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Ivanhoe is a rather sharp-edged story of intolerance, both personal and social, in the Middle Ages. Although it is one of the earliest historical novels, written by Sir Walter Scott, the originator of the genre, history is but vaguely represented in the work, except in the personages of such authentic characters as Richard the Lion-Hearted and his brother, Prince John.

At the time portrayed in the novel, Crusaders are trickling back to England from Jerusalem. The England of the story is racked with dissension. The ruling nobility, including the crusading King Richard, are Norman conquerors. A small number of the defeated Saxon nobility remains to foment the overthrow of the Normans. Ivanhoe’s father, Cedric, is the leader of this faction. Cedric has disinherited Ivanhoe for being in love with Rowena, the last of the line of Saxon royalty and Cedric’s ward. In addition to the tension between the ruling and subservient classes and the familial strife between Cedric and Ivanhoe, the novel contains political intrigue between Richard and Prince John, who wants to usurp the throne, and racial and religious tension in the personages of Isaac of York and his daughter, Rebecca, who are Jewish and therefore despised by Saxon and Norman alike.

The several story lines of the novel play themselves out by only occasionally intersecting. The dominant tale is the account of racial prejudice against Rebecca. After Ivanhoe is kind to her father, she returns the favor by healing him of wounds received at a tournament and consequently falls in love with him. Although Ivanhoe is properly grateful, he is cold to her because she is Jewish. When Rebecca is abducted by a Knight Templar, Brian de Bois-Guilbert, who has become infatuated with her, her father finds little help in obtaining her release, again because they are Jewish. Finally, she is tried as a witch because of her skill in healing and her religion.

Another major story is that of Richard the Lion-Hearted. He has just returned from the Crusades but is still thought to be imprisoned. His brother, Prince John, is plotting to take over the throne with the help of a following of greedy nobles. John is petty, childish, unthinking, and uncaring, and the nobles are ultimately disloyal. Richard is a happy knight more bent on doing random good deeds than on governing a country; he falls into company with the likes of Robin Hood (here called Locksley) and has adventures.

Finally, one finds the story of the lovers Ivanhoe and Rowena. The dissension between Norman and Saxon has kept them apart because of Cedric’s ambition to marry Rowena to the Saxon noble Athelstane, who could have some pretensions to a Saxon throne if the Normans were ever overthrown. His nostalgia for a pure Saxon country keeps him from realizing that the Norman and Saxon cultures have already merged too far to be ever separated again.

Places Discussed

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*Don River

*Don River. Tributary of the Humber River, which drains much of north-central England into the North Sea, described by Scott as soft and gentle. The town of Doncaster is on the upper Don River. The territory south of the Humber and east of the Don is a beautiful valley that includes on the bank of the Don south of Doncaster the Saxon castle of Conisbrough, which Scott uses as the backdrop for much of his story.

*Pennine Hills

*Pennine Hills. Mountain range that forms the backbone of England and marks the western boundary for the events in Ivanhoe . Warncliffe Park, mentioned by Scott, is the area around Warncliffe Crags, which is part of the...

(This entire section contains 346 words.)

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Pennine Hill Range. The crags are above Stockbridge and northwest of Sheffield.


*Ashby-de-la-Zouche. Town in Leicestershire between Birmingham and Nottingham, where Ivanhoe enters the tournament upon his return from the Crusades. The area is used to create many of the action scenes of Scott’s novel.


Rotherwood. Fictitious castle home of Ivanhoe’s father, Cedric. It is probably based on the town of Rotherham, which is mentioned in chapter 20, in South Yorkshire near Sheffield. Because of this connection, Rotherwood figures often in the story.

*Sherwood Forest

*Sherwood Forest. Dense forest in northern England’s Nottinghamshire which is the scene of action involving Locksley—who becomes Robin Hood—and the location of Torquilstone, the imaginary castle of Front-de-Boeuf. The castle setting may have been the town of Harthill about nine miles southeast of Rotherham. The area contains the ruins of Middleham Castle, which may have been the model for Torquilstone. It is also the location of the Hermit’s cell where King Edward spends the night on his hunting trip.


*Templestowe. Castlelike structure known as a preceptory—a religious and educational house used in medieval times by the Knights Templer, who figure prominently in Ivanhoe. It is to Templestowe that Bois-Guibert flees from Torquilstone with his captive, Rebecca, and to which Isaac goes to negotiate his daughter’s release. Templestowe is about a day’s journey from Torquilstone.


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The story takes place in 1194, the year of King Richard I's (also known as Richard the Lion-Hearted) return to England from the Third Crusade, which was undertaken to rescue the Holy Land from the Turkish sultan, Saladin. The world of Ivanhoe is the picturesque Midlands and North country of England, specifically the counties of Leicestershire; Nottinghamshire, with the vast Sherwood Forest at its center; and Yorkshire. Using this time and setting enables Scott to examine the nature and role of chivalry at the height of the medieval age. He balances the reality of the twelfth century against the romantic ideal, juxtaposing knights in glittering armor, beautiful ladies, and the color and pagentry of the tournament at Ashby, against the bloody siege of Torquilstone and the mortal combat of Ivanhoe and de Bois-Guilbert atTemplestowe.

He complicates the narrative by introducing the clash of two peoples, the Normans and the Saxons. In 1066 Duke William of Normandy (William the Conqueror) crossed the channel to England and defeated the Saxon Lord Harold. England became a land where oppressive laws forced the Anglo-Saxons to reconcile themselves to Norman rule. Beyond the severity of William's military government, taxes were heavy and the two peoples spoke different languages. But neither the hatred between Normans and Saxons nor the Saxon claim to the English throne persisted into the twelfth century. This has led some scholars to criticize Ivanhoe as historically inaccurate, while others claim that he portrays Cedric the Saxon as a fanatic holdout nurturing a hopeless cause.

Literary Techniques

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Since characterization holds such an important place in this book, it might be well to note the three standard methods of characterization as they apply to Ivanhoe: what the author says about the person, what others say about him or her (and other modes of reaction), and what the person says and does. The first of the modes of bringing a character to life is the one upon which Scott is criticized most often and most severely—he is accused of not getting into the "heart" of the character, not analyzing the inner workings of the person's mind and emotions. While Ivanhoe does not possess the psychological depth of some of his other works (including The Heart of Midlothian and The Bride o/Lammermoor), Sir Walter does offer characters whose natures are represented clearly (it should be noted that people in that time and place and historical situation had little time or inclination for introspection or philosophical and psychological concentration). For example, early in the plot, the reasons for Isaac's fears and suspicions of Christians (all of whom populate the novel most generously) are mentioned briefly but directly:

His doubts [of the honesty of his guide through the forest in Chapter VII] might have been indeed pardoned; for except, perhaps the flying-fish, there was no race existing on the earth, in the air, or the waters, who were the object of such an unremitting, general and relentless persecution as the Jews of this period.

The passage/ which also demonstrates Scott's occasional stylistic fancies, explains the depredations and humiliations that the Jews suffered in England in feudal times. The explanation goes on for a full page and closes with Scott's summation: "On these terms they lived; and their character, influenced accordingly, was watchful, suspicious and timid—yet obstinate/ noncompliant, and skillful in evading the danger to which they were exposed." It would be difficult to find a more insightful and helpful summary of the bases for Isaac's (and, to some degree, Rebecca's) behavior throughout the story. Thus/ it may be seen that Scott was aware of the need for at least some detailed commentary on the personalities and reasons for actions of his characters.

As to the reactions of other characters to a given person, the foregoing speech by Ivanhoe to King Richard, combining as it does respect and complaint, may serve as a good example of Scott's attention to the usefulness of this method of rounding a character (and one needs very much to perceive both the positive and the negative sides of Richard's nature and activity), as well as revealing aspects of the speaker's personality.

Again, Isaac emerges as a fine example of characterization, and his speech to his captors/ in which he pleads for the freedom of his fellow captives (Cedric and his company), indicates sharply the more benevolent aspects of the Jew's personality: "Grant me, at least with my own liberty, that of the companions with whom I travel. They scorned me as a Jew, yet they pitied my desolation/ and because they tarried to aid me by the way, a share of my evil hath come upon them...." Here, one sees Isaac's sense of justice and responsibility/ as well as his courage in making such an earnest request of Front-de-Boeuf. This speech is soon followed by a violent expression of Isaac's outrage that his daughter has been taken by de Bois-Guilbert: "Robber and villain! I will pay thee nothing...."

The furious old man goes on for some time berating his captor in this brave fashion. Thus/ Scott advances the plot of the story and also exposes the nature of a pivotal character.

The mode of Isaac's language indicates another point of Scott's technique: style. Of course, in this novel, he had to abandon the Scottish dialect for which he had become so famous. The challenge was to create dialogue that rang true to the historical setting of the plot. Although some readers find the language (especially the speeches) a bit stilted—so many "thees" and "haths," for instance—one must realize that Scott was forced to suggest what the almost ancient tongues of the real people of that early day would sound like in "modern" translation. For example, French, the basic tongue of the Normans, has a form of the "familiar" pronouns, used for close friends, menials, and children/ which is represented by the English equivalents "thee" or "thou." So Sir Walter was simply attempting to suggest the speech of the characters, and the rest of the text, in his own words, is couched in an expressive standard English, the literary language of Scott's day.

As to plot, the story line moves forward fairly directly, with the exception, found in many of Scott's works, of one situation or set of events being prepared for after they have occurred. For example, in a forthright way, Scott opens Chapter 28 by saying, "Our history must needs retrograde for the span of a few pages, to inform the reader of certain passages material to his understanding the rest of this important narrative [of events in the castle of Torquilstone]." Sir Walter then goes back in time to explain what happened to Ivanhoe after the tourney at Ashby. Also, the author employs the now popular device of having two sets of events proceeding at the same time (what today is often termed the "meanwhile back at the ranch" phenomenon), as when Chapter 24 opens with this sentence: "While the scenes we have described were passing in other parts of the castle, the Jewess Rebecca awaited her fate in a distant and sequestered turret." The rest of the chapter deals with Rebecca's travails while Cedric, Rowena, and, especially, de Bracy are arguing in the preceding chapter. This strategy on Scott's part helps to speed up the movement of the story, and to reveal the contemporaneous nature of incidents in different places.

All things considered, Ivanhoe should be judged for the mature work of historical fiction that it patently is. As indicated above, the often criticized presence of Robin Hood in a supposedly serious novel can be explained as the utilization of a historical phenomenon (the presence of armed "outlaws" in an oppressive political situation) for legitimate literary purposes. Otherwise, the book is worthy of respect for its fictional qualities, and, despite a handful of anachronisms, it is a painless way to learn some interesting history.

Literary Qualities

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Ivanhoe is notable for the symmetry of its structure, the vivid incidents and settings, and the essential humanity of many of its characters. Although often criticized for the slipshod structure of his novels, Scott arranged the plot of Ivanhoe into three well balanced, brilliant episodes. Beginning with the tournament at Ashby, proceeding to the central scene during the siege of Torquilstone, and culminating in the trial by combat at Templestowe, he creates an episodic structure that enables him to develop his theme while concentrating on a single incident. For example, the success of the tournament of Ashby scene depends on the secret of the Disinherited Knight's identity and Scott's handling of the mass battle scene. The suspense created by hiding Ivanhoe's identity early in the novel serves as a major device for securing and maintaining the reader's interest. As the events lead to the confrontation at Ashby, Scott creates reader sympathy for the disguised Ivanhoe. When this unidentified hero defeats his menacing enemies, his heroics set the tone for a novel of pure romance. Yet, this scene helps develop Scott's anti-chivalric theme, for his novel is a deliberate criticism of romance and condemns with savage irony the war and those who pursue glory for its own sake.

Within his carefully structured episodes, Scott further develops his theme and plot through lively and lengthy dialogue. Although the exchanges between characters such as Ivanhoe and Rebecca often include stilted language and long, preachy passages, they successfully establish the characters' opposing viewpoints and Scott's theme. In contrast, the banter among Richard, his men, and the villainous tyrants serves largely to propel the plot forward and heighten dramatic action.

Scott's character development, though uneven, is most effective in the cases of Ivanhoe and Rebecca. Ivanhoe, who reflects the nobler qualities of chivalry, cannot completely escape the historical evolution taking place. A product of his heredity, environment, and profession, he struggles between the tyranny of the past and the instinct for progress and growth. Each succeeding episode further clarifies his dilemma until he must compromise his heroic ideals to survive in the modern world. Unfortunately, Ivanhoe never fully realizes this; instead, it is Rebecca who understands the need to reject outmoded ideals. Through Rebecca's insight, the reader confronts the reality that historical pressures and conflicts shape individuals.

Social Concerns

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Two areas of concern may be found in Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe: the matter of chivalry and its effect on social and cultural behavior, and the subject of racial attitudes. While Scott is often regarded as something of an advocate of the chivalric code, largely because he wrote so intensely about it and because he acted in a chivalric manner in his personal and business affairs, actually he suffered no illusions about the code. He knew that its day had passed and that a new era had no room for such a rigid and often barbaric set of standards.

However, he wanted to write a novel about a different time and place from the relatively recent Scottish settings with which he had dealt in other works. Thus, he selected the heart of England during the last years of the twelfth century and focused on the hostility between Normans and Saxons. {Some critics have berated Scott for making this opposition more extreme than it historically was; they note that, since the Conquest was in 1066, enough time had elapsed for the two parties to accommodate to the situation).

Inasmuch as Sir Walter was not an expert on medieval English history, as he was on more recent Scottish events, he did a fair amount of research for the book. For example, he consulted relevant volumes in order to create realistic dialogue, speech that would sound like the language of the era and the characters at hand. Those who complain of Scott's anachronisms (which he cheerfully admitted, noting that he was writing historical fiction/ not a textbook) may be concerned that the linguistic accuracy is not of a high level. If the language were precise for the time and place, however, all the characters would be speaking either Norman French or late Middle English (not too different from that of Chaucer).

The historical aspects of the book should not trouble readers, and they ought to be aware of Scott's actual balanced view of chivalry as presented in the text. A prime illustration is the tone of Sir Walter's comment on the tournament at Ashby-de-la-Zouche, the events of which have been delineated in a lively and energetic fashion:

Thus 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 [Scott does deserve high marks for such telling and interesting details], 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 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."

The sarcastic tone of the comment is unmistakable. Sir Walter held no regard for such bloody contests; he simply wished to write of them in an accurate and exciting fashion. This he did.

It is unfortunate that Ivanhoe has so frequently been relegated to the category of a "boys' book/' as if it were simply an entertaining volume intended for young and inexperienced readers. Ivanhoe offers a well-developed image of the situation in England after most of the Crusades had been undertaken and King Richard I (the Lion-Hearted, also Coeur de Lion) had just returned from the Holy Land. Clear as Scott was about the follies of chivalry, he displays a deep understanding of the hold that this set of beliefs had on the noblemen (and, indeed, almost all of their followers) of that day. So, the hero of the story, Ivanhoe himself, says to Rebecca, "Chivalry!—why, maiden, she is the nurse of pure and high affection—the stay of the oppressed, the redresser of grievances, the curb of the power of the tyrant." As this noble personage proceeds to list the virtues of the system, one sees that, taken in terms of the time and place, Ivanhoe has a point as to the values of the chivalric code. Nowhere in the realm of fiction will the reader discover such a balanced vision of the rule of life by which so many important and influential persons (again, as well as their attendants) conducted their lives. Perhaps the Crusades themselves are one of the best pieces of evidence of the attraction of the chivalric "ideal." And Scott presents both the positive and negative aspects of chivalry (as in the criticism of Richard's going off on a Crusade when, as many believed, he should have remained in England and ruled his somewhat troubled land).

The "trouble" that England suffers in the novel, while perhaps a bit exaggerated for literary purposes (as some readers complain), is largely the result of the irresponsible and self-seeking actions of Prince John, who took over leadership of the nation in Richard's absence, and of the natural discord between the "occupying" Normans and the native Saxons. While the Norman characters, such as Brian de Bois-Guilbert and Reginald Front-de-Boeuf, are generally represented as very proud and even arrogant, and the Saxons, like Cedric and Wilfred of Ivanhoe, are more restrained and admirable, it must be recalled that King Richard was a Norman and that the conquerors had been in England for almost 150 years and had done much to raise the economic and social levels of the country.

The two races do often find points of agreement and comity in the book (as in the very rules of chivalry, in which both groups believed), but the differences are what chiefly help to advance the plot. So, the two main events in the text are the tourney at Ashby and the storming of Front-de-Boeuf's castle, Torquilstone, by a small army made up chiefly of Saxons (the basis of the attack is the unlawful imprisonment of Rowena; her father, Cedric; and the Jews Isaac and his daughter, Rebecca). These two contests underscore the hostility between the races and form the liveliest scenes in the novel.

The matter of race also involves Isaac and Rebecca, of course. Given the time at which Scott wrote, his treatment of the downtrodden Jewish race is remarkably fair. While Isaac is a moneylender, he is an honorable man, and his love for his daughter, Rebecca, for which he is willing to sacrifice everything, is moving. Scott further employs Rebecca, a person who, by virtue of race, lives outside the chivalric system, as a means to criticize and doubt the value of it: "and what is it, valiant knight, save an offering of sacrifice to a demon of vain glory...?" Thus, Sir Walter causes an "outsider" to view the prevailing "rule" by which the "insiders" lived with a more objective and, by modern standards, sane attitude.

As can be seen, Scott's presentation of racial differences (he does indicate the scorn with which many of the Christian characters perceive the Jews) is vital to the novel. From the intense jousting between Saxons and Normans to the generous, heartfelt motives of Isaac as he tries to include Cedric in his own ransom, Ivanhoe deals with extensive and important racial topics. As Johnson says, "Isaac and Rebecca are in fact at the moral heart of Ivanhoe. Both are what they are in response to the pressures of their world." Thus, they help the author to illuminate that world in both its positive and negative aspects.

Additional Commentary

Ivanhoe has often been identified as a work that glorifies war and revels in bloodshed and the clang of sword upon sword. But, Ivanhoe is about the shaping forces of history, not the superficial qualities of costume drama. The violence that permeates a good part of the book accurately portrays the atmosphere of medieval England, and physical violence in particular is roundly condemned as a method for distinguishing good from evil and justice from injustice.

While analyzing chivalry's failure to halt warfare, Scott also portrays the dangers facing a society infected by bigotry. Whether describing religious or racial prejudice, Scott stands firmly opposed to intolerance of any kind. His study of Isaac and Rebecca has become one of the most powerful statements in the English novel against the historical mistreatment of the Jews. Disinherited and forced into such occupations as moneylending by a society that manipulates them for its own purposes, Isaac and Rebecca defend themselves honorably. When the two must leave England for safer shores at the end of the novel, Scott clearly points to the injustice of this unfortunate exile.

For Further Reference

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Cockshut, A. O. J. The Achievement of Walter Scott. New York: New York University Press, 1969. An excellent exploration of Scott's use of the historical novel.

Corson, J. C. A Bibliography of Sir Walter Scott, 1797-1940. 1943. Reprint. New York: Burt Franklin, 1943. An extensive listing of critical studies.

Daiches, David. Sir Walter Scott and His World. New York: Viking, 1971. A useful critical study, suitable for high school students.

Grierson, H. J. C. Sir Walter Scott, Bart. New York: Columbia University Press, 1938. An intelligent supplement in its facts and evaluations to the Lockhart biography.

Hart, Francis R. The Scottish Novel: From Smollett to Spark. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978. A fine survey of Scottish prose fiction, especially the romance novel.

Johnson, Edgar. Sir Walter Scott: The Great Unknown. New York: Macmillan, 1970. A modern, highly reputable fullscale biography. Best suited to adult readers.

Lockhart, J. G. Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott. 7 vols. 1837-1838. Rev. ed. 10 vols. New York: AMS Press, 1983. A classic work of biography by Scott's son-in-law.

Millgate, Jane. Walter Scott: The Making of a Novelist. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987. An excellent critical study of the early Waverley novels.


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Hayden, John O., ed. Scott: The Critical Heritage. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1970. A collection of reviews of many of Scott’s novels, including Ivanhoe. Also includes an extended essay on Scott by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and anonymous letters written to Scott about the novel.

Hillhouse, James T. The Waverley Novels and Their Critics. New York: Octagon Books, 1970. A history of the critical reception Scott received. The first part offers early reviews from The Edinburgh, The Quarterly, Blackwood’s, and other periodicals, and the second part provides critical interpretations from the fifty years following his death.

Johnson, Edgar. Sir Walter Scott: The Great Unknown. New York: Macmillan, 1970. An immense two-volume set that includes a synopsis and historical explanation of the characters and setting of Ivanhoe. Considers the differing treatments of Jews and Christians, and explains aspects of Scott’s views on the Catholic church, morality, and nobility.

Lauber, John. Sir Walter Scott. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1989. Compares Ivanhoe with the other Scott novels and places it in the context of Scott’s entire oeuvre. Explains the stereotypes and the concept of chivalry.




Critical Essays