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...
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