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Entering the Lists in Defense of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe

Thursday, May 26th, 2011 | Posted by Brian Murphy

ivanhoe-coverThere’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.

ivanhoe-cover-2It 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.

11 Comments »

  1. Great post!

    I have a sentimental fondness for Ivanhoe, and for Walter Scott in general (though I’ve only read a fraction of his work). I always find it kinda funny how he made a big deal about the historical accuracy of his books, how they weren’t like gothic romances, and yet now people talk about him as an arch-romantic. I think he had a more, let’s say, jovially cynical view of politics and human behaviour than he gets credit for.

    I’ve got a lot of problems with Brin’s attitudes about the Middle Ages, and about fantasy as a whole, as I mentioned in my last post. I mean, what age was not “an unhappy time of small-mindedness and fear,” really? Terms like “Middle Ages” and “Dark Ages” are essentially a kind of propaganda, created in the Renaissance by people who wanted to emphasise their connection to antiquity instead of the original cultural developments that came after the fall of Rome. I don’t see how they were much better or worse than most of human history.

    Comment by Matthew David Surridge - May 26, 2011 9:39 pm

  2. All valid and interesting points.

    The reason I won’t be reading Ivanhoe again, though, is pacing. Once Ivanhoe gets wounded the story comes to a standstill for a very long time. I liked some other classics much better. Say Howard Pyle’s Men of Iron, which has some similar themes.

    Comment by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones - May 27, 2011 7:30 am

  3. Matthew: Brin does have a rather amateurish black and white view of history. He wrote an (in)famous criticism of Tolkien (“Enemy of Progress”) in which, using strokes as broad as a five-lane interstate, he paints all of western history as the struggle of romanticism and enlightenment. The medieval ages of course were under the sway of the former mindset and were thus backwards and regressive. Writers like Scott (and Tolkien) who dared to portray them any differently are either disingenuous or deluded, according to Brin.

    Howard: That’s a fair criticism, as there are long stretches of inactivity in the novel (particularly between those three “acts” mentioned above). I’m long overdue for a re-read of Men of Iron!

    Comment by Brian Murphy - May 27, 2011 8:08 am

  4. I remember really liking Men of Iron, but I haven’t read it since I was a teenager. I do recall that Howard Pyle’s Robin Hood was particularly striking in that it was the first time I’d read a story where the hero died! I’ll never forget tearing up in the middle of 4th grade during reading time as Robin Hood, dying of poison, fired that arrow out the window to show Little John where his grave should be dug.

    Comment by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones - May 27, 2011 12:44 pm

  5. Brin is a complete fool. Yes, Tolkien found the 20th century troubling. Who in their right mind wouldn’t?! Undoubtedly, Brin finds industrial slaughter, communism, national socialism, and the ruthless exploitation of people and the environment by those in power to be ‘progress’.
    The ‘Dark Ages’ narrative continues to get overplayed because of a too narrow focus on small sections of Western Europe (particularly post-Roman Britain), to the exclusion of the Eastern Empire (largely because of Gibbon’s incorrect view of history) and other parts of the continent. Furthermore, it is a result of a bias against Catholicism. Only a bigot would discount an age that produced Thomas Aquinas and others of his stature.
    Ivanhoe was a fine book and I agree we need more happy endings in our literature – even if it isn’t the hip thing in 2011.

    Comment by Tyr - May 27, 2011 4:09 pm

  6. Brin is a libertarian. Love it or hate it, much of his stances are determined by his politics. That said, I doubt Brin finds what Tyr listed to be “progress.”

    Comment by sftheory1 - May 27, 2011 6:28 pm

  7. It’s not an issue unique to Brin. Or, for that matter, to epic fantasy. I’ve read an article on steampunk where the basic position was that the Victorian age was horrible, horrible, horrible in every way, and the only legitimate use of steampunk was as social criticism to — well — push the essayist’s views.

    Comment by Mary - May 27, 2011 9:39 pm

  8. There are two issues at work here regarding Brin: 1)Is he knowledgeable about Medieval Europe? 2)What prejudices is he reflecting? I read a very interesting essay years ago that argued events and periods are interpreted and reinterpreted through the lens of contemporary cultural concerns.
    To Mary’s point about the argued uncritical nostalgia of steampunk, the point of ‘punk literature is to criticize society (whatever comes before ‘punk). Not like anyone really does it except for the initial authors, but still. . .

    Comment by sftheory1 - May 27, 2011 11:34 pm

  9. sftheory1,

    I was being a bit tongue-in-cheek. The philosophies and innovations of the Enlightenment led to many of the horrors of the 20th Century. People like Brin only want to see the the positive developments and conveniently ignore the negative developments since that would upset their simplistic views on history.

    I would be excited to see more stories – either historical fiction or fantasy – whose characters held views more likely to be found in a given setting, rather than the anachronistic views of the author (particularly when pushing a modern political/social agenda).

    Comment by Tyr - May 28, 2011 11:29 am

  10. As I quoted here a couple of days ago from Professor Lemay’s book on Captain John Smith:

    “”The major mythic hero of the Middle Ages and Renaissance — and later, as numerous chapbooks, ballads, and Sir Walter Scott’s novels testify — was the chivalric kights, whose heroic battles sometimes occurred in great arenas, with the gentry and aristocracy looking on. America’s indigenous heroes have been Indian fighters, frontiersmen, and gunfighters, such as John Mason, Thomas Church, Daniel Gookin, John Lovewell, Thomas Cresap, and Robert Rogers in the colonial period, and Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Kit Carson, Wild Bill Hickok, Wyatt Earp, and Buffalo Bill Cody from the Revolution to the end of the nineteenth century. Their confrontations usually occurred in isolated wilderness areas or small towns. Captain John Smith fulfilled the heroic roles of both the European Renaissance and the American frontiersman. His life documents and illustrates the changing nature of heroic action. ….”

    It’s not Scott’s fault that people don’t get exactly what Twain satirizes in Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court. It’s not Scott’s fault that the antebellum South didn’t really read what he wrote. Sheesh, Scott’s even been blamed for the post-bellum Ku Klux Klan.

    Love, C.

    Comment by C - Foxessa - May 29, 2011 7:10 pm

  11. People like Brin only want to see the the positive developments and conveniently ignore the negative developments since that would upset their simplistic views on history.

    Bingo.

    Comment by Brian Murphy - June 1, 2011 9:47 pm


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