Walter Scott published Ivanhoe in 1820, partly in response to debates concerning the Habeas Corpus Suspension acts of 1817 and 1818 and the debates of the repeal of the Test and Corporation acts and Reform. The early part of the nineteenth century in which Scott was writing was one in which the United Kingdom was gradually allowing greater freedom of religion, extending the franchise, and increasing civil liberties, and Scott himself, as one of a group known as the Scottish "Moderates" generally favored such freedoms. One consistent theme in the novel is the way many of the Normans treated the Saxons unjustly, a theme that echoes his concerns about prejudice in his own period. This theme is expressed in the following lines:
The royal policy had long been to weaken, by every means, legal or illegal, the strength of a part of the population which was justly considered as nourishing the most inveterate antipathy to their victor.
Like many of Scott's other works, Ivanhoe is an historical novel or romance, set in the middle ages. A central literary device is the way it uses simile and allegory to reflect on contemporary issues by looking at parallel debates in the distant past. He uses archaic language at points to give an historical flavor to dialogue.
Scott's approach to the historical novel, which he explains in his Preface, is to blend real historical events with fictional characters, using fictional scaffolding to try to reconstruct the thoughts and feelings of people in the distant past by means of a combination of research and imagination.
The story holds the interest of its readers by the exotic period setting, the romantic portrait of chivalry, constant action and suspense, and the perils suffered by sympathetic characters.