Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1112
Since publication, Ivanhoe has retained its charm for readers as the epitome of chivalric novels. It has among its characters two of the most popular of English heroes, Richard the Lion-Hearted and Robin Hood, and it tells a powerful story of romance in addition to offering action and color. Although Ivanhoe may not be Sir Walter Scott’s greatest novel, it is without doubt his most popular.
Scott wrote that he left the Scottish scenes of his previous novels and turned to the Middle Ages in Ivanhoe because he feared the reading public was growing weary of the repetition of Scottish themes in his books. He was fascinated with history all his life, and it was logical that he should turn to the past for subject matter. Many faults have been found with the historical facts of Ivanhoe; Robin Hood, if he lived at all, would have lived in a later century than that represented in the novel, for example, and by the time of Richard I, the distinction between Saxons and Normans had faded. Nevertheless, whatever liberties Scott took with history, the thrilling drama continues to grip readers.
Scott’s four great chivalric novels possess similar structures. They all focus on a moment of crisis between two great individuals, a moment that determines the survival of one and the destruction of the other. In Ivanhoe, the contrast is between Richard the Lion-Hearted and his brother John. The struggle reflects one of the principal themes of the novel: the decadence of chivalry. For generations of juvenile readers, Ivanhoe represented the glory of chivalric adventure, but Scott actually entertained serious doubts about the tradition. At several strategic points in Ivanhoe, he unequivocally damns the reckless inhumanity of romantic chivalry.
The novel is designed in three parts, each reaching its climax in a great military spectacle. The first part ends with the Ashby tournament, the second with the liberation from the castle of Front de Boeuf, and the third with the trial by combat for Rebecca. The beginning chapters draw together all of the character groups for the tournament, though Ivanhoe is present only as the mysterious palmer. The problem of seating at the tournament provides a sketch of the cultural animosities that divide the world of the novel.
Richard is the moral and political center of the book and, therefore, the proper object of Ivanhoe’s fidelity. The captive king does not appear until he fights as the mysterious Black Knight during the second day of the tournament. He saves Ivanhoe and then disappears until the scene of his midnight feast with Friar Tuck, who regards him as a man of “prudence and of counsel.” Richard possesses a native humanity and a love of life, as well as the traditional heroic chivalric qualities, and he is always ready to act as a protector of others.
By contrast, John is an ineffectual ruler whose own followers despise him. His forces quickly disintegrate, and his followers abandon him for their selfish ends. He is a petulant, stupid man, incapable of inspiring loyalty. It is inevitable that the historical climax of the novel should be the confrontation between Richard and John. The chivalric code becomes completely corrupt in the England left to John’s care. Both the narrator and the characters make clear that chivalry is no more than a mixture of “heroic folly and dangerous imprudence.”
Rebecca speaks against chivalry, asking during the bloody siege of the castle if possession by a “demon of vainglory” brings “sufficient rewards for the sacrifice of every kindly affection, for a life spent miserably that yet may make others miserable.” (Rebecca is antichivalric, yet she is the most romantic character in the book, suggesting the traditional chivalric attitude toward women.) The narrator speaks most sharply against the chivalric code at the end of the tournament: This 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 at Ashby.”
An argument has been made that Scott’s historical novels, such as Ivanhoe, are inferior to his earlier novels based on his direct, personal knowledge of the Scottish customs, characters, and land. Even in the historical novels, however, Scott’s characters are colorful, full of vitality, and realized with amazing verisimilitude. Scott’s knowledge of the past about which he is writing is so deep that he can draw upon it at will to decorate his fictions. He did not find it necessary to research a novel such as Ivanhoe in order to write it; the historical lore was already part of him. Years before, at the time when he was beginning the Waverley series, he wrote a study about chivalry. His prolific writing did not seem to exhaust his resources.
Scott was one of the most prolific writers in the history of British fiction; only Anthony Trollope approached his record. Scott’s novels were originally published anonymously, although their authorship came to be an open secret. Scott’s friends found it difficult to believe that he was the author of the novels, for he lived the life of a county magistrate and landowner and spent long hours in these occupations as well as entertaining lavishly and writing poetry and nonfiction works. He managed to accomplish so much because he habitually rose early and completed all novel-writing before breakfast. In time, his compulsive working injured his health. While writing Ivanhoe, he was tortured by a cramp of the stomach and suffered such pain that he could not hold the pen but was forced to dictate much of the story.
Like many great novels, Ivanhoe betrays its author’s complex attitude. In tandem with Scott’s severe view of the code of chivalry is his attraction to the Romantic traditions of the period. Although Richard’s personality is not romantic, it is to this character that Scott gives the chivalric virtues. Scott dramatizes his more ambivalent feelings about chivalry in the characters of Rebecca and Lady Rowena, Ivanhoe and Richard. The tension created through these mixed feelings, the dramatic (if historically inaccurate) story, and the vast accumulation of detail on costume and social customs and historical anecdotes combine to create a novel that has remained popular ever since it was first published.