Ivanhoe (Nov. 2013)

This morning I finished Ivanhoe, a classic novel by Sir Walter Scott – published in 1820.

The story is set in 12th-century England and concerns knights and damsels, bowmen and jousting, and all kinds of cracking dialog. I’ve only read a couple of stories – of contemporary publishing – set in that era, so I’m not well-versed in it. But if it’s action and adventure you’re looking for, look no further than the tale of Wilfred of Ivanhoe and all the other merry men who populate this story.

Since I could not write a better summary, here is the synopsis from Wikipedia:

Ivanhoe is the story of one of the remaining Saxon noble families at a time when the English nobility was overwhelmingly Norman. It follows the Saxon protagonist, Wilfred of Ivanhoe, who is out of favor with his father for his allegiance to the Norman king, Richard I of England. The story is set in 1194, after the failure of the Third Crusade, when many of the Crusaders were still returning to Europe. King Richard, who had been captured by the Duke of Austria on his way back, was believed to still be in the arms of his captors. The legendary Robin Hood, initially under the name of Locksley, is also a character in the story, as are his “merry men.” The character that Scott gave to Robin Hood in Ivanhoe helped shape the modern notion of this figure as a cheery noble outlaw.

Other major characters include Ivanhoe’s intractable father, Cedric, one of the few remaining Saxon lords; various Knights Templar and churchmen; the loyal serfs Gurth the swineherd and the jester Wamba, whose observations punctuate much of the action; and the Jewish moneylender, Isaac of York, who is equally passionate about money and his daughter, Rebecca. The book was written and published during a period of increasing struggle for emancipation of the Jews in England, and there are frequent references to injustice against them.

One of the main reasons I’ve heard given by people when asked why they don’t read the classics is that ‘They’re too slow.’ What people mean by this is a modern impatience with the narrative storytelling that most classics employ – think David Copperfield, Victor Hugo, Bronte. A lot of these stories are ‘told’ rather than ‘shown,’ which is anathema to modern readers and writers.

We are told time and time again to show our stories through unremitting actions and consequence rather than telling it by way of a strong narrative. Now whether this has evolved from the fast pace of modern life and the unwillingness of readers to endure long, narrative passages or vice versa is a topic for another post. But the fact remains that people nowadays are less tolerant of slower-paced, narrative-based stories, and that is a chief beef they have with the classics.

There is no such issue with Ivanhoe.

This story is fast and action-based. It’s populated by like-able characters and the plot – while on the thin side – is well-thought out and constructed. The dialog is snappy, and while there are sermon-like monologues, they are few and far between.

I kept getting the sense that I was reading something by Shakespeare – had he written novels rather than plays.

The ending is a bit abrupt, but all in all, it’s a very satisfying story.

Favorite Quotes & Passages:

  • ‘Of comfort there was little, and, being unknown, it was unmissed.’
  • ‘To all true English hearts, and to the confusion of foreign tyrants.’
  • ‘I, being to pay money, must know that I deliver it to the right person; thou, who are to receive it, will not, I think, care very greatly by whose hands it is delivered.’
  • ‘It will be in vain – they have seen the handwriting on the wall – they have marked the paw of the lion in the sand – they have heard his approaching roar shake the wood – nothing will reanimate their courage.’
  • ‘For he that does good, having the unlimited power to do evil, deserves praise not only for the good which he performs, but for the evil which he forbears.’
  • ‘Will future ages believe that such stupid bigotry ever existed!’