(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Ivanhoe Sir Walter Scott

The following entry presents criticism of Scott's novel Ivanhoe (1820). See also Sir Walter Scott Poetry Criticism and Sir Walter Scott Short Story Criticism.

Ivanhoe stands as one of Sir Walter Scott's most popular novels, and has had a major influence on the genre of historical fiction. The work is notable not only for its vivid depiction of characters and its adventurous narrative but also for the fact that it is the first of Scott's novels to be set outside the borders of Scotland and in the distant past. The complex narrative intertwines British legend with the Anglo-Saxon-Norman conflict in medieval England. Although Ivanhoe has long been valued for its fascinating and entertaining plot, more recent readers have studied the complexity of its treatment of chivalric culture. Ivanhoe combines historical realism with vibrant artistry, and reflects Scott's narrative skill and historical focus.

Biographical Information

When Ivanhoe (1820) arrived on the literary scene, Scott (born in 1771) was at the height of his career. He had gained popular acclaim with a romantic ballad entitled The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805), which followed the less successful The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802). Scott's scholarly knowledge of British history and mythology pervaded several successful novels that followed: Waverley (1814), Guy Mannering (1815), Rob Roy (1818), The Heart of Mid-Lothian (1818), and The Bride of Lammermoor (1819). The novel Ivanhoe itself had a major impact on the genre that came to be known as historical fiction. After Ivanhoe, Scott published the novels Kenilworth (1821) and Redgauntlet (1824). Although Scott did not acknowledge his authorship of Waverley and the other novels until 1827, the public was well aware of his authorship by 1815. In this period, the critical and popular success of Scott's novels made it possible for him to rely on his publications for income (rather than on his training in the legal profession), and led to Scott's acceptance of a baronetcy in 1820. Scott was increasingly interested in establishing a national identity for Scotland (he was largely responsible for recovering the Scottish regalia in 1818), and this theme underlies the question of English national identity in the medieval period in the plot of Ivanhoe. Scott carefully constructed a life of the Scottish gentry, centering on the estate of Abbotsford. Scott's good fortune suffered a catastrophic decline in 1826 with the failure of the Ballantyne printing firm in which Scott was a silent partner. From this point until his death at the age of sixty-one in 1832, Scott was forced to use his literary income to pay off his debt, and he produced works that failed to match the splendor and elegant style of the earlier novels.

Plot and Major Characters

Ivanhoe, Scott's first departure from the Scottish countryside of the recent past, is set in Yorkshire, England, in the time of the Crusades. The plot of Ivanhoe begins humbly enough, with a conversation in a forest between a swineherd and a fool in the employ of Cedric, a Saxon noble who is the father of Ivanhoe. The swineherd and the fool encounter a cavalcade on its way to a tournament held at Ashby by Prince John, the Norman who has taken over the rule of the country while King Richard struggles to liberate the Holy Land from the Muslims. Wilfred of Ivanhoe (i.e., the hero Ivanhoe), disguised as a palmer, has previously joined the cavalcade. He has returned from the Crusades but cannot return to his home because his father Cedric has disinherited him for his love of Rowena (who is a ward of Cedric and a Saxon noblewoman engaged for political reasons to Athelstane, a Saxon noble). The cavalcade also includes Isaac, a wealthy Jewish moneylender, and his beautiful daughter Rebecca. This entire party stays the night at Cedric's manor, where the templar Brian de Bois-Guilbert covets Rebecca and plots to steal Isaac's wealth. Ivanhoe's observations of Bois-Guilbert alert him to these dangers, and he warns Isaac and Rebecca; all three escape to Ashby. At the tournament, Rowena and Prince John preside over the proceedings. Ivanhoe, still disguised, triumphs over several opponents until he almost loses his life, at which point a mysterious knight (later revealed to be King Richard) intervenes. Rebecca falls in love with Ivanhoe, and she and her father nurse Ivanhoe back to health. As Isaac, Rebecca, and Ivanhoe return with Cedric through the forest to York, they are abducted by outlaws in the employ of Bois-Guilbert and are taken to a castle owned by the corrupt Norman baron Front-de-Boeuf. King Richard, the Saxon peasantry, and the legendary figure of Robin Hood unite to release this group from their imprisonment. They lay siege to the castle and engage in a fierce battle. Bois-Guilbert escapes from King Richard in this encounter, and then convinces the Church authorities that Rebecca is a sorceress. Her trial is decided by a duel between Bois-Guilbert and Ivanhoe, who steps forward to defend Rebecca's honor. Bois-Guilbert is killed through his excessive zealousness. King Richard arrives at the scene, having survived an ambush on the way with the help of Robin Hood. King Richard restores Ivanhoe to his rightful place and gives him permission to marry Rowena. The novel closes with a curious scene in which Rebecca bids farewell to Rowena (after the marriage ceremony between Rowena and Ivanhoe)—which illustrates one animating theme of the novel: the simultaneous diversity and amity of the foreign and the familiar.

Major Themes

Ivanhoe elaborates the contradictory elements of the chivalric code: its heroism and compassion on the one hand, and its glorification of selfishness and chaotic recklessness on the other. The novel is dominated by a "disarray of conflicting passions," according to an early review in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine. Although the plot of Ivanhoe is framed by two homecomings (Ivanhoe's return to Britain and his reunion with Rowena and Cedric), multiple conflicts transform the familiar, and complicate the old order: the Saxons struggle to maintain power in a Norman world; and the presence of Jews in the novel emphasizes the cultural and ethnic diversity of medieval Britain. The ideal of national unity through the synthesis of contrasting traditions is reflected in the increased value put on shifting from chivalric adventure and parochial superstition to the more stable order of cosmopolitanism and rational faith. Still, the novel clearly expresses the value of a certain chivalric code: the idea of nobility pervades the characterizations of Ivanhoe. At crucial junctures, nobility is associated with selflessness in turn associated with a certain passivity. For example, at the siege of Front-de-Boeuf s castle, Ivanhoe lies off to one side, injured and unable to fight. Thus chivalry must not be merely supplanted by a more rationally and economically-minded culture without regard for such values as nobility. Revealing Scott's ambivalent valuation of a romantic tradition, Ivanhoe presents a complex picture of the transition between an age of heroism and an age of reason.

Critical Reception

Despite its popular success, Ivanhoe was for a long time considered to be an adventure story suited primarily for young children rather than for serious readers of literature. However, certain nineteenth- and twentieth-century critics, exploring the complexity and subtlety of the themes and characterizations of the novel, agree that Rebecca is the most fascinating of the characters (among the one hundred and fifty three separately drawn figures), and that the relationship between her and Ivanhoe is much more interesting than the conventional match between Ivanhoe and Rowena. In addition, some modern critics have criticized the stereotypical characterizations of Rebecca and Isaac. The plot has also been criticized for glorifying chivalry and romantic adventure instead of expressing historical realism. Some recent critics have suggested that the realism of Ivanhoe lies not in historical accuracy but in the moral realm, in depicting the sorts of choices that Ivanhoe, among others, must make between noble (self-denying) and selfish actions. Because readers hear nothing of the inner thoughts of characters, this complex dialectic of cultural and moral values must be carried out through the action of the plot. Although some commentators praise Ivanhoe for the romantic spirit that guides the action as well as for Scott's richness and liveliness of description, others point to this romantic spirit as an inappropriate popularizing of history for the purpose of entertainment rather than moral education. Most critics agree that several anticlimaxes mar the fluid development of the plot: for example, the Saxon Athelstane dies but is brought back to life later in the novel. Despite these problems, Ivanhoe remains a testament to Scott's ability to bring history to life and to his foundational influence on the genre of historical fiction.

Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine (essay date 1819)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Ivanhoe" in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, Vol. VI, No. 33, December, 1819, pp. 262-72.

[ In the following excerpt, an early reviewer describes the plot and characters of Ivanhoe, and praises the complexity and originality of the work.]

As this exquisite romance belongs to a class generically different from any of the former tales of the same author, it is possible that many readers, finding it does not tally with any preconceptions they had formed, but requires to be read with a quite new, and much greater effort of imagination, may experience, when it is put into their hands, a feeling not unlike disappointment.1 In all his former...

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The Eclectic Review (essay date 1820)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Ivanhoe; A Romance, in The Eclectic Review, Vol. XIII, June, 1820, pp. 526-40.

[In the excerpt that follows, the anonymous reviewer criticizes Scott's attempt to combine historical exposition with narrative fiction, and classifies Ivanhoe not as a romantic novel but as " that mongrel sort of production, a historical novel."]

There are several good reasons for our not saying much about the present production of the Author of Waverley. In the first place, it belongs to a class of works which has but doubtful claims upon our notice; in the next place, we have recently delivered our sentiments pretty much at large upon...

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Walter Scott (essay date 1830)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Introduction to Ivanhoe; A Romance, by Sir Walter Scott, A. & C. Black, Ltd., 1929, pp. ix-xviii.

[ In the following introduction to Ivanhoe, written ten years after the original publication of the novel, Scott both explains his decision to set the action of Ivanhoe outside of Scotland and in the medieval period, and responds to common criticisms of the novel]

The Author of the Waverley Novels had hitherto proceeded in an unabated course of popularity, and might, in his peculiar district of literature, have been termed l'enfant gâté of success. It was plain, however, that frequent publication must finally wear out the public favour,...

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G. H. Maynadier (essay date 1926)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Ivanhoe and Its Literary Consequences," in Essays in Memory of Barrett Wendell, by His Assistants, Harvard University Press, 1926, pp. 221-33.

[ In the essay that follows, Maynadier contends that the strength of the dramatic moments in Ivanhoe makes it more a work of romantic fiction than of historical narrative, although Ivanhoe deeply influenced the historical novel and the nineteenth-century attempt to popularize history.]

A little more than six years ago there was a literary anniversary which, it has seemed to me, passed without due notice—the centennial of Ivanhoe. Despite the date of 1820 on the title-page, it was in...

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John Buchan (essay date 1932)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Broken Years, 1817-1819," in Sir Walter Scott, Cassell and Company Ltd., 1932, pp. 167-201.

[ In the following excerpt, Buchan criticizes Ivanhoe 's pageantry and artificiality, as well as its concern with ornament, rather than with a more serious representation of medieval England.]

In Ivanhoe Scott opened a new lode in the mine of his fancy, a vein of poorer but most marketable ore. He had read widely in the mediaeval chroniclers, and had in his head a mass of more or less accurate antiquarian knowledge, of arms, heraldry, monastic institutions, and the dress and habits of the Middle Ages. He chose the reign of Richard I as his...

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H. J. C. Grierson (essay date 1953)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Introduction to Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott, Collins and W. W. Norton and Company, 1953, pp. 27-31.

[ In the essay that follows, Grierson claims that Ivanhoe is a central example of the historical novel and that Scott created that genre.]

In Ivanhoe Scott made his first venture outside the history of his own country; and in the Introduction of 1839 he gives the reason for the step. It was a bold step, because the nine novels (including The Black Dwarf) issued between Waverley in 1814 and The Legend of Montrose in 1819 had established their reputation as 'the Scotch novels' in the absence of...

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Joseph E. Duncan (essay date 1955)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Anti-Romantic in Ivanhoe" in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 9, No. 4, March, 1955, pp. 293-300.

[ In the following essay, Duncan argues, against earlier critics, that Ivanhoe is "neither juvenile nor romantic" but is a serious examination of the transition between a period of heroic adventure and one of stable development.]

Is Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe essentially a romantic book of adventure—preferably for boys? A number of usually perceptive critics have treated it as such. Walter Bagehot declared that the novel expressed a great "romantic illusion" and that it was addressed "to that kind of boyish fancy which idolizes...

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Francis R. Hart (essay date 1966)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Historical Picturesque and the Survivals of Chivalry," in Scott's Novels: The Plotting of Historic Survival, University Press of Virginia, 1966, pp. 150-245.

[In the following excerpt, Hart claims that Scott combines chivalric and anti-chivalric attitudes in Ivanhoe, as seen in his attempt to mitigate the self-centered pursuit of glory with moral prudence, and that Ivanhoe does not represent Scott's departure from historical fiction.]

The distance from The Heart of Midlothian (1818) to Ivanhoe (1819) seems huge. It is smaller, however, than critical orthodoxy recognizes. Ivanhoe's inferiority is not...

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Edgar Johnson (essay date 1970)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Chivalry, Church, and Crown," in Sir Walter Scott: The Great Unknown, Vol. I, The Macmillan Company, 1970, pp. 736-58.

[In the following excerpt, Johnson claims that the romanticism of Ivanhoe is supplemented by a critical attention to the "worldly manifestations of feudalism. "]

Ivanhoe plunges back in time to an age over four hundred years earlier than Scott has previously dealt with, and shifts his scene from Scotland into the heart of England almost two hundred miles south of the Border. Consciously his aim was novelty of time and setting; perhaps, Scott thought, readers were getting tired of Scottish scenes and characters. But his...

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Alice Chandler (essay date 1975)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Chivalry and Romance: Scott's Medieval Novels," in Studies in Romanticism, Vol. 14, Spring, 1975, pp. 185-200.

[In the essay that follows, Chandler argues that the romantic aspects of Ivanhoe, like Scott's other medieval novels, should be judged not by the standards of realism but of allegory.]

One of the recurrent elements in the Waverley Novels is the distinction Scott makes between the Highlands and the Lowlands. To enter the Highlands, as one critic has put it, is to cross a border "between what is and what might be, between reality and romance, between selfish causes and lost causes, the calculating present and the impulsive past."1 This...

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Kenneth M. Sroka (essay date 1979)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Function of Form: Ivanhoe as Romance," in Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. XIX, No. 4, Autumn, 1979, pp. 645-60.

[In the essay that follows, Sroka argues that Ivanhoe combines elements of realism with more conventional romantic tropes, particularly in the characters who display both heroism and human limitations.]

Walter Scott's critical prose does not reveal any concern on Scott's part for organic form in fiction. However, Scott's own practice as a novelist belies what appears to be his cavalier attitude toward the relationship of a work's form to its content. Ivanhoe, for example, appears on first reading to be a...

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Judith Wilt (essay date 1985)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Coming Home: Waverly and Ivanhoe," in Secret Leaves: The Novels of Walter Scott, University of Chicago Press, 1985, pp. 18-48.

[In the following essay, Wilt examines the symbolism of homecoming as it relates to the identity of Wilfrid of Ivanhoe, the crusader who returns to an England torn by multiple conflicts.]

"Here is someone either asleep or lying dead at the foot of the cross," the irritated Normans remark as they ride, lost, through the Great Forest that dominates Ivanhoe: but it is not the last time they will be mistaken about him. The figure is neither dead nor asleep but thinking, and irritated in his turn: "it is...

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Chris R. Vanden Bossche (essay date 1987)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Culture and Economy in Ivanhoe," in Nineteenth-Century Literature, Vol. 42, No. 1, June, 1987, pp. 46-72.

[In the following essay, Bossche claims that Ivanhoe, as a work of historical fiction, attempts to bridge the distance between past and present by mingling elements of an earlier culture with more familiar political and social issues.]

Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe dramatizes culture as a semiotic system that constitutes social relations. The novel's protagonists are not just Cedric, Wilfred, Bois-Guilbert, and Isaac of York, but the languages they speak: Saxon, the lingua franca, Norman, and Hebrew. The theme of language that...

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Jerome Mitchell (essay date 1987)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Novels of the Broken Years, 1817-1819," in Scott, Chaucer, and Medieval Romance: A Study in Sir Walter Scott's Indebtedness to the Literature of the Middle Ages, University Press of Kentucky, 1987, pp. 108-37.

[In the excerpt that follows, Mitchell discusses such narrative parallels between medieval literature and Ivanhoe as Ivanhoe's palmer disguise, the Jewish quest, and the witchcraft trial, among others.]

The background to Ivanhoe, Scott's most famous novel, has already been admirably discussed by Roland Abramczyk in one of the finest German dissertations from its period that I have ever examined.14 Abramczyk goes into the...

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Lionel Lackey (essay date 1992)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Vainly Expected Messiahs: Christianity, Chivalry and Charity in Ivanhoe," in Studies in Scottish Literature, edited by G. Ross Roy, University of South Carolina, 1992, pp. 150-66.

[In the essay that follows, Lackey examines the role of medieval religion in Ivanhoe through the contrast between the corruption of official representatives of the Church and the faith and compassion of Ivanhoe and Rebecca.]

Ivanhoe, Scott's account of ethnic, political, and military conflict in England after the unsuccessful Third Crusade, is closer to being a religious novel than commentators have acknowledged. Its central struggle is between the forces...

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Michael Ragussis (essay date 1993)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Writing Nationalist History: England, the Conversion of the Jews, and Ivanhoe," in ELH, Vol. 60, No. 1, Spring, 1993, pp. 181-215.

[In the following essay, Ragussis argues that Scott's depiction of the conflict between Jewish and Anglo-Saxon traditions suggests that history proceeds through the synthesis of cultures rather than the preservation of homogeneous racial identity.]

I: "The Crisis of All Nations"

While Scott was writing his first medieval novel in the summer and fall of 1819, the revival of medievalism in the German states was taking a particularly noxious form. The rise of German nationalism, crystallized by the...

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John Sutherland (essay date 1995)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Bride of Lammermoor to The Abbot (1818-1820)," in The Life of Walter Scott: A Critical Biography, Blackwell, 1995, pp. 220-39.

[In the following excerpt, Sutherland studies the conceptions of race and nationality in Ivanhoe, as seen both in the conflict between Normans and Saxons and in the ambivalent depiction of anti-Semitism.]

In 1819 Scotland's greatest novelist re-emerged as England's chronicler. Ivanhoe can be seen as tribute to Albion's growing cultural domination over its dependencies. Scott himself, rather unconvincingly, attributed the change in national subject matter to a fear that constant harping on Scottish...

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Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


Atkinson, W. A. "The Scenes of Ivanhoe." The National Review 79, No. 470 (April 1922): 278-89.

Describes the physical settings of Ivanhoe.

Bitton, Livia E. "The Jewess as Fictional Sex Symbol." Bucknell Review 21, No. 1 (Spring 1973): 63-86.

Examines the character of Rebecca, as a stereotypical example of a Jewish woman.

The British Review and London Critical Journal. "Ivanhoe, and The Monastery." The British Review and London Critical Journal 15, No. 30 (June 1820): 393-454.


(The entire section is 466 words.)