Published in 1819, if you’re looking for some honest-to-goodness, played-straight, exhaustively researched yet swashbuckling-fun story of medieval chivalry and derring-do, you could do worse than Ivanhoe.
Set in the 12th century – during that period of time made famous by every rendition of Robin Hood, when the head-strong and vivacious King Richard was out of the country, and the unpopular Prince John ruled in his stead – Ivanhoe explores racism, classism, male-female tensions, concepts of chivalry, and religion, all mixed with enough action and entertaining turns of phrase to keep the pace going.
Setting the Stage
The first chapter or two drag along, as Scott describes our initial characters – their dress, situation, the landscape – in exhaustive detail. This is necessary to give us a flavor of the strange place and time we have entered.
Scott’s original readers would not have seen dozens of “medieval” movies and plays, and so might be unfamiliar with the particular dress and customs of the 12th century. Even our modern reader will probably have a romanticized or blurry impression of exactly what was involved in 12th century life, and what was important to the people then.
Quick example: short cloaks (that only covered the back) were a Norman thing…unpractical, foppish, ineffective at keeping out the damp, and representative of the conqueror’s ruling class. Long, full cloaks were a Saxon thing…simpler, warmer, but more “red-neck”.
Parrying with Words
With the preliminaries out of the way, the characters can start talking. You might think that sounds boring, too…but it isn’t really.
It’s through their conversations that the layers of class resentment, anti-Semitism, religious feeling (or lack thereof), and feelings of patriotism are expressed and explored.
Sir Scott also has a way of phrasing things that adds energy to the prose. Not punchy, exactly…in fact, his sentences tend to use more words rather than fewer. But they’re the kind of words you can eat up, because of the way they express their thoughts and dance with the issues they portray.
And that’s the best way I can think to express it.
Scott loads us with quite an entourage to escort us through this story. The first half or two-thirds of the story keeps repeating events, going back over the time-line to establish where a different group of characters were and what they were doing.
One of the characters is the Jew, Isaac of York. Sir Scott explains and explores how the stereotypical Jewish occupation of banker developed from this people’s separation from other cultures.
Norman and Saxon alike disdained to associate with them – and had no qualms about wringing as much treasure as they could by any means necessary. Yet the Gentiles just as obviously borrowed money at staggering interest rates from the Jews (Scott claims in order to fund their socially pretentious lifestyles).
Isaac, for his part, is a melodramatic, obsequious, and paranoid individual. The constant danger of pillaging – coupled with his own love of his vast wealth – has made him a cautious, cringing man…but who is still willing to face torture and death.
As his daughter says, money is both their strength and their weakness.
The Religion of Man
The 12th century established church does not have its best foot forward in Scott’s work. There’s the Abbot (who should be celibate, poor, and sober) who dresses in furs and jewels, plays with a maid when he can, and parties with the best of his congregants…and the Knight Templar (a Crusader monk swore to piety and defense of Jerusalem) who actually worships himself, scorns the self-righteousness of his superior, and tries to take advantage of a defenseless Jewish girl.
Even the head of the Templar order is portrayed as self-important, self-righteous, stick-up-his-butt, superstitious prig – who thinks that condemning a Jewish girl as a witch is more reasonable than disciplining his own Knight for abducting her for ignoble purposes.
All of which goes to show that “these people honor Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me” (Is. 29:13). I could draw a snarky parallel to the 1950s, when people had their external lives together, but their hearts were like “the inside of men’s tombs”…but maybe not right now.
Ideas Have Consequences
And it’s important to study ideas. It’s helpful when that study is entertaining.
There’s much more to chivalry than can be portrayed in a 90-minute movie. Or even in a 387-page book.
If you’re ready to confront some of these ideas…if you think of the “Middle Ages” as a uniform time block, and want to change that…if the generic, medieval-ish fantasy worlds have left you dry, and you just want to see some honest-to-goodness jousting matches for a change…try Ivanhoe.
I recommend an edition that has footnotes, so you can get even more background of some of the weird words. Some of the spelling might be wonky, too, so have fun with that 😊!
Ivanhoe is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble (hard copy or ebook), Kobo (lots of audiobook versions also), Librivox (audiobook—public domain in the USA), and the Book Depository (free worldwide shipping).
Cover image is from Amazon, and features the edition I read.
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