Ivanhoe also heralded the arrival of the historical novel as an international phenomenon that soon reached a global audience—particularly in Europe where the novel was translated into several languages—as well as in Australia and the United States. Goethe went so far as to declare that Scott had invented “a wholly new art.” The outcome of his new novel was that Ivanhoe remains the best known, and the least read, novel of our time.
Ivanhoe’s Central Theme
With Scott’s genre of romance literature well established through his vivid depiction of characters and adventurous narrative, his theme in Ivanhoe is the emergence of English national identity in the medieval period.
Aside from being an engrossing tale, Ivanhoe is a masterful piece of myth-making whose aim is to portray the development of a single, united English nation through the fusion of Norman and Saxon. Scott followed in the footsteps of a much earlier mythmaker of ‘English’ history, the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (AD 731), written at a time when no single, united English nation existed.
Ivanhoe is a sharp-eyed portrayal of individual and social intolerance in the Middle Ages, played-out against a sweeping backdrop of Crusades launched to regain the Holy Land from Islamic rule. Scott’s story is set in the year 1194 in medieval England, as crusaders drift back from Jerusalem after the Third Crusade. King Richard I (‘Richard the Lion-Heart’) is among them but returns in disguise, and for much of the narrative remains anonymous.
In the foreground, Scott’s complex narrative weaves together a legend of the conflict between Anglo-Saxon nobility and Norman barons. The England of Ivanhoe is torn with dissension, principally through the ruling nobility who are descendants of Norman conquerors.
Scott’s story begins a hundred and twenty-eight years after the Norman Conquest, when the wounds of conflict are far from healed, and a small number of defeated Saxon nobility plot to foment the overthrow of Norman rule.
As a work of historical fiction, Scott strives to create believable characters acting on a stage of historical events, drawing on no less than one hundred and fifty-three distinctive actors. With such a large cast, Scott’s numerous storylines in the novel only occasionally intersect. That is unsurprising as Scott also deals with a large number of themes in Ivanhoe—duty, family, forgiveness, ‘the other,’ identity, justice and judgment, patriotism, principles, society, class relations, racism, intolerance, and the chivalric code.
Rebecca’s father, Isaac, serves only to confirm the prejudices expressed by the anti-Semitism of the age, personifying the stereotype of an avaricious, lying, fawning Jewish moneylender. However, Scott’s portrait of Rebecca presents her as the story’s strongest character, sympathetic and full of wisdom and kindness. Wilfred Ivanhoe, who gives his name to the title of the novel, is a Saxon knight also returning from the Crusades. He becomes Rebecca’s romantic interest when he is wounded in a tournament. Rebecca nurses Ivanhoe back to health, bringing a personal touch to the cruel and blind prejudices of all non-Jewish characters set against her.
Scott does not spare his readers the details as he portrays the intolerance of the class struggle between Saxons and Normans who, as members of the ruling class, have imposed upon England their Norman French language and a code of chivalric behaviour.
Where the tale of Ivanhoe ends history continues, Norman descendants in England still despising the Saxons as primitive, uneducated peasants who should willingly embrace their lower status in society. King Richard returns to the Crusades where he perishes abroad, so that it falls to his malevolent and scheming brother, King John, to sign the Magna Carta. The signing is extracted under duress by Norman barons, while the dispossessed Saxon nobility gain very few benefits.
Love Lost – or Lost Plot?
Of all the characters in Ivanhoe, Rebecca is the most fascinating. The relationship between her and Ivanhoe holds much more romantic potential than the conventional match between Ivanhoe and Rowena.
However Scott takes the story in a disappointing direction, particularly for latter-day readers, and especially as Scott aims to portray the development of a single, united English nation through a fusion of Norman and Saxon. The novel’s only small gesture in that direction is Norman King Richard I who brokers reconciliation between Saxon Wilfred Ivanhoe and his father, Cedric.
Despite Rebecca’s labour of love in nursing Wilfred Ivanhoe back to health (he is absent for much of the story on account of this), Ivanhoe’s eye is set on Rowena, and the potentially more interesting love story with Rebecca is thwarted. Moreover, Scott’s central aim in the novel is not achieved. Ivanhoe marries a fellow-Saxon—a descendent no less of Alfred the Great— not a Norman.
That Rebecca and her father Isaac come to feel they must leave England speaks volumes. A tearful and deeply disappointed Rebecca forswears marrying and withdraws to Spain in search of a more tolerant society. It seems that the union of a Saxon knight and a Jewish maiden was beyond the pale—by status and religion in the historical period of the twelfth century; and also for the early nineteenth readers, for whom Scott wrote this novel.
Regrettably, Ivanhoe seems to have missed a crucial turning on the narrow road to a generously inclusive English nation.
Sir Walter Scott’s IVANHOE has been newly adapted for the modern reader by David W. Purdie, 2012, reducing Scott’s voluminous 179,903 words to 70,000 while still retaining the text of the original so that this novel, one of the best known, might again become one of the most read.