The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
Ivanhoe: A Romance (1819)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
Ivanhoe: A Romance was written by Walter Scott. Scott (1771-1832) has fallen considerably in stature since the nineteenth century. Seldom read today, Scott was phenomenally popular during his lifetime and was acclaimed as a poet, novelist, and critic of brilliance.
Ivanhoe is set in the days of Richard the Lion-Hearted. Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe returns from the Crusades to reclaim his birthright; when he left for the Crusades, his father disinherited him. But when Wilfred arrives in England he discovers that the vile Normans are oppressing the honest Saxons. This inspires Wilfred to begin fighting for his people against the Norman occupiers. Wilfred enters a tournament and defeats various Norman knights but is wounded in doing so. He is taken in and cared for by Rebecca, the attractive Jewish daughter of the rich moneylender Isaac of York. Meanwhile the arrogant Norman knight and Templar Brian de Bois Guilbert has fallen in love with Rebecca, and the mercenary knight Maurice de Bracy desires the saintly Saxon maiden Rowena, though more for her inheritance than for her body. De Bois-Guilbert is also involved in a conspiracy, along with King John and various other Norman lords, to consolidate the Norman grasp of England and to ensure that King Richard the Lion-Hearted never returns from France. The plot threads intertwine. There is a siege of the conspirators' castle, and the Black Knight who helped Wilfred in the tournament is revealed to be King Richard, and Robin Hood and his Merry Men become involved, and the evil Normans are killed and Richard retakes his throne. Wilfred ends up marrying Rowena while the sorrowful Rebecca departs for Spain.
Ivanhoe was enormously popular on publication, and is Scott’s best-known work. Although not as influential as Waverley—Ivanhoe did not create a literary genre the way Waverley did the historical novel—Ivanhoe was and remains much more popular. Ivanhoe had no small influence of its own on the creation of the historical romance, although the great flowering of the historical romance was to come in later decades. Most importantly, by virtue of its success in persuading the English to accept colorful knightly fiction as historical fact, Ivanhoe “furnished the English with their idea of an ancestral England as effectively as had Shakespeare in his history plays.”1
At the time of its publication Ivanhoe was not met with universal critical acclaim, as critics took the novel’s sub-title, “a romance,” quite amiss:
While the first reviewers of Ivanhoe acknowledged its charm and excitement, many also expressed a disquiet over something inauthentic, not just an inaccuracy of historical detail but the settlement of the Author of Waverley in a sub-literary neighbourhood—with the suspicion that this, not the mansion of a respectable historicism, had been his address all along.2
Those critics were objecting to the mixture of history with romance, on the grounds that historical novels of the sort Scott had so far written were much to be preferred to the “fantastical pageant”3 that is Ivanhoe.
Such concerns are not so much alien to modern readers as laughable. Two hundred years of historical novels and historical romances have shown us that the stuff of romance and the matter of history can mix together quite well. But in the modern era other critical flaws in the novel have become apparent, so that a current assessment of Ivanhoe might describe it as a poison apple.
Ivanhoe’s virtues are obvious. It usually reads quickly and well. It is a classic, even archetypal knights-in-armor story, and enjoyable on that level, although Scott shows some ambivalence to the historical realities of the chivalric tradition and even drily condemns it on occasion:
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. Hence it is always mentioned in the old records, as the Gentle and Joyous Passage of Arms of Ashby.4
However, the color and the action, and Scott’s seeming infatuation with the chivalric code, tend to overshadow the critical passages, leaving the reader with the impression (possibly justified) that Scott’s criticisms are not seriously meant.
Ivanhoe’s theme, that of the oppressed Saxons struggling with the occupying Normans, has traditionally spoken loudly to oppressed peoples around the world, which is one reason why Ivanhoe has historically been extremely successful in translation.5 Ivanhoe’s use of mock-Shakespearean language, though initially off-putting to modern readers, quickly becomes enjoyable, and every use of this type of cod-classical language in so many lesser adventure stories can be traced directly to Scott and Ivanhoe.
Critics see Rob Roy and Waverley as Scott’s major, significant works, rather than Ivanhoe. But there is one major difference between Ivanhoe and the more critically-esteemed novels of the Waverley cycle: Ivanhoe is readable, and enjoyable, by the modern reader. The atrocious Scottish dialect of Rob Roy is absent, for one, and that's a massive addition by omission. (The faux-Shakespearean dialogue of Ivanhoe is a lark in comparison). The coincidence and unbelievable plot developments which mar Rob Roy are missing, as is the painfully slow pace. In fact, the only real negative about Scott's style in Ivanhoe is the long descriptions of clothing, buildings, scenery, and near anything else he can describe. Scott was trying to set the scenes as vividly as he could, but after the fourth or fifth three-page-long infodump of information the reader will begin longing for a red pen to mark through them all. Scott also made an enjoyable mess of history. If there was a historical Robin Hood, he was not around during Richard the Lion-Hearted’s reign (1189-1199), though tradition places him there; too, the English had ceased making the distinction between the Saxons and the Normans by that time. But most readers will neither notice these errors nor care too much about them.
And the novel has certain quirks and aspects that reward critical thought. Scott makes the feminine characters of Ivanhoe more sympathetic and appealing than the male characters, an interesting contrast to his attempt in his Waverley novels to make historical fiction a male genre rather than female. Scott throws in a reference to “a riot, or a meeting of radical reformers,”6 a not-so-subtle hint on Scott’s part that the crowd waiting to see Rebecca convicted of witchcraft and burned at the stake are comparable to the crowds behind the French Revolution and behind “the growing popularity of parliamentary and more radical reform” at home.7
But, as mentioned, Ivanhoe is not an unalloyed good, and in fact, it can be argued, is a toxic book. Mark Twain argued that Ivanhoe caused the American Civil War, on the grounds that a generation of Southerners took false ideas of chivalry from the book:
But for the Sir Walter disease, the character of the Southerner–or Southron, according to Sir Walter’s starchier way of phrasing it– would be wholly modern, in place of modern and medieval mixed, and the South would be fully a generation further advanced than it is. It was Sir Walter that made every gentleman in the South a Major or a Colonel, or a General or a Judge, before the war; and it was he, also, that made these gentlemen value these bogus decorations. For it was he that created rank and caste down there, and also reverence for rank and caste, and pride and pleasure in them. Enough is laid on slavery, without fathering upon it these creations and contributions of Sir Walter.
Sir Walter had so large a hand in making Southern character, as it existed before the war, that he is in great measure responsible for the war. It seems a little harsh toward a dead man to say that we never should have had any war but for Sir Walter; and yet something of a plausible argument might, perhaps, be made in support of that wild proposition. The Southerner of the American Revolution owned slaves; so did the Southerner of the Civil War: but the former resembles the latter as an Englishman resembles a Frenchman. The change of character can be traced rather more easily to Sir Walter’s influence than to that of any other thing or person.8
In the novel Scott implicitly compares the conflicts of his time with those of the past. Scott historicizes his own time, emphasizing in Ivanhoe the invasion of an ethnically pure Saxon England by Norman aliens. Scott’s readers would have compared this to the influx of Jewish immigrants into England in their own day. And this is the other major drawback of the novel: Ivanhoe’s negative treatment of the Jews. The issue of Ivanhoe’s antisemitism is a fiercely argued one. Many critics have pointed to the portrayal of Rebecca as evidence that the novel is pro-Jewish, or have claimed that the antisemitic comments of the other characters, and the portrayal of Isaac, deserve much less weight than the narrator’s comments about the brutal treatment Jews underwent at the hands of “Norman, Saxon, Dane and Briton.”9 But these arguments are not ultimately convincing. The character of Rebecca is almost impossibly idealized, and therefore not an accurate reflection of how the book or the author feels about the Jews. Contrasted with Rebecca is Isaac, her father, who has many of the classic antisemitic attributes. He is greedy, grasping, servile and craven, and is only redeemed by his love for Rebecca and his willingness to give up his money for her–but only, it must be said, after some consideration. The narrator and many of the secondary characters use many antisemitic slurs in describing the Jews (with the exception of Rebecca). The heroic characters, like Wilfred and Robin Hood, react badly to Isaac and treat him badly–not because he is a bad person, but because he is Jewish. And the comments decrying the history of bad behavior toward the Jews contain allusions to their “passive courage inspired by the love of gain”10 and “the obstinacy and avarice of the Jews.”11 Ivanhoe is not a book friendly to the Jews–quite the opposite.
Part of this antisemitism is due to the tenor of the times:
The status of Jews, historically subject to the radical fluctuations of political power that occurred in the different countries in which they lived as aliens, nonetheless had never gone through such dramatic swings as in the three-decade period from 1789 to 1819…England was not merely a spectator of such fluctuations in the status of the Jews. The turbulence of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars had the effect of reviving in England an unusually deep-rooted tradition of millenarian thought. Countless sermons, tracts, pamphlets and books proclaimed the Jews as the central figures of world history, and even as the center of a crisis demanding the attention of all nations…the on-going war between France and England became reconfigured as a contest over which of the two powers, “atheistical” France or Christian England, would lead the Jews back to their homeland, with Napoleon variously represented as the anti-Christ and the Messiah (even of specifically Jewish birth).12
Finally, one comment common to popular criticism of Ivanhoe is that Wilfred should have married Rebecca rather than Rowena. Rowena is not a milksop, but she is prim and prissy and Scott never shows us why she is to be desired. Rebecca, on the other hand, is not just beautiful but also sympathetic, compassionate, and smart. She is far more desirable than Rowena, but Scott's own antisemitism prevented him from marrying a Christian to a Jew, so he packed Rebecca off to a celibate life in Spain and foisted Rowena on Ivanhoe. William Makepeace Thackeray fulfilled the hopes of many readers in Rebecca and Rowena (1850), a sequel to Ivanhoe, when he portrayed Rowena as a shrew, jealous of Rebecca, and then killed Rowena off, allowing Ivanhoe to marry Rebecca (unfortunately converted to Christianity) and live happily ever after.
Ivanhoe is largely enjoyable, but the reader can be forgiven for finding its flaws outweighing the enjoyment gained by reading it.
Print: Walter Scott and Graham Tulloch, Ivanhoe. New York: Penguin Classics, 2000.
1 Ian Duncan, “Introduction,” in Ian Duncan, ed., Ivanhoe (Oxford: Oxford University, 2008), vii.
2 Duncan, “Introduction,” x.
3 Francis Jeffrey, Edinburgh Review 33 (Jan. 1820): 8, qtd. in Duncan, “Introduction,” x.
4 Walter Scott, Ivanhoe; A Romance (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1895), 139.
5 Kang-Yen Chu’s “Reading the Subaltern in Scott,” in Rebecca DeWald and Dorette Sobolewski, eds., Bonds and Borders: Identity, Imagination and Transformation in Literature (Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011), 9-18 is a good starting place for the curious about Scott’s appeal to marginalized readers.
6 Scott, Ivanhoe, 493.
7 John Morillo and Wade Newhouse, “History, Romance, and the Sublime Sound of Truth in Ivanhoe,” Studies in the Novel 32, no. 3 (Fall 2000): 267.
8 Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1917), 375-376.
9 Scott, Ivanhoe, 65.
10 Scott, Ivanhoe, 66.
11 Scott, Ivanhoe, 66.
12 Michael Ragussis, “Writing Nationalist History: England, the Conversion of the Jews, and Ivanhoe,” ELH 60, no. 1 (Spring, 1993): 182.