Monday, February 27, 2012


I know 2012 is a major Dickens anniversary - the bicentenary of his birth - and I fully intend to read or re-read at least one or two of his books this year, but somehow I managed to get waylaid by another great 19th century author, Sir Walter Scott.   I picked up Ivanhoe late last year at the library.  It was an edition with a considerable introduction to it, and that encouraged me to get on and read it.  However, when I hadn't got very far through it (the first chapter) before I went to the US for my son's wedding I found I could get the book for free on Kindle, so I did.  Even then I didn't get round to starting the book (again)  until I went to Australia the weekend before last.

Though the writing style isn't on a par with Dickens', and is hampered in this particular novel by being full of words that were in current usage in days long before Scott was writing, words used to give colour to the period in which Ivanhoe is set (the 12th century), I found the book very readable.   However, it seemed to lose its grip about two-thirds of the way through, and I found myself skimming a good deal, mainly because Scott seemed to think some of his characters should speak at length just because they were important, or because they were expressing something of importance.   And at about the same point in the book, many of the characters seemed to start talking as though they were all cut from the same cloth.   It's as if Scott had lost the drive that got the book off the ground in the first place.

Furthermore, Ivanhoe, the supposed hero of the story, spends increasing times off the page after being wounded in the great tournament that occurs early in the piece.  This section is wonderfully done, incidentally, as is the great battle that takes place between the besieged Normans (the baddies) and the Saxons, who consist mostly of Robin Hood's men.  Yup, Robin Hood, or Robin of Locksley as he's more often known in this book.

Scott's novel is a major reason why we now think of Robin Hood (and Friar Tuck and Alan-a-Dale) the way we do.  Robin Hood had been the stuff of legend for around four centuries, but Scott managed to bring the various ideas about him into a cohesive form.   Robin and his band of 'merry' men rob the rich - who utterly deserve it in this novel - to give to the poor.  The act of robbery is barely seen as illegal; indeed Richard overlooks the criminality of it.  But what Scott does that really pulls together the idea of Robin as a worthwhile character is to align him to the Richard the Lion Heart story, making him another 'hero' (alongside Richard and Ivanhoe himself).  It's generally regarded that the legend that arose about of Robin Hood was related to a person who lived two centuries after Richard. Now anyone who thinks of Robin Hood thinks of a man who's Richard's contemporary.  This view of Robin Hood has been endorsed by subsequent movies and television series about him, turning someone who actually lived into a kind of legend.  The splitting of the arrow at the archery contest is Scott's invention; yet it too has now become thoroughly connected to the Robin Hood story.

Apart from Prince John (who disappears at a vital point in the book) I found the baddies all a bit too early-Hollywood to be convincing; Scott never seems to get into their psyches somehow.  And the heroine of the piece, Rowena, remains distant as well.  It's left to Rebecca, the 'other' heroine, to come alive, which she does for the most part, although even she gets some pretty long-winded speeches that are worth skimming through.  Regrettably there's no way she and Ivanhoe can get together: Rebecca is a Jew, and as we're informed on umpteen occasions through the book, the Jews are utterly despised and a blot on the face of the earth.  Whether it's Scott being a 19th century writer, or Scott detailing the way people thought in the 12th century, this has to be the most anti-Semitic book I've ever read.  It knocks Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice well and truly into the corner.   Not only is Rebecca's father a conniving, greedy usurer, he equivocates constantly: forever telling people who want money off him that he has none, that he's the poorest man on earth and that having to spend a cent will bankrupt him - and then being willing to lend the money he does have (and he has plenty) at great interest.  The anti-Semitism is alleviated by the character of Rebecca, who is aware of the hatred the Jews of her time experience, but behaves in a much more compassionate way than most of the Christians around her.

And then there are the clergy:  almost to a man they're unpleasant, greedy and unscrupulous.  The first one we meet is described as a man whose Order is supposed to be all about poverty, chastity, charity and so on.  He's the direct opposite in every respect.  The famous Friar Tuck makes an appearance about half way through the book, and seems at first a sympathetic character.  However, Scott seems unable to make his mind up about him, and by the end of the book, we dislike him greatly.   But the top of all these corrupt clerics is the Grand Master of the Knights Templar who comes into the story late in the proceedings; he's the world's most legalistic and uncompassionate creature who has no scruples about sending poor Rebecca off to execution as soon as possible.   If he didn't ramble on so much, he'd actually bring the book back to life at a time it badly needs it.

Ivanhoe struggles to be the 'hero' of his own story: he appears in disguise early in the piece, having been ousted from his family by his Saxon father before the story began, and then remains disguised at the tournament at which he beats everybody in sight - until he's wounded and has to be rescued by the Black Knight (Richard the Lionheart, also in disguise).   He spends a good deal of the rest of the book in the recovery room, being rescued from death by Rebecca, and then - again - by the Black Knight.  Rebecca falls in love with him, but can't do anything about it, because, of course, she's a Jew.  Not that Ivanhoe seems very aware of her love for him!  And then, at the end of the book, when Ivanhoe, in spite of his wounds, decides to go and fight on Rebecca's behalf at the tourney in which he must defeat the only remaining baddie of the original three, he's knocked off his horse by his opponent's lance, and, like everyone else, is surprised to see his opponent also drop off his horse - not because he's been damaged by Ivanhoe, but because he's been struck down by the hand of God, as one character decides must be the case.  This deus ex machina is perhaps the worst moment in the book.  There's been a terrific build-up to the rescue of Rebecca, and it all falls flat within a couple of pages.  Though, if God hadn't stepped in, the Black Knight was literally just around the corner ready to rescue Ivanhoe yet again!

There's one other awful moment, that even the footnote attached to it says everyone finds incredible.  Ivanhoe's rival for Rowena's hand, Athelstane, is a food-loving dolt, though he can fight decently in a battle.  He's been killed in the big siege, and taken off by the local priests to await burial.  We next hear about him at his family home where he's being mourned by everyone under the sun.  In the middle of it all, he turns up, not dead after all.   Please, Sir Walter!   I know you loved this character (he actually brings much of the real humour to the book, and Scott plainly enjoys writing about him) but this is just too fantastical for words, and his revival adds nothing to the book.   All he does is renounce Rowena as a possible bride, leaving the way open for Ivanhoe (yet again, the latter does nothing to deserve this success!)

This long criticism might indicate that I didn't enjoy the book.  I did, up until about three-quarters of the way through, when if seemed to run out of steam.  I finished it because there were still sections that were worth reading, and anyway, I wanted to see how it all panned out.

Ivanhoe's popularity over two centuries shows that it's got a good deal to offer (it's been filmed and televised a good number of times) and of course it's hard to gauge now just how popular Scott was as a writer in his day - for me, at least.  I obviously need to read some of his other novels to see how Ivanhoe compares, and there's no doubt that Scott is a great storyteller when he's on a roll.  Like other 19th century writers he was capable of stuff that was written for the sake of it.

PS. I've just been reading the review Bosley Crowther wrote of the MGM production of Ivanhoe back in 1952.  It's interesting to read that the main female role in the movie is that of Rebecca, not Rowena.    And the final battle between Ivanhoe (Robert Taylor) and De Bois Guilbert (George Sanders) is played out in full, as "....a wild go with axes and maces that would put a couple of angry blacksmiths to shame," not dribbled away as Scott deals with it.   Note also that the Black Knight (Richard the Lion Heart) in the original, becomes here Ivanhoe himself, meaning that he does his own heroic work.  Hollywood knows a thing or two when it comes to telling a story.  You can see a trailer for the movie here. 

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