Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, an old story of modern rivalry

Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832)

Historical Background

George III of Hannover reigned over Britain from 1760 to 1820. From 1811 his son George exercised the function of Prince Regent because of the king’s permanent insanity.

It was a period of great changes:

Inner policy:
England underwent a radical change that transformed its economy from basically agricoltural to mainly industrial. This happened thanks to the technical inventions in the mining and textile fields and to the increased demand of goods due to the growth of the population.

Foreign policy:
In 1775 George Washington started a fight against the British troops in the American colonies. In 1776, July 4 the Declaration of Independence was issued in Philadelphia. In 1783 the British had to sign the treaty of Versailles that recognised the independence of the thirteen ex British colonies. After 1793, with the end of the French revolution, the British army was engaged in the fight against Napoleon Bonaparte till 1815, when the French emperor was defeated in the battle of Waterloo. In the course of the century England consolidated her power in India.

Literary Background

The XVIII century was dominated by the figure of Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784). He wrote dramas, novels, issues, but, in particular, he became well known for his critical works and his Dictionary of the English Language (1775).

O. Goldsmith (1730-1774) and R. B. Sheridan (1751-1816) were famous for their prose writings and dramas.

After The mouthpieces of the rise of the novel, D. Defoe, S. Richardson and H. Fielding, other writers approached the genre:
T. Smollet (1721-1771) wrote about life on ships and social scenes in England and Scotland (Roderick Random; Humphrey Clinker)
F. Burney (1752-1840) wrote humoristic and realistic novels such as Eveline; Cecilia and Camilla.
L. Sterne (1715-1768) evoked the rules of language with a flux of thoughts in his novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy.
H. Walpole (1717-1791), A. Radcliff (1764-1833) and M. G. Lewis (1775-1818) started writing stories full of mystery and imagination, the so called Gothic novels based on supernatural events and emotional characters.
Sir W. Scott (1771-1832) wrote novels based on Scottish folklore and tradition (Waverly; Rob Roy) and on England’s past (Ivanhoe)

Poets shifted their focus from reason to emotions and imaginations; they dealt with individual and nature, basing their form on more popular patterns and their language on common words for a larger public.
The Graveyard School: E. Young, W. Collins and T. Gray’s poems are about melancholy thoughts and desolate landscapes, ruins and tombs.
The Antiquary School: J. Macpherson‘s The Works of Ossian (1765), T. Percy and T. Chatterton shared the same enthusiasm for Celtic studies and Norse literature and popularised poems and legends of barbaric ages.
The Pre-Romantics: R. Burns‘s lyrics speak of genuine feeling and the beauty of nature. W. Blake‘s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience stress the contrast between the innate goodness of man and the corruption of society, with a simple and imaginative language with new symbols and energetic creative power.
The Romantic Poets: W. Wordsworth (1770-1850) and S. T. Coleridge (1772-1834) published the Lyrical Ballads (1798), the manifesto of Romanticism that stressed the importance of imagination and of nature and described the poet as a prophet.
Second generation of Romantic poets: P. B. Shelley, Lord Byron, and J. Keats start writing their poems in which they declare their love for remote stories, events and forms of art, their individualism and stress the role of the poet as a prophet.

Sir Walter Scott

Life and works

1771:  W. Scott was born in Edinburgh; his parents were descendants from the chiefs of famous border-clans.
1779-83:  He attends the High School in Edinburgh
1783-86:  Walter studies Humanity, Greek and Latin at the University of Edinburgh where he receives the first influences of Romantic Literature in German (Goethe and Götz Von Berlichingen) and decides to write a picture of the ancient borders. 

1786:  The author makes apprenticeship by his father, an attorney.
1789-92:  Walter returns to the University and this time he attends courses on Scots Law and Moral Philosophy
1797-99:  He marries Charlotte Charpentier, daughter of French exiled and becomes Sheriff of Selkirkshire.
1802:  The author starts The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border.
1805-10:  W. Scott plans a financial association with J. Ballantyne, printer and then publisher, a co-operation that influences his career. To this period belong his narrative poems: The Lay of Last Minstrel; Marmion; The Lady of the Lake. After this literary production he passes on to prose. 
1812:  The writer buys land near Melrose and builds the house of Abbottsford, living like a Scottish feudal laird (lord), according to his ambitions.
:  Scott starts his literary production of novel based on the Scottish history. (The Waverly Cycle; Guy
Mannering; The Antiquary; Old Mortality; Rob Roy; The Bride of Lammermore; Ivanhoe, The Legend of Montrose
). He writes these works anonymously till 1827 because he considers writing novels beneath his dignity.
1820:  He becomes famous with Ivanhoe about English History and is made baronet by George IV.
In the same year the author writes The Monastery.
1821-25: W. Scott continues writing novels: Kenilworth; The Fortunes of Nigel; Quentin Durward; Redgauntlet; The Talisman. His association bankrupted and had to work for his creditors, an effort that influenced his health. He writes Woodstock and The Fair Maid of Perth (published in 1828) 
1830:  His health rapidly declines and he sails to Italy, but he has the first paralytic stroke. He continues writing Count Robert of Paris and Castle Dangerous.
1832:  Walter Scott becomes completely invalid and then dies in Abbottsford.

Ivanhoe (1819) 

Set in 12th century England, Ivanhoe is about Wilfred of Ivanhoe who comes back to England after fighting in the third Crusade. He returns to his father’s home disguised as a pilgrim because Cedric, his father, banned him. As a Saxon, Cedric wanted to restore a Saxon monarchy and promised his ward, Rowena, to Athelstane, the right heir of the English throne. Besides, he did not approve his son’s fidelity to Richard I, a Norman King.
Ivanhoe takes part in a tournament at Ashby-de-la-Zouchhe: he defeats all the Norman champions, but, the following day, the number of his adversaries overcomes him. Only the arrival of a Black Knight saves him. Ivanhoe is gravely wounded and Rebecca, the daughter of Isaac the Jew, cures him.
At the tournament there are also Cedric and his ward Rowena and one of Price John liutenants, De Bracy, falls in love with her. With the help of the Templar Bois-Gilbert he takes Cedric and his train as prisoners. With them there are also Rebecca, her father Isaac of York and a wounded, unidentified man (Ivanhoe). They are all taken to the castle of Torquilstone. Only two Cedric’s servants, Wamba and Gurth, escape and are soon joined by Robin Hood and his Companions and by the Black Knight who had already helped Ivanhoe during his combats.
Cedric escape from the castle thanks to Wamba’s help, and with Robin Hood and his band tries to attack the castle and to free all the others. Meanwhile, inside the castle, a Saxon old woman, Ulrica, once daughter of a powerful Saxon family, sets fires to Torquilstone. The attack is successfull. Only Bois-Guilbert escapes with Rebecca and Athelstane dies trying to stop him. So, Cedric leaves together with Rowena and Athelstane funeral train whereas Isaac hurries to Templestowe to rescue his daughter.
Meanwhile, Rebecca has avoided the seduction of Bois-Guilbert preferring being imprisoned as a witch. The only way to escape being burned is if a champion challenges a Templar to prove her innocence. She asks Ivanhoe for help. The Saxon runs to defend her. His opponent is Bois-Guilbert himself.
Ivanhoe seems to be too weak to win the contest, nevertheless Bois-Guilbert drops from his horse untouched on the first pass and dies for the violence of his passion for Rebecca.
The Black Knight reappears to censure the Templars: he is Richard I himself. Atthelstane, miracolously recovered from death surrenders his title to the English throne, swears to support King Richard and gives up his claim to Rowena. At the end, Rowena marries Ivanhoe with Cedric’s blessing; Isaac and Rebecca go to Spain, a more tolerant country where she will go on curing sick and helpless people.

Most of the characters in the novel are not described according to their personality, they represent different races (the Saxons, the Normans, and the Jews), Their historical importance and their different social rank underlines the social function during the period considered by the author.

Main characters

Wilfred of Ivanhoe (the Palmer, the Disinherited Knight, Desdiciado)
He is a brave knight in the troops of Richard I, during the third crusade, a dedicated son and a faithful lover. Ivanhoe represents the knight without stain: blond, with blue eyes, handsome and well built. His father disowed him because he was in love with Rowena, promised to Athelstane, and because he chose to follow the Norman King to the Holy Land.
His presence and his identity are a mystery at the beginning of the novel as he appears under the clothes of a palmer. His name is nevertheless always important to make clear and exemplify the conflict existing in England during that period between the Saxon, their customs and traditions and the Normans, the invaders with their religious matrix.

She is a Saxon, descendant of Alfred the Great, King of England in the ninth century. Beautiful, blond and tall, like Ivanhoe, she is Cedric’s ward, promised to Athelstane of Coninsburgh, but in love with Ivanhoe. Her personality is not described, but she is the focus around which and most of the event of the story takes place. Ivanhoe faces many dangers in her name, the Templar is fired with passion at her sight, Prince John thinks she deserves a Norman husband, De Bracy wants to get her so much that provokes the siege of Torquilstone.
But Rowena is too perfect and virtuous to be real. Her function is to make possible the comparison among the various forces that act in that historical moment.

Cedric of Rotherwood, the Saxon.
A Saxon leader, owner of Rotherwood, but not of noble origins, Cedric feels the protector of the Saxon culture and tradition.
Proud, irritable, generous and stubborn, he lives alone, without a female companion or a son as he diowed Ivanhoe. He is Rowena’s guardian and has put all his hopes for a Saxon future into the hands of an unworthy man, Athelstane, the Unready.
The only comfort for his solitude is his two servants, a slave and a fool that are both faithful, and, even if his behaviour is sometimes injust, they try to set their master right.
At the end he reconciles with Ivanhoe and gains the respect for his disappearing race and culture.

Athelstane of Coningbourgh (the Unready)
Saxon descendant of Edward the Confessor. Cedric considers him the only hope of resurrection for the Saxon race, but his hopes are badly reposed: Athelstane is incopetent, weak, stubborn, lazy, vindictive and completely indifferent to the future of the Saxon culture.
His appetite and obtusity offer hints of comical effects and irony in the novel.
Athelstane’s function is to personify the uselessness of the Saxon cause as he represents the decay of the old values and traditions.

Urfried (Ulrica Torquil)
Daughter of Wolfagang Torquil, great Saxon Lord.
She was thought to be dead together with her family during a fight against the Norman invaders led by Front-De-Beuf’s father: Ulrica survived the fire of her castle and became the mistress first of the Saxon and then of his son. Now old, her brain has gone crazy of the humiliation undertaken and she gets revenge during the siege of Torquilstone and perishes in the flames of the castle singing a Saxon chant.
Ulrica represents the vices and the faults of the Saxon culture.

Robert Locksley (The Yeoman, the Captain, Robin Hood, Diccon Bend-the-Bow)
He represents the hero of English folklore without stains and fears: brave good at handling any weapon, self-sufficient and superb, Robin is the king of the forest that he dominates with his wisdom. He embodies the spirit of the age with his noble heart and his skill. The society he has created is a sort of utopia: they have laws and rules and Robin is the ideal leader with his sense of justice and balance. The Black Knight, Richard I in disguise, admires this kingdom that and, of course, represents a contraposition with the English situation of the period.

Friar Tuck of Copmanhurt
He is a Saxon hermit, the spiritual father of Robin Hood and his merry men.
Friar Tuck uses more the bradsword and the staff than the prayer-book because, as he says, religion as it is usually concived, can be attended only where and when there is freedom.
He contrasts Prior Aymer that represents the corrupted clergy.

Gurth is a swineherd at Cedric’s orders, Scott insists in describing the collar: it means that he is a slave, but despite his rank, he is a true Saxon and shows a great national pride.
Faithful, loyal, with an inborn common sense, Gurth is on his master’s side even when Cedric treats him unjustly. Like his dog, Fang, Gurth returns good for evil and risks his life for the Saxon causes. He is also the only one that recognises Ivanhoe when he returns in disguise.
This loyalty is at the end rewarded: Gurth gets the freedom he dreamed of since the beginning of the novel.

Slave and jest to Cedric, he shares with Gurth the same fidelity to the master and the Saxon cause. Unlike his companion, he prefers a life protected by a good and wise master than a life free, but with responsabilities. His mind is acute and without the limits of emotions and troubles of common men. So, his words are usually sincere and wise. Moreover, Wamba shows am uncommon bravery: when he travels together with Richard I their social difference is lost because of their courage.

Richard I (The Lion-hearted; Cour-de-Lion; Richard of Ajou; the Plntagenet; the Black Knight; the Black Sheggard; Le Noir Faineant; Knight of the Fetherlock and Shackelebolt)
Richard I is a knight-errant, an adventurer that prefers fighting than ruling over Britain. His heroics are legendary and he has a dream, to forge an English nation without any differences between Saxons and Normans. But these ideals clash against the responsabilities a king has in a troubled nation.

Prince John
John is Richard’s younger brother and is complete opposite as to personality.
He has no knightly ideals, but unscrupolous political plans and plots occupy his mind. Refined and elegant in manners, Prince John has none of the qualities a king needs, but he will ascend the English throne six years after the events told by the novel.

Waldemar Fitzurse
He is the right hand man of Prince John, a genial man, able at conspiracy and wise as a councillor.
Prince John abuses on him and often insults him, but he accepts everything hoping in a future reward.
Diplomatic and clever, he only fails on the battlefield as a soldier.

Reginald Front-De-Boeuf
He is a legendary Norman baron whose name means terror and cruelty. Ulrica explains the atrocious deeds he made in the past. She ranks up his memory of his father’s murder together with the other ferocious crime he committed before letting him die in the fire of the castle he once usurped. Front-De-Beouf represents the typical Gothic monster, unable of good actions, a giant whose vices are as enormous as body.

Lucas Beaumanoir
He is the Grand Master of the Order of Knights Templar. Unlike his brothers, Lucas tries to fight against the worldly behaviour of his companions but in so doing turns faith into fanaticism. The aim of his life becomes to get rid of what can tempt and and obstacle religion.

Maurice de Bracy
A Norman, brave noble man, leader of a free Company, a group of soldier-for-hire. De Bracy follows King Richard’s ideas and obeys to his orders, indifferent to Prince John’s political designs.
His love for Rowena obscures his mind: he is an adolescent courtly lover that sacrifices the political cause to the object of his love.

Albert Malvoisin
He is the preceptor of Templestone and brother of Philip, a powerful Norman baron.
Malvoisin tries to support Brian-de-Bois-Gilbert to become Grand Master of the order. The most evident characteristic of his personality is that he is a liar till the end and deserves the traitor’s death Richard I condemns him to.

Brian De Bois-Gilbert, the Templar
He is a Knight Templar, ex- crusader. His aim is to become Grand Master of his Order.
De Bois-Gilbert is not a religious man even if he took the vows: he became a priest because of a disappointed love for a woman. His still passionate nature drives him to his death during the trial-by-combat because he falls in love with Rebecca at her very first sight.
De Bois-Gilbert is a villain, but Scott redeems him because of the strenght of his passion.

Prior Aymer of Jorvaulux
He is a Norman Cistercian monk, brother of an important Norman baron; he chose the clergy because it was the only chance for a nobleman without fortune that did not have the right of primogeniture. The prior, in fact, shows a great attachment to worldly things like elegant clothes and women, but he hates violence. He uses the religious order to get personal advantages and represents the degeneration of the Catholic clergy that brought to the Reformation.

Isaac of York
He is a Jewish merchant that lends money. Isaac’s figure is described according to the stereotyped idea of the Jew who is only worried about his fortunes. Scott underlines the Jew’s sufferings for the persecutions of the period, but, at the same time, uses Isaac as a caricature to give moments of comic relief and irony to the story.

She is Isaac’s daughter. Fascinating, sensual and voluptuous, she joins the Oriental charm with a Christian purity and nobility. Rebecca represents the ideal woman: Ivanhoe dreams of her and the Templar’s passion leads him to death. Surely, both her beauty and her moral behaviour make of her one of the most appealing characters of the novel.

Walter Scott loved to speak about past and present events. He depicted his stories with mystery (following the Gothic tradition) but without forgetting ironical and comic effects. His descriptions of nature reveal the love Scott felt for his mother country avoiding the intimist sensibility of the Romantic poets for a more realistic dimension.
In Ivanhoe, the main plot is based on a journey that leads the protagonist to meet new situations and different social or ethnic realities. At the end the hero comes back to his own dimension with a deeper consciousness of himself and of his society and a greater experience of life.
With the Romantic generations he shared a great love for the past and for the language, but his researches aimed at establishing a contact with his countrymen showing the similarities between past and present life.
For this reason he enriches the dialogues with dialects and different linguistic registers that vary according to the rank and the job of the characters.
Scott used the third person narrator technique in order to give vitality to the past and to make the reader live it in accordance with the spirit of the age, narrated by a faithful reporter.
Scott mixed real events and imaginary heroes, ancient traditions and culture revisited under the veil of romance.
He influenced the later writers not only in England: Fennimore Cooper, Dickens, Thackerey, Stevenson, Hugo, Dumas, Gogol, Tolstoj and Puskin followed his example and his patriotism had a political impact during the 19th century. His ability in dealing with history seen through the eyes and deeds of common people inspired Alessandro Manzoni and represent his main achievement enriching of colour the history of past and present times.

The most fascinating and realistic characters of the novel, such as Rebecca and her father Isaac, are taken from real life and from Scott’s conversations with other authors.
As to literature, the writer exploited his readings with ability.
Fielding’s irony, Smollet’s love for Scotttish traditions and language, Mrs.Radcliff’s natural descriptions and misterious Gothic backgrounds are among the contemporary authors that offered Scott examples worth following.
But the love for the past can be detected also in the influence that Shakespeare, Homer, Chaucer and Virgilio had on him. Wamba, Gurth and Fang’s fidelity reminds Eumaeus in the Odyssey; Chauser’s portraits of the worldly clergy suggested figures like the Prior Aymer; King Lear’s blindness seems Cedric’s inability to see the truth; Ivanhoe is rescued by Rebecca like Aenea in the Iliad and the siege of Torquilstone is similar to the siege of Troy. Also the legend of Robin Hood (1160) is to be considered a source of inspiration thanks to the ballads about Robert Locksley that date back to the 12th century.
History is, of course, the main source for Scott’s novels. The action takes place in 1194; Richard I comes back to England from the Crusades. The period is after the Norman Conquest: William the Conqueror landed in England in 1066, (Battle of Hastings) and re-established a Norman way of life. But the Saxon did not accept his victory and after a century were still claiming to the English throne.
The period dealt with the by Scott is during the reign of Richard the Lionheart, a warrior king that went to fight in the holy Land leading the third Crusade. (1090-93).
Prince John was to rule in his stead and many Norman barons saw the opportunity to get more power supporting him: he was a weak successor to Richard I.
During his way back to England Richard was captured in Austria where he got the name of Lionhearted: he took out the heart of a lion sent to devour him.
Another important element is the Holy Orders formed by warrior-priests that fought in Palestine. In Ivanhoe it is described the degeneration of the order of the Knights Templar that bravely fought in the third Crusade, but that were also famous for their cruelty. The other order, antagonist to them, was the order of Knight Hospitallers or of St. John. The importance of these clergymen stresses the expanding political power of Christianity, a power that soon degenerated into corruption, At the time of Ivanhoe the reforming orders of the Benedictines and even the stricter Cistercians had already degraded (Prior Aymer). On the other side, the poor clergy is represented in the figure of Friar Tuck even if, probably, the begging friars did not properly exist in 1100.
The Jews were seen like Saracens and were persecuted also because they lent money and the Norman Barons found themselves indebted to their inferiors.

· Robin Hood or Robert Locksley: Man of noble extraction, he was chased by the Norman Barons and forced to live outside of law. At the age of eighty-seven, the Prioress of Kirkley nunnery, a relative of his, betrayed him and let him die.
· The longbow: It was used as a weapon not before 1343 at the battle of Creìcy (Scott’s mistake).