There’s a school of thought that views the Middle Ages as a dark gulf between the Classical Age and the rebirth of reason known as the Renaissance. The Middle Ages were, to paraphrase science fiction author David Brin, an unhappy time of small-mindedness and fear, marked by the squabbles of petty nobles, ignorance, superstition, and religious persecution.
Thus, any historical fiction that dares emit a whiff of romanticism of the age is viewed by some as anathema, a whitewashed but corrupted view of “reality”.
But as time marches on and new discoveries and scholarship come to light, we’ve realized that these times weren’t quite as dark and backwards as we once believed. And that allows us to revisit old works of art like Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe with a fresh perspective. My recent re-read of Scott’s 1819 classic of historical fiction reminded me of the following reasons why it’s still relevant and worth re-reading.
It brings history to life. Though not a marvel of historical accuracy, Ivanhoe provides a compelling, colorful window into the Saxon-Norman conflict, one that you won’t get reading dry Wikipedia entries. Ivanhoe is set in 1194, more than a hundred years after the Normans defeated the Saxons at the Battle of Hastings. The Saxon Cedric keenly feels the loss of the old language and customs of his people, marginalized and pushed to the side by the Norman nobility. “Our deeds are lost in those of another race; our language—our very name—is hastening to decay, and none mourns for it save one solitary old man,” he says. Though Scott’s sympathies are wholly with the Saxons, he also understood that open war was not going to resolve a century old rift. As a result, Ivanhoe is as much about reconciliation and reaching negotiated terms as it is about heroic feats of arms and grand victory achieved on the field of battle.
Its charming style and motley mix of medieval elements. Some readers can’t seem to get past the slightly archaic style in which Ivanhoe is written, but I found it a breeze to read. Scott also has a wonderful wit and the jester Wamba in particular made me grin in delight. Any slight difficulties with the language are certainly amply rewarded with some unforgettable scenes: Scott’s wonderful word-painting of Cedric’s mead hall, and three wonderful set pieces that include the lists at Ashby, the siege of Torquilstone, and the trial of Rebecca. Scott throws everything in Ivanhoe: the Crusades, jousting and tournament melee, an assault on a castle, Robin Hood, Saxon vs. Norman, corrupt Templar knights, and the extreme prejudice shown towards Jews, all make appearances. It’s an unabashed kitchen sink of medieval goodness.
It has a harder edge than it’s given credit for. Another criticism I’ve seen leveled at Ivanhoe is its relative bloodlessness, and the fact that Scott is guilty of whitewashing the violence of the age. But there is savagery beneath the finery, and I find the labeling of Ivanhoe as a “boy’s adventure” rather unfair. For example, the tournament melee at Ashby, described as follows, was more bloodbath than sport:
Thus ended the memorable field of Ashby-de-la-Zouche, one of the most gallantly contested tournaments of that age, for although only four knights, including one who was smothered by the heat of his armour, had died upon the field, yet upwards of thirty were desperately wounded, four or five of whom never recovered. Several more were disabled for life; and those who escaped best carried the marks of the conflict to the grave with them.
The characters of Ivanhoe don’t act like they are living in some Disneyfied era and to them at least (though not perhaps to the reader) the stakes are very real. Scott uses the scheming villain Waldemar Fitzurse (who plots to murder King Richard upon his return from captivity) to engage in metafiction contrasting the “realities” of his age with the mistier, time-shrouded days of Arthur. Says Fitzurse, “but these are not the days of King Arthur, when a champion could encounter an army. If Richard indeed comes back, it must be alone, unfollowed, unfriended. The bones of his gallant army have whitened the sands of Palestine.”
Scott also provides a frank description of the commonplace use of torture exercised by the nobility. More shocking still is the corrupt trial of Rebecca, the rush to judgment in declaring her a witch, and the swift sentence imposed of burning at the stake.
It contains a fascinating collision of faith and materialism/athiesm. The Templar Brian De Bois-Guilbert is driven by his own personal ambition and lack of faith in God. When Rebecca tells him that the flames will consume her earthly body but open a passage to a better world, he concludes that she’s pinned her hopes to, “Dreams, Rebecca—dreams… idle visions.” Of the ambitions of the church and his order, de Bois-Guilbert says. “Think not that we long remained blind to the idiotical folly of our founders, who forswore every delight of life for the pleasure of dying martyrs by hunger, by thirst, and by pestilence, and by the swords of savages, while they vainly strove to defend a barren desert, valuable only in the eyes of superstition.” For de Bois-Guilbert, the only paradise we are offered is an earthly one of our own making. He offers Rebecca the chance to flee with him to the holy land to pursue carnal pleasures and wealth, but she refuses, unshaken in the convictions of her Jewish faith.
Rebecca is the true hero of the story, even more so than Wilfred of Ivanhoe or the Black Knight. She is possessed of the strongest faith and an unflinching resolve, and exhibits a restraint we’re not used to seeing in the modern novel—there’s no night of passion with her love Ivanhoe, not even a proper farewell for the young knight whom she loves (and who obviously has feelings for her as well). It’s a revealing window into Rebecca’s humanity that she doesn’t trust herself to say goodbye to the dashing young knight, fearing even her strong faith my fail in the test. “But my heart swells when I think of Torquilstone and the lists at Templestowe,” she says.
It appears that Rebecca’s faith is rewarded. The final showdown of Ivanhoe and de Bois-Guilbert seems to offer proof that a divine hand is at work when the weak and wounded Ivanhoe, barely able to support himself in his saddle, kills the Templar in a joust. It seems that de Bois-Gilbert’s lack of faith is his undoing, but Scott handles this possibility with a deft hand: Perhaps Wilfred’s weak lance thrust was enough only to spill de Bois-Guilbert and an awkward landing in armor was his demise, or perhaps the thought of Rebecca’s immolation should he win caused his divided heart to burst.
If Ivanhoe deserves any criticism it’s with its execution, not its failure to accurately portray the “realities” of the medieval age. Athelstane’s return from the dead, and the sheer number of characters in “disguise” at times strains our belief. Scott also has an annoying habit of spoiling his own story, for example revealing the identity of the Black Knight in a needless explanatory note shortly after his first appearance in the lists at Ashby.
But these criticisms are minor and not enough to keep Ivanhoe from the ranks of the classics. There’s a reason why it remains enduringly popular. I suspect that, in addition to being a rousing adventure story, it offers another view of reality that seems neglected these days. If the “dark ages” weren’t really so dark, why can’t historical fiction follow suit? Not every historical fiction novel needs to wallow in filth and despair. Sometimes life has a way of turning out all right in the end. Darkness turns to light, and there are happy endings like Ivanhoe offers: villainy and small-mindedness defeated, the proper king on the throne, and a reunion of parted lovers.