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Friday, January 3, 2014

Book Review: Ivanhoe

Ivanhoe has been on my to-read list for several years and so I was thrilled to finally read it. I was somewhat familiar with the story from reading an abridged version, maybe ten years ago, and from watching the 1982 movie with Anthony Andrews and Sam Neill, but of course nothing replaces the actual novel!

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I was not disappointed. Sir Walter Scott was a master storyteller and I can see why he was the most popular British author of his day. He practically invented the historical fiction genre – he was very, very good at recreating long passed-away worlds. Perhaps he “tells” more than is considered acceptable today, but I excuse him for it because he is Sir Walter Scott. His stories contain some inaccuracies, of course, Ivanhoe perhaps most of all, but mainly it was for the sake of a compelling tale.  
Ivanhoe, published in 1820, stoked the early nineteenth century’s interest in the Middle Ages. I wonder if the traditions of chivalry and even Medieval heroes like Robin Hood and Richard the Lion-Hearted would be as well-known and beloved today if it weren’t for Ivanhoe?
There is really so much to say about this novel, but I’m sure it’s already been said somewhere else. I’m just going to share some of the things that stood out to me the most.
I was surprised by some of the turns the story took: most strikingly the prevalence of Robin Hood and his merry men (I didn’t remember that from the movie); the portrayal of Rebecca the Jewess’s admirable character; the small role the titular character played; and Scott’s egalitarian approach to his characters, giving everyone the same amount/quality of screen time.
Concerning the characters, it seemed like the “villains” – Brian de Bois Guilbert, Maurice DeBracy, Front-de-Boeuf, Prince John – had at least an equal number of scenes to the “good guys” – Ivanhoe, Cedric, Rebecca, Richard the Lion-Hearted. (I’m used to the books where the antagonist is held at arm’s length.) We see things from every character’s perspective, which accentuated Ivanhoe’s feel of a sweeping epic. I liked that; it makes me question the rule of a single narrator we hear about these days. I think there’s a place for both in the reading world.
Concerning Ivanhoe himself, I was vastly disappointed. He simply did not show up in most of the novel. He was an okay character: handsome, brave, honorable, and all that, but we didn’t see much of him. Most of his action took place before the book opened. I have a feeling, though, that if we had seen more we would tire of him, since he didn’t strike me as particularly interesting. Certainly not as interesting as his father Cedric, his master Richard, his healer Rebecca, and his enemy Bois-Guilbert. His character illustrated that Ivanhoe the novel was more about medieval England as a whole, with its split between Saxons and Normans, and not about any one individual.
Rebecca was my favorite character. Scott piled quality after quality on her, which I found fascinating because she was Jewish. Apparently her creator wasn’t anti-Semitic, as she is the most admirable person in the novel and clings fast to her faith; Scott didn’t feel the need to denigrate her religion. For me, all the other characters were tainted by their hatred of Jews, whereas Rebecca tried to bridge the gaping crevice between the two faiths. I found it sad that the Christians hated the Jews so much, claiming it as a virtue that they despised them, and that they were subsequently such terrible examples of our Messiah – the Messiah many Jews longed for. That Scott even addressed the anti-Semitism of that age makes me interested in his motives … was he trying to show something to his readers?
Let me conclude by saying I’m definitely interested in reading more Sir Walter Scott!
Have you ever read Ivanhoe or any of his other works? What did you think of them?

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