Ivanhoe Ivanhoe, Sir Walter Scott
by Sir Walter Scott

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(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...

(The entire section is 101,126 words.)