By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Ivanhoe, Sir Walter Scott’s 1819 novel set in late twelfth-century England, has a claim to being the most influential novel of the entire nineteenth century. It was hugely popular, and remains so, with such figures as Tony Blair and Ho Chi Minh both declaring it their favourite novel. Why has Ivanhoe endured, and why did Scott write it? Before we move to an analysis of the novel, it might be worth recapping the plot.
Ivanhoe: plot summary
Ivanhoe is set in England in the 1190s, over a century after the Norman Conquest which saw William the Conqueror seize the English throne. A wealthy nobleman named Cedric, who is intent on restoring a Saxon to the throne, plans to wed Rowena, a beautiful young woman who is his ward, to the Saxon Athelstane of Coningsburgh.
There’s just one small problem: Rowena has fallen in love with Cedric’s son, Wilfred of Ivanhoe. To get him out of the way so Rowena will marry Athelstane, Cedric banishes his own son from the kingdom. Ivanhoe (as Wilfred is known, by his title) goes to fight alongside the King, Richard the Lionheart, in the Crusades in the Holy Land.
At Cedric’s home of Rotherwood, a member of the Knights Templar, Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert, boasts of his skill in combat. A ‘palmer’ or pilgrim who is also a guest at dinner that evening tells the Templar that Ivanhoe could beat the knight in single combat. The arrogant Sir Brian admits that Ivanhoe is a fearsome warrior (he has seen him fighting in the Crusades), but he says that he will challenge Ivanhoe to combat when he is back in England.
Plot twist: the pilgrim is really Ivanhoe, in disguise. He was a guest at his father’s house but nobody recognised him as Ivanhoe, son of the host!
An elderly Jewish man named Isaac turns up at Rotherwood, and Cedric reluctantly admits him into his home. The next day, Isaac and the pilgrim leave Rotherwood together, bound for Sheffield. Having overheard the Templar, Sir Brian, planning with several other men to mug Isaac (as a Jew in medieval England, it’s assumed he has lots of money), the pilgrim/Ivanhoe helps Isaac to evade his would-be robbers and in gratitude, Isaac kits Ivanhoe out in armour for the forthcoming tournament at Ashby-de-la-Zouch.
Ivanhoe – disguised as the Disinherited Knight – takes part in the tournament, defeating Sir Brian Bois-Guilbert among others, and as champion is asked to name the Queen of Love and Beauty. He chooses Rowena rather than a Norman noblewoman, and the following day, in the main tournament, Ivanhoe once again faces Bois-Guilbert, both of them supported by a team of knights.
Bois-Guilbert looks set to win, until the mysterious Black Knight (who we’ll later discover is King Richard the Lionheart himself, in disguise) comes to the aid of the ‘Disinherited Knight’.
When Ivanhoe removes his helmet, having won the day, he is weak from his injuries. Rowena recognises him, and sees her beloved has returned to England. At this point, however, Cedric remains unaware that his son has returned.
Smarting from his defeat at the tournament, Bois-Guilbert and several other Norman knights, including Reginald Front de Boeuf, ambush Ivanhoe’s party and take them to Front de Boeuf’s castle, Torquilstone. The other knight, Maurice de Bracy, wants to marry Rowena for her royal blood (he has designs on the throne of England and thinks marrying her will help). Bois-Guilbert falls in love with the imprisoned Rebecca, who rejects his advances and his request that she convert to Christianity so they can marry.
At this point, having seen a very skilful archer named Locksley earlier in the novel (when his talent with a bow led to him winning the archery competition), we meet Locksley and his band of followers again. Along with the trusty swineherd, Gurth, Locksley and his men lead an attack on Torquilstone to rescue Ivanhoe and the others. They are joined by the Black Knight, whose true identity is still hidden from them.
De Bracy is injured by the Black Knight, who tells him his real identity, and De Bracy escapes from the castle and goes to Prince John, to tell him that his brother the King is back in the country. Prince John decides to send men to capture Richard and throw him in prison.
Meanwhile, Bois-Guilbert has also escaped Torquilstone and takes Rebecca with him as his prisoner. The Grand Master of the Knights Templar, seeing how a knight has fallen in love with a ‘Jewess’, is suspicious of Rebecca, and to save face, Bois-Guilbert claims Rebecca is a sorceress who has put a spell on him. She is condemned to be burnt at the stake, but she invokes the right of trial by combat to decide her fate.
Ivanhoe arrives and agrees to be her champion, fighting Bois-Guilbert, who dies of his wounds during the ensuing combat. Rebecca, now free to go, leaves England with her father. Ivanhoe is pardoned by his father Cedric, after King Richard himself (who now reveals his true identity to everyone) tells him to do so. Ivanhoe can now marry Rowena.
Richard has already pardoned Locksley – also known as Robin Hood – and his fellow outlaws for their wayward ways, since they have helped to defend his kingdom against the treacherous Knights Templar (who are now pursued and executed).
Although it would be too glib to describe Ivanhoe as ‘the Game of Thrones of the Regency era’, its appeal to nineteenth-century readers certainly stemmed in part from Scott’s evocation of medieval pomp and pageantry, and the focus on warring kings, princes, knights, and bandits in twelfth-century England has helped to ensure its enduring appeal.
The novel is a colourful depiction of medieval England, featuring jousting tournaments, banquets, knights, kings, princes, jesters, and even Robin Hood (it was Scott who popularised the idea of the Sherwood outlaw as a Saxon yeoman named Locksley).
What more could one want from a historical novel? Mark Twain went so far as to blame the popularity of Ivanhoe in the Southern states for the American Civil War: Ivanhoe, rather than Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was the little book that made that great war. (Twain thought that the novel’s romantic view of the feudalistic Middle Ages inspired Southern Americans to cling to the idea of indentured servitude.)
Ivanhoe, as with several of Scott’s other historical novels – notably Waverley (which gave its way to Edinburgh’s railway station) and The Heart of Midlothian (which gave its name to a football team) – set a new standard for historical fiction. Although many of the principal characters speak in an overly ornate, formal style, characters like Wamba the clown, and Gurth the swineherd, broaden the sweep of the novel.
Although both Richard the Lionheart (as the Black Knight, until he reveals his true identity) and his brother, Prince John (later King John of England) feature, the focus is as much on Rebecca, Rowena, Ivanhoe, Robin of Locksley, and his various Saxon associates as it is on kings and princes and Norman knights.
And this is without doubt the main ‘thrust’ of Ivanhoe: Scott repeatedly highlights the Saxons’ status as a dispossessed people, whose defeat at the Battle of Hastings over a century earlier has led to a rift in some parts of the kingdom between Normans and Saxons.
In making his titular hero the son of a Saxon lord, Scott casts the Normans into the role of villains, with Ivanhoe – his name probably suggested by the song ‘Tring, Wing, and Ivinghoe’, about places in Buckinghamshire, England – representing the authentic English hero.
Given Scott’s interest in creating a historical narrative for his own country of Scotland, and his need to reach a wider audience with his work (the majority of his other novels are set in Scotland, rather than the English midlands), we might analyse this friction between Norman invaders and Saxon natives as an Anglicised version of a similar conflict between English invaders and native Scots, seen in many of Sir Walter Scott’s Scottish-set novels.
But it’s worth noting that King Richard the Lionheart, himself a Norman descended from that first conqueror, William I, fights alongside the Saxons and is presented as a good king. Scott also problematises the idea of the Saxons as persecuted victims by including the two Jewish characters, Isaac and his daughter Rebecca, the latter of whom is accused of witchcraft and condemned to die until the trial by combat – the finale of Ivanhoe – saves her from the stake.
What’s more, Ivanhoe is a decidedly Shakespearean novel, in many ways – a fact that many Shakespeare scholars, such as Jonathan Bate in The Genius of Shakespeare, have remarked about Scott’s fiction more generally. Sir Walter Scott clearly learned a great deal about writing historical fiction from reading, not earlier historical novels, but from reading Shakespeare’s plays.
Like Shakespeare in his history plays about the Wars of the Roses (although it’s worth noting that Shakespeare also wrote a play, King John, set just after the historical setting of Ivanhoe), Scott is trying to create a historical identity for England through writing about one of its most celebrated warrior-kings, Richard the Lionheart (who famously spent less than six months of his ten-year reign in England, and almost certainly never disguised himself as a knight to fight alongside Saxons in England), and one of its most enduring characters from legend, Robin Hood.
Ivanhoe is also remarkably Shakespearean in Scott’s use of supporting characters: opening the novel with Gurth the swineherd, rather than a king at court, would have been a novel (pun intended) move for a historical novelist in 1819, and is in keeping with Shakespeare’s focus on the common soldier in such plays as Henry V.
Meanwhile, we might regard the kindly Isaac and his generous daughter Rebecca as subtle revisions of the mercenary Shylock and his headstrong daughter Jessica in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, and Wamba the clown is clearly a tribute to Shakespeare’s Clowns and Fools, whose purpose is to use wit and absurdity to expose the truth of the situation.