Ivanhoe is easily the best-known Scott novel, probably because it became a celebrated Hollywood epic in 1952. This celebrity reflects Scott’s success in creating a heroic image that remains current. Yet the novel is rich in illuminating detail and is beautifully constructed; and, although research has found it inaccurate, it established the genre of fantasy romance.
The novel portrays the return of the Saxon Wilfred Ivanhoe from the Holy Land to his alienated ancestral estate. It is the early thirteenth century, with King Richard I (or Richard the LionHearted) held captive in Austria. In his absence, his brother John has taken the throne; he uses bribery and extortion to secure his position and intends to suppress the Saxon minority by force.
The first major event is a tournament at Ashby-de-la-Zouch, attended by all the principal nobility. John plans to showcase his power, a propaganda move. Yet events go against him. On the first day, his champions fall in man-to-man combat to a masked warrior, the Disinherited Knight, who awards his winnings to the Saxon lady Rowena. On the second day, in group combat, the Disinherited Knight wins again, though aided by another unknown, The Black Sluggard. Furthermore, a Saxon yeoman archer beats the Prince’s Norman marksmen. At the end of the tournament, Ivanhoe collapses from concealed wounds and is taken for treatment to a rich Jewish merchant, Isaac of York, and his beautiful daughter Rebecca. The other knight, incognito, takes refuge in the cell of a hermit.
Returning home several days later, Cedric the Saxon agrees to protect Isaac’s caravan when he finds it abandoned. Outlaws, however, employed by Front-de-Buf, a Norman baron, capture the train and hold it for ransom. Cedric’s servants appeal to the archer Locksley, who rallies his band of real outlaws, augmented by the monk and Black Knight, to storm the castle.Meanwhile, both Rowena and Rebecca are accosted while imprisoned; Rebecca keeps the bedridden Ivanhoe hidden. From the window, she reports the first assault to Ivanhoe; the attackers gain a foothold on the walls. Ulrica, a Saxon victim of Norman pillagers, sets fire to the bedchamber of the wounded Front-de-Buf; he dies roaring, and the flames threaten the defenders. The assault is renewed, this time overwhelmingly. Ivanhoe and Rowena are rescued, but Bois-Guilbert carries off Rebecca. The brigand and the Knight resettle the ravaged land.
Meanwhile, deLacy, a Norman knight, reports to John that Richard has returned. John plots to waylay him, but deLacy resists. Isaac reports the kidnapping of his daughter to the master of the Templars, to which Bois-Guilbert belongs. She is summoned to a tribunal and tried as a sorceress; in defense, she calls for a champion. Richard is ambushed, but he and the outlaws beat back the attack. After revealing his identity, Richard is regaled by the men. He restores Ivanhoe to his inheritance. The band arrives at the Templars’ tribunal as the trial of Rebecca...
(The entire section is 1,914 words.)