Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 462

While the political system of feudalism surrounds the action and informs much of it, the essential "message" of the novel could be interpreted as largely an indictment of that way of life. Possibly the most significant example of this criticism is the matter of the actions of King Richard (who...

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While the political system of feudalism surrounds the action and informs much of it, the essential "message" of the novel could be interpreted as largely an indictment of that way of life. Possibly the most significant example of this criticism is the matter of the actions of King Richard (who has been often lauded as one of England's most heroic and popular kings), which come under severe aspersion. Even Ivanhoe, who is no model of cautious, prudent behavior, stands shocked by the actions of his king: "Your kingdom is threatened with dissolution and civil war—your subjects menaced with every species of evil—why, oh why, noble Prince, will you thus vex the hearts of your faithful servants, and expose your life by lonely journeys and rash adventures."

In this critique of the king's rashness, one sees Scott's awareness of the perils of irresponsible behavior, especially by those who bear heavy duties—in this case to a nation and its people. So the chivalrk ideal can be noted as severely flawed, even though many of the most admirable characters in the text adhere to it; this adherence, as shown by Scott, was, for the author, something of a historical necessity, given the era in which the novel is set.

On the other hand, some features of the code find positive expression in the novel. Apart from the usually honorable actions of many of the characters, the leading Normans excepted (they are portrayed as little better than what today would be considered gangsters), two genuinely outstanding examples of the benevolent aspects of feudalism are the servants of Cedric, Gurth and Wamba. While these rustics are humble and sometimes (especially in Wamba's case) erratic, their loyalty to their master, and their bravery and (in Wamba's case) wit in aiding him are admirable. Cedric's gratitude for this fealty marks him as a more humane personage than does, for example, his attitude toward his own son, Wilfred. The reader finds, then, that the ancient mores had both positive and negative qualities, but it would be a severe misreading of the novel to perceive it as a romantic praise of chivalry.

One final element in the thematic force of the book is the matter of love. Gurth and Wamba love their master, Cedric; Ivanhoe loves his country and his estranged father, also Cedric; Ivanhoe loves Rowena; Rebecca loves Ivanhoe; and Richard does love his subjects. All these types and examples of love come out strongly in the text. One strikingly powerful additional love is that of Isaac for his daughter. Against these evidences of admirable emotion is placed the harshness of the villains (among them several Knights Templars— Scott's opinion of these orders is clearly not high); herein lies the chief area of conflict in the novel.

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