Thursday, July 12, 2012

Review: IVANHOE by Sir Walter Scott

book cover
Original Publication Date: 1820

Genre: historical fiction

Topics: romance, honor, chivalry


You may have noticed I haven't been posting reviews for a while. That was because I was slogging through this monster. When will I ever learn to stay away from romantic tomes? Probably never.

Wilfred of Ivanhoe is a Saxon knight returning from the Crusades to reclaim his inheritance and his true love, Rowena. Conflicts in England, however, make his journey a difficult one.

I decided to read Ivanhoe a long time ago--after seeing the miniseries starring Ciaran Hinds, actually. I'm glad I saw that miniseries, because I'm not sure I would have made it through this book without it. Walter Scott is not one of those writers who believes that less is more; instead, he writes Ivanhoe as if the whole time he's thinking to himself, "Hm, how can I tell this story in the most indirect and meandery way possible?" The first chapter opens with, like, 10 pages about the Norman and Saxon languages. KILL ME NOW. And then there's another ten pages describing one guy's clothes. Unnecessary clothing descriptions happen to be one of my major annoyances in life.

Fortunately, the story moves pretty quickly to a tournament with all the major characters present, including Isaac of York, the badass Brian de Bois-Guilbert, and a mysterious knight who refuses to be identified. Once the tournament starts, Ivanhoe becomes really fun. Ivanhoe does a GREAT job of transporting you to 12th-century England. This book has everything you could possibly want in a novel about medieval Britain: Prince John, Richard the Lionhearted, jousting, a fool, Robin Hood (have I mentioned I'm a trifle obsessed with Robin Hood?), Templars, folk songs, witch trials, romance, family squabbles, and people coming back from the dead. It even has the scenes you would expect to see in a book like this, such as Robin Hood participating in an archery competition and splitting another guy's arrow. I have no idea how historically accurate Ivanhoe is; but it FEELS 100% historically accurate. Which for the purposes of fiction is just as good, if not better.

Ivanhoe himself isn't really in the book that much. Instead, for me Ivanhoe is all about Brian de Bois-Guilbert, the Templar knight who sees the Jewess Rebecca and decides he HAS to have her because she is beautiful. But I think more importantly, she's attractive to him because she's good, even though he never says so. Unfortunately, she's just not that into him. Because she's an IDIOT.

And speaking of the female characters in Ivanhoe, there are only two of them: Rowena and Rebecca, both of whom seem like they could easily step into an Edward Burne-Jones painting. So yes, this is definitely a "guys" book. But it's a guy's book that that favors the autonomy of people regardless of gender or class, and that promotes the chivalric code. It is definitely an Enlightenment reinterpretation of the Middle-Ages, but romantic and inspiring for all of that. As Ivanhoe explains at one point, "We live not--we wish not to live--longer than while we are victorious and renowned--" These boys are balls-to-wall warriors, but with manners and respectful of their mamas. What's not to like?

Do I think Ivanhoe is worth the haul? It definitely has its moments. I think as long as you don't mind spending a month reading a single book, and have a weakness for romantic literature, you'll want to give it a try. I can definitely understand now why this book has endured and inspired artists for nearly two centuries.

Fun things I learned from Wikipedia:
  • The name Cedric comes from Ivanhoe. Walter Scott actually meant to name Ivanhoe's dad Cerdic but misspelled it. For 800+ pages.
  • The term freelance also comes from Ivanhoe--Maurice de Bracy says he offered the services of his "Free Lances" to King Richard.
  • The idea that Robin Hood came from a town called Locksley is something Scott concluded in his research for this novel and put it into the book. No references to "Robin of Locksley" exist before Ivanhoe.