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Scott dealt with many themes in Ivanhoe, including racism, intolerance, the chivalric code, and class relations. At the same time, he was attempting to define the historical novel as a new form. The dedicatory epistle that prefaces the book is a clear explanation of his attempts to create believable characters set on a stage of historical occurrences, but without overwhelming the reader with archaic language or mountains of bookish details. The novel both succeeds and fails on most levels.

The portrait of Rebecca as a sympathetic character, a paragon of wisdom and kindness, brings to a personal level the cruel and blind prejudices of all the non-Jewish characters against her. The portrayal of her father, however, serves only to validate the prejudices expressed by the societal racism. Although he is admittedly in a difficult position in the society, he personifies the stereotype of the avaricious, lying, fawning Jewish moneylender. This is, unfortunately, to be expected when the publication date of the novel is taken into account but might be confusing for a reader who does not have a sense of how pronounced anti-Semitism was in the early nineteenth century.

Racial intolerance against the Jews is accompanied by the intolerance of the class struggle between the Saxons and the Normans. As members of the ruling class, the Normans have imposed upon the society their own language (Norman French) and code of behavior (the chivalric code). They despise the Saxons as primitive, uneducated boors who should gladly be subservient. As one of the last of the former ruling Saxons, Cedric rejects both the language and the code. Other Saxons, however, especially those of the new generation, such as his son Ivanhoe, have come to terms with the new society. They have joined the Crusades and become enamored with the concept of chivalric endeavors. King Richard is determined to integrate the Saxons as part of the new society. Even the languages have merged into a commonly spoken tongue known as English. The struggle to separate the Norman and Saxon cultures and hold one supreme is doomed to failure but is still carefully nurtured by both Cedric and Prince John, who cannot see the union of cultures that has already begun.

One of the most interesting themes in the book is the depiction of the chivalric code as wasteful, cruel, and senseless. A major event in the book is a jousting tournament. While describing the bright crowds at the event, both the brave knights and the manners of those present, Scott quietly points out the blood-lust of the spectators, who are more avid to see a death than a display of skill and are preoccupied with the numbers of horses destroyed and men wounded and killed. The wise Rebecca, in a later scene in which a castle is under siege, points out to Ivanhoe the darker side of chivalry. The adherents forsake home and family to go off to kill those who have done them no real harm, in order to tally up points of “honor.” King Richard embodies the most subtle condemnation of chivalry. In his lighthearted eagerness to be the perfect knight errant, having adventures and saving the oppressed, he has abdicated his kingly responsibility to govern the country and ensure justice for all. He has left this task to his brother, Prince John, who is only concerned with reaping from the country what he wants. Thus, chivalry on an individual scale has wreaked havoc on the country that Richard is supposed to preserve.

As a historical novel, Ivanhoe may perhaps succeed as a prototype, but it fails as an example. Scott allowed romanticism to gain ascendance over history as the setting for the tale. The tournament is much too merry, the armor too flexible and maneuverable, the woods too full of Shakespearean jesters, Arthurian knights, and Robin Hood and his band to be considered accurate. While this romanticism is no doubt one reason for the popularity of the novel when it was written, and to later generations looking for an adventure tale, it lends an atmosphere of fable to the work that is inconsistent with history as a vehicle for the story.

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Critical Context