Ivanhoe was, and still is, Sir Walter Scott’s most popular novel. For a present-day reader, it can still be a challenge but, just as with Waverly, if you stay with the plot, you will find a riveting story where the good guys do win, and the closed-minded learn to start letting go of what they think society should be. In 21st-century terms, there is something to learn here about bigotry.
Yes, I can hear the protests now. What can a white male writer with a white audience, and writing about an all-white era of history, possibly add to the conversation? If you read Ivanhoe, however, and took a closer look at the themes, characters, and ideas behind the plot, you’d find a remarkably modern outlook on the world and on the issues which face any society.
Ivanhoe is one of my personal favorites of pre-Victorian literature. It’s Scott at his very best, and even with the more complicated narrative structure, it’s enjoyable rather than tedious. Diehard historians may object to some of the inaccuracies, but if you allow yourself to relax, it’s easy to let those go to enjoy not only the story itself but the points being made with those inaccuracies.
As Scott himself pointed out in one of his notes, this is a romance and a little fanciful embellishment of history is to be expected.
But first, a little background…
Ivanhoe takes place in the same time frame as Robin Hood.
Scott draws upon the legends of Robin of Locksley for his tale. In fact, Robin Hood himself makes an appearance, only he’s not only going after the wealthier nobility, he’s going after specifically Norman nobility.
So, a little background here. The novel occurs during the fictional “regency” of Prince John while Richard I was away in the Crusades. This was approximately 1190-1194. The “Norman” Conquest of 1066 happened about 127 years prior to the events in this novel. This was when Anglo-Saxon England ended. If you know little about this period of English history, it’s worth reviewing because this also was well before England and the United Kingdom as we now know them came even remotely into being.
England was still at war with itself. Only this time, instead of Romanized and Celtic Britons vs Saxons, it was Saxons vs Normans. The changes that came about were fairly drastic too. Scott makes reference to these changes throughout Ivanhoe and they involve everything from how society was organized to the relationship of the nobility to the peasantry.
There was more going on, but if you want to know more, then I highly suggest you read Dan Jones’ The Plantagenets for the full story because it throws into sharp relief just how much history there is to learn for any one person.
A story of forbidden love played out against a backdrop of resentment.
Ivanhoe is primarily a romance and a forbidden one at that. The titular character, Wilfrid of Ivanhoe is the son of Cedric the Saxon and is in love with Lady Rowena. Rowena is Cedric’s ward and a descendent of Alfred the Great—the Saxon king who unified England into one kingdom.
Cedric resents the Norman Conquest. He resents it so much that he plans on Rowena marrying his near neighbor, Athelstane, because Athelstane has a potential claim to the throne should the Norman nobility be cast off. If he married Rowena, his claim would only be strengthened.
Cedric disowns Wilfrid when he discovers that he and Rowena have fallen in love and even more so when Wilfrid decides to go join the Crusades with Richard I.
Athelstane, the man Rowena is supposed to marry, is very dull and petty. He’s not the sort of man that Cedric really wants as a king, except that he is a Saxon and he has the right lineage.
Cedric, as you might have guessed from this, is a bit pig-headed.
Though strong and soft of heart and strong of person, Athelstan had a disposition too inert and unambitious to make the exertion which Cedric seemed to expect from him.Ivanhoe
Wilfrid of Ivanhoe, his son, is a little different. He has all the bearing, bravery, and purpose that Athelstane lacks and the battle skills to back them up. He follows King Richard to the Crusades and there wins something of a name and reputation for himself.
The entire novel is devoted to Wilfrid, proving to his father that he is the better man for Rowena. In the process, Cedric finally gives up his foolish and rather pointless resentment and ambition. Athelstane just isn’t the right man to rule anything beyond his own humble holdings.
No, noble Cedric–Richard of England! whose deepest interest, whose deepest wish, is to see her sons united with each other.Ivanhoe
Cedric learns to let go of his resentment and shows us we need to let go of ours.
Throughout the novel, Cedric shows his resentment of the Normans at every turn. He doesn’t even show some obsequies due to his overlords because they are Normans. He banishes and disinherits his only child over his resentment. But, by the end, he learns he needs to let go.
The kicker? No one alive in this time period would have never known any other rule than Norman rule. Cedric is fighting for something which he was told was wonderful, but that neither he nor anyone else had known.
In fact, if you know your history, then Cedric’s resentment is almost laughably closed-minded. True Englishmen are all Saxons? I think the ancient Britons would have had a thing or two to say about that. Geoffrey of Monmouth certainly did.
Now, take that same idea and bring it to the present day. What are we holding resentment over? History is full of human beings doing horrible things to one another. So, how long are you going to resent someone for what happened years ago—when no one alive today was also alive then?
No one disputes Cedric’s claims about what was done to the Saxons after the Conquest. I’m sure the Saxons themselves didn’t dispute what they did to the Britons when they first conquered either. But nothing gets done if the only thing that happens is people seething on injustices that happened decades, or, in this case, a century prior.
It would be as silly as blaming a newborn child in Germany in 2023 for Adolf Hitler’s actions in 1939. Silly and unjust. Just as it was silly and unjust for Cedric to judge all Normans for what their ancestors did to his.
Makes you think, doesn’t it?
History marches on and politics change, but people still have to live.
What was equally short-sighted on Cedric’s part was the logistics involved in re-taking England. Wars cost money. And the costs were exorbitant in the 1100s. Cedric, as a very minor noble, wouldn’t have been able to afford it. And, at the jousting tournament, we see in the novel’s beginning, most of the Saxon knights wouldn’t have stood a chance against an entire army of Normans.
So, how much good does holding resentment and plotting rebellion do anyone in such a situation? Would it have made the lot of the average Saxon peasant any better?
It wouldn’t have done anything for any of the minor characters in the novel. And it probably would have only made things worse.
Again, the parallels with today are eerily similar. You can protest all you want. You can burn down cities all you want. You can invade other countries because of long-held resentment all you want. But does it do anything for the average person out there?
Ask the business owners who lost their livelihoods because of the pandemic and the riots. Ask the artists who were “canceled” and lost their livelihoods because they expressed their opinion. Ask the millions of Ukrainians who had to flee their homes because they just wanted to live as Ukrainians and not as Russians.
People still have to live. And it has nothing to do with being on the “right side of history” or being politically correct. Or even with being an “ally.” Those are all things spouted by people who can either afford to lose or have nothing left to lose. Most people living in the world are not in either category.
It doesn’t mean there isn’t a time when it’s necessary to risk losing even what little you have. But it means that if your cause is based on something that happened before you were even born that you probably should think twice before you raise a clenched fist and start a revolution.
Sometimes, just as with Cedric’s dreams of a renewed and “free” Saxon-led England, you just have to accept that history has indeed moved on.
And learn to adjust.
Reading Ivanhoe beyond the social commentary proves even more fun.
Cedric’s resentment and it’s eventual resolution is just one of the social points the novel makes. The way the Norman nobles treated the peasants and the Saxon nobles is covered too. There are also plotlines that involve the plight of the Jews during this part of English history and how both Jew and Gentile took advantage of each other.
There’s also a lot of fun to be had.
Scott’s description of the jousting tournament where Wilfrid appears as the “Sir Disinherited” will look familiar to you if you’ve watched A Knight’s Tale. In fact, it’s nearly exact. Some of the overall story elements are even similar. While this section of the novel may be a little more challenging for a modern reader, spending a little time reading over the tournament and all the rules is worth the effort.
And it does make you want to watch A Knight’s Tale all over again.
Robin Hood and his men also make an appearance and, in fact, play a large part in exposing Prince John. There’s a wonderful scene where they help King Richard break into the palace where John’s illegal coronation is about to take place and then leap upon the unsuspecting nobles. This is actually enshrined in the 1952 film version of Ivanhoe.
Other points of interest include the subplot where Gurth the Swineherd gets his freedom for service both to Wilfrid and Cedric and ends up meeting Robin Hood early on. He’s a robust character who simultaneously longs for his own personal freedom as much as he longs to serve Wilfrid.
No time to read? Have a movie night!
There are three versions of Ivanhoe to my knowledge. Like most movies made from classics, there are pros and cons to all of them. But they each have their own contribution to make and can help you get a feel for the novel when you sit down to read it.
The first was the classic 1952 version with Robert Taylor, Joan Fontaine, and Elizabeth Taylor. This is, as you may expect if you know how classic movies tend to run, charming, but definitely took liberties with the novel.
The 1982 version is a little closer to the novel but still keeps the romance and the flow of the novel.. If you’re a particular fantasy movie fan, you may enjoy this one simply because it has Sam Neill (Jurassic Park, Merlin) and John Rhys-Davies (Indiana Jones, Lord of the Rings) in it.
If what you’re going for is accuracy, then the 1997 A&E miniseries is the way to go. I remember watching it when it first came out and it not only captures Cedric’s character fairly well, but it stays closer to the novel. There is a slight exaggeration of some events, but overall, this is the one you will want to see if you just want to get a feel for the story.
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