Sir Walter Scott is one of those authors who I’ve always felt intimidated by, for some reason assuming I would find him difficult to read. And yet, I had a feeling I would probably enjoy his books if I could just get around to actually reading them. I had no idea which book would be the best to start with, but as Ivanhoe is probably his best known novel I decided to try that one first.
Ivanhoe is set in England towards the end of the 12th century, during the reign of Richard the Lionheart, who has been away fighting in the crusades, leaving behind his brother Prince John plotting and scheming in his absence. The title character, Wilfred of Ivanhoe, banished and disinherited by his father, has just returned to England and on his return he becomes swept up in a series of adventures involving feuding Saxon and Norman noblemen, a beautiful Jewish girl, Robin Hood and a mysterious Black Knight.
Anyone with an interest in the medieval period and tales of chivalry will find that Ivanhoe has everything you would expect to see in this type of novel: jousting, sword-fighting, archery, tournaments, castles under siege, damsels in distress, bands of outlaws in the woods, and knights in shining armour. I loved it! I discovered that although Walter Scott’s writing is very descriptive and long-winded (lots of detailed descriptions of clothing and weapons etc) I didn’t have any problems understanding what was happening. The dialogue is written in an archaic style but it’s still readable and it all adds to the medieval atmosphere of the story.
I have no idea how much of the historical background is accurate but what does come across strongly is the resentment between the Saxons and the conquering Normans, as well as the tensions between Christians and Jews. Scott introduces us to characters from all four of these groups, which sets the scene for most of the conflict in the novel (the Saxons, for example, are represented by characters such as Cedric, Ivanhoe’s father, who still views the Normans as invaders more than a century after the Battle of Hastings and the Norman conquest). The attitudes of many of the characters towards the Jews are very negative, but I got the impression that this didn’t reflect Walter Scott’s own opinions. I thought he portrayed the Jewish characters themselves in quite a sympathetic way, which was good to see considering the time period in which this book was written. Rebecca, the daughter of Isaac the Jewish moneylender, was one of the strongest characters in the novel and much more interesting than the other heroine, Rowena.
I thought Ivanhoe himself was a bit of a disappointment. When he made his first appearance as the Disinherited Knight I thought he was going to be a great character, but he quickly seemed to fade into the background and was overshadowed by some of the other, more memorable characters – including the Black Knight, Wamba the Jester, Gurth the Swineherd, and the three villainous Norman knights, Front-de-Boeuf, de Bracy and Brian de Bois-Guilbert. I had never realised there was any connection between Robin Hood and Ivanhoe, but he appears in the novel under the name Locksley, and we also meet a friar living in a hermitage in the forest (Friar Tuck). Apparently Ivanhoe inspired the image of Robin Hood we have today and brought into popular use a lot of the elements of the Robin Hood legend.
So, now that I’ve read Ivanhoe and enjoyed it, which Sir Walter Scott book should I try next? Any recommendations are welcome!