[52 Books] ‘Ivanhoe’ by Sir Walter Scott

So it probably wasn’t the best idea for me to start my “Let’s read a bunch of books in quick succession” project with a historical romance from the 1800s, but here we are. I’ve still got faith in my ability to burn through 52 book in this calendar year, but things have lagged due to a big writing deadline on my part (since crushed) and the vagaries of working through this one. That’s not to say Ivanhoe is a challenging read. I thought it was pretty breezy, all told. But working through a book so far removed from my own time and experience takes a little bit of close attention to really get something out of it as opposed to pure fictional entertainment. And this book certainly takes some work to get past problems at its core.

To start, I don’t know if there’s any way to discuss Ivanhoe honestly without first pointing out its virulent anti-Semitism. In fact, this is the most anti-Semetic book I’ve ever read. And while I don’t feel qualified to place it on any kind of scale as these things go (I never had a “Let’s read about the Nazis” phase, for instance), I think it’s important to note this up front in two ways.

For one, I’ve no doubt that there are many admirers of this work who would jump to defend its portrayal of Jewish Brits. Scott himself seemed to think he was defending that historically oppressed population with this work, and in a broad sense the novel’s conclusion argues for a more inclusive British society especially where the Children of Israel were concerned. But don’t let anyone tell you that this take lets Scott or the novel off the hook. Throughout the novel’s narrative, it’s primary Jewish figure is a moneylender who is constantly, even physically wracked with anguish any time he’s asked to give up the most minor of shekels. Even when the life and safety of his own daughter becomes the major plot driver of the book’s back half, there is no mention of Isaac of York that doesn’t twist itself around the idea of his addiction to money, constantly laying the greed at the feet of his people’s “blood.” The only deviation from this path comes late in the game when Isaac’s daughter Rebecca offers an impassioned plea on behalf of all the Jewish people that more explains their inherent greed and conniving away as the inevitable sum of their treatment than rejects it as a bigoted fantasy. In essence, Scott’s argument to the majority of British citizens is, “Yes, the Jews are greedy, inhuman monsters…but it’s not really their fault. So please give them a break.”

The second reason to articulate this despicable point of view right away is to be honest with any readers who may find this review through the web about the merits of reading Ivanhoe today (or ever, really). Because I can’t lie: there are many pleasurable aspects to reading this book. Its general narrative is kind of uselessly but amusingly obtuse. Its action scenes are frequently tense and crisply paced. And its romantic view of the Saxon/Norman conflict is fascinating history (more so for what it says about the history of the 1800s when it was written than of the 1100s where its set – the latter of which is wildly inaccurate by any measure). I mean, there are frequently fun passages in the book, but the repeated treatment of the Jewish people in Scott’s hands overwhelms all other aspects of its narrative. Again, there are defenders out there who would tell you that you have to put the book in a historical context and set aside its bigoted elements as “a product of their time.” Bullshit. This book is not one that contains some anti-Semetic ideas. It’s an anti-Semetic text at its core. And the upsetting nature of subjecting yourself to that narrative can’t be set aside. The best you can say of Ivanhoe is that it’s an interesting novel to read, but it will never be an enjoyable one.

But I want to focus on those enjoyable aspects as best I’m able because they’re what piqued my interest to begin with. And having worked my way through the novel, I can say that what best recommends it to a modern reader are the ways which its particulars have influenced two stories still vital in popular culture. As I expected, understanding the modern shape of the Robin Hood legend becomes much easier after reading this book. But I was shocked at how deeply Ivanhoe also stylistically and practically inspires major aspects of George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice & Fire novels.

In the history of the archer of Sherwood, the book looms large for good reason. It’s debatable whether Ivanhoe was the first major work to place Robin Hood’s career during the reign of King Richard the Lionheart, but it definitely solidified that time period as the preferred milieu for the Merry Men. And there are a few other tropes that the novel either solidifies or creates whole cloth that have been repeated ad nauseum in Robin Hood books, plays and films ever since. This is the novel that created the “Robin wins the archery contest by splitting his competitor’s arrow,” for instance. It also crystalizes the famed scene where King Richard reveals his true identity to Robin and company in their deep woods hideout after being taken prisoner anonymously (though similar scenes where a King of England reveal themselves to the outlaw date back much further in the pre-literary Robin Hood ballads – ballads which were first set to print by Scott’s contemporary and friend Joseph Ritson before this novel was written).

However, the real manner in which Ivanhoe influenced popular versions of the Robin Hood story stretch beyond this, and 90% of the reason I read the book was to figure out exactly the extent of that influence after coming up short of a satisfactory explanation online. What I discovered is this novel irreversibly grafted a number of ideological traits onto Robin Hood that the character simply wasn’t built to bear. Ironically, the book itself works in its own narrative to avoid some of those pitfalls. But ultimately, the influence took the legend on a different course by tying together Robin and King Richard in ways intended and accidental.

Like I said above, explicitly the novel places Robin as a character and all the trappings that go with it in the reign of Richard – not just in general but specifically in the brief period near the end of the Third Crusade where Richard’s brother Prince John sat on the throne. Anyone passingly familiar with the Robin Hood movies know what this leads to. Wicked Prince John is played as equal parts cunning and cowardly as he works to overthrow his brother via proxy. Richard’s return leads not only to a massive battle involving Robin’s Merry Men but also wraps up the narrative nicely with a marriage at the very end and the supposed return of order enabled by the arrival of the “true King.”

Least of all the problems with this approach is that these narrative beats are completely illogical. For one, anyone with a cursory knowledge of English history will know that despite Richard’s arrival back home, he eventually did die and was replaced by his brother John on the throne, who proceeded to reign in England much longer than the Lionheart ever did. In the even more romanticized or adventurous Robin Hood stories we’re familiar with, this inevitable undercutting of the happy ending is ignored wholesale. Scott’s novel avoids these traps by focusing its political struggles less on the “Richard Vs. John” dynamic (which gets dropped about halfway through with the unsatisfying if ultimately honest explanation that Richard would always forgive his blood for the treason that would earn other Lords a noose) and more on the “Saxon Vs. Norman” struggle.

One of the things that struck me most while reading Ivanhoe is the fact that this conflict between the pseudo-indigenous people of England and their French conquerers is essentially the main character. Because there really is no one main character in the book. The title “hero” – Wilfred of Ivanhoe – is a disinherited Saxon who barely appears on the page. He’s never the point of view character, and he spends the majority of the story either lurking in disguise (a running theme in the book that stretches all suspension of disbelief in a way I can only assume was accepted as part of the Romantic History genre the same way we ignore Clark Kent’s glasses) or being bedridden due to wounds he receives about a third of the way through the novel. No one character truly replaces Ivanhoe as our lead. His father Cedric is the most passionate defender of the Saxon cause, though is often played as a man out of touch with political reality despite his pride. Cedric’s preferred Saxon usurper Athelstane fares little better. The rest of the Saxon-related characters we actually follow as full participants are all tertiary characters like servants or the aforementioned Jewish caricatures. And on the Norman side, Prince John disappears as his defeat becomes certain, his supporting Lords burn out in quick succession, and Richard himself spends the majority of the novel similarly “disguised” as a wandering knight (which any reader figures out easily 100 pages before it is officially revealed). The closest character that we can say both has a major impact on the plot and relatively solid number of pages is the villain – Templar knight Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert – whose story reaches a surprising if ignoble end.

What this leaves us with is a strange ensemble novel where the battle over England’s shattered soul is won practically because it needs to be. Scott makes the point frequently that eventually the Saxon and Norman languages merge over time to the modern English we speak, and so by the novel’s end, the two sides must make peace for this to happen. That peace falls mostly in the reconciliation of Richard and Cedric – the latter of whom begrudgingly acknowledges that at least his warrior King has some Saxon blood but mostly gives up the cause because he knows making Athelstane a true Saxon monarch is a lost cause. In that sense, Ivanhoe gives a more logical ending than any other Robin Hood story in that it acknowledges a workable resolution for the war between the “dastardly” Normans and the “honorable” Saxons, but it’s hardly an ending for the ages.

But its the real-world political implications of this unsatisfying conflict that fascinate me and truly have a long-term impact on Robin Hood as a character. If you can’t tell by the shreds of plot mentioned above, Robin is neither necessarily a main player in Ivanhoe (though he is featured much more than most write-ups of the book would have you believe) nor does he occupy his now traditional role of rebel Saxon noble. Here, Robin Hood is a yeoman – the working class forester identity that defined the people’s hero for hundreds of years before this book came along. When Ritson set the Hood ballads down as a book, he too played up this angle, creating the “robs from the rich and gives to the poor” ethos in the process. In short, Ritson’s Robin Hood is a leftist hero, a surprising anti-monarchist reflecting the views of the post-French Revolution intellectuals that these writers were doubtlessly a part of. Where Ivanhoe screws things up is that it takes this revolutionary Leftist people’s hero and immediately sees him bend a knee to Richard because…reasons.

In almost all subsequent versions of the Robin Hood story, authors have essentially merged Scott’s version of the outlaw and Wilfred of Ivanhoe into one persona. Modern literary Robin Hoods are frequently returning crusaders like Ivanhoe, which naturally allies them with the so-called military genius that was the Lionheart. But even when that angle is dropped, Robin has been forevermore cast as a deposed Saxon noble rather than a yeoman archer. This image of the hero may not have been Scott’s intent, but his work ultimately redefined Robin Hood as totally contradictory character – ever rebelling against Norman rule but always bending a knee to the “true” Norman King in the end.

Rather than sink all subsequent versions of the story, this split personality has actually opened up Robin Hood to a variety of interpretations over the years. In the immediate wake of Ivanhoe, some English author’s used the fight against Prince John as a coded attack on the corruptibility of the monarchy in general – always keeping the absent but “honorable” Richard as a smokescreen from accusations of disrespecting the crown. Others leaned heavily on Robin’s final commitment to Richard as proof of the need for young readers to be “Good English Boys” and follow the example the conservative class structure set out before them. As the hero moved into the medium of film, we see a similar tracks of interpretation from the aggressively apolitical Errol Flynn adventure classic through to the anti-Thatcher British TV series “Robin of Sherwood” and its oddly Gulf War-influenced Hollywood successor starring Kevin Costner.

It’s an odd legacy for Ivanhoe to have – simultaneously shattering any chance at creative unity for Robin Hood and codifying its particulars for the better part of a century – especially considering the fact that Scott more meant to capitalize on the popularity of the outlaw in the novel than revive it. But intent and interpretation often make strange bedfellows.

But while the legend of the English outlaw was what led me to Ivanhoe, the most revelatory part of my reading was the huge influence the novel’s had on the A Song of Ice & Fire series I’ve spend the past six years devouring. Like its influence on Robin Hood and the Richard I milieu, it’s hard to say with 100% certainty that Ivanhoe is the very first popular novel to play up the ideas of Middle Ages chivalry in a romantic/action adventure context. But it’s certainly the book that made rose-colored stories of knights, jousting and all the rest “a thing.” In fact, despite the fact that it contains no fantastical elements, I think you’d be hard pressed to find a novel as influential on what we know call the high fantasy genre until Tolkien came along.

But the impact Ivanhoe has on George RR Martin’s still in-progress masterpiece goes far beyond its general place in the canon of medieval literature. Martin himself has given cursory public acknowledgement to the influence of the book – or more so given it general praise as a volume worth looking into if you love his series. But he’s hardly pointed to it in the glowing terms he’s bestowed on more modern medieval novels like Maurice Druon’s The Accursed Kings. And honestly, I can’t say with any certainty that Ivanhoe directly inspired elements of his book since it’s equally likely that the novel so firmly established tropes that have become section nature to the genres he’s deconstructing. But still. It’s hard to read Scott’s novel today without feeling it reach into the future and set down two incredibly concrete aspect of Martin’s epic.

For one, the earlier book is built around three massive set pieces whose particulars don’t just echo how Martin plays the action of his novel, but they establish the standard rules of medieval action that permeate nearly every aspect of ASOIAF. Early in Ivanhoe, the major setting for both fighting and revelations of the main characters true identities is a tournament of skill held by Prince John deep in the Saxon regions of England. The tournament stretches over multiple days with its primary competitions being in archery (the aforementioned scene where Robin splits the arrow), jousting and a “melee” battle. Anyone who’s read even the first of Martin’s novels will recognize the setup. The idea of a tournament being called by a would-be king is a repeated theme of ASOIAF, and the champion in either jousting or (more frequently) the melee always play a major role in disrupting the accepted monarchical or noble order. But beyond the general setup (which I’m sure is employed in a thousand novels about courtly love), reading Ivanhoe’s tournament chapters evoked Martin’s work in a number of ways more specific and subtle. For one, the language used in describing the action and placing the characters physically in the setting lined up to a degree that I can’t recall seeing two books divided by so much time share ever (example: tournaments in both fictional settings are capped off by the winner naming a, usually controversial, “Queen of Love & Beauty”). And more importantly, the pace and rhythm of how the action plays out – establishing various defenders at a slow clip before ramping up the action as primary rivals come to the fore – were virtually identical. More than anything, reading these pages reminded me of how gobsmacked I was by the plotting of Martin’s work in “The Hedge Knight” novella that centers exclusively on a multi-day tournament.

Later sections of the book synch up with Martin’s language and style in similar fashion. In Ivanhoe’ middle third, the action shifts to the siege of a castle where politically important lords (the Saxons Cedric and Athelstane) are held hostage by powerful allies of the king whose grip on power is slowly slipping from them. Again, if you’ve read Martin’s work, the general setup is one repeated over and over both in the main action of the series and in innumerable bits of Westeros history. The resulting siege-breaking battle in Ivanhoe doesn’t synch quite as strongly with Martin as the tournament material did (mostly because Martin is enamored with the idea of months-long sieges and the long-form plotting such stalemates provide while Scott completes the battle in two days), but the two works still share an absurd number of similarities in how they define, build and release the tension of medieval warfare. And this set of circumstances echoes one last time in the finale of Ivanhoe where a player falsely accused of a crime is spared execution when they demand trial by combat. I almost did a spit-take when I read that portion, but much more so than a third ASOIAF trope rearing its head in the book, the thing that sticks with me after reading the whole story (which I’ll spare the details on because the finale has to be experienced to be believed) is how closely the use of the device is in each work. Ivanhoe doesn’t simply call in trial by combat as a method of saving an innocent. It does so to complicate the emotional and social status of those called to battle who all inwardly acknowledge the innocence of the accused even as they press the trial forward for political gain – a Martin hallmark.

Yet the second major connection between Scott and Martin is less flashy and somehow deeper than these three pieces of plot mechanics. As I said above, Ivanhoe’s narrative is decentralized – relying on no individual lead character and instead focusing its conflict on an overarching battle between two historical bloodlines with multiple fractures of motivations within each camp. That description almost exactly describes what has made Martin’s saga such an addictive best-seller, with the central point of divergence being how Martin uses the ensemble setup to his advantage. Because in the end, Ivanhoe is an incredibly traditional story despite its somewhat nontraditional point of view. By the book’s finish, the authority of the true king is reinstated, the returned hero is forgiven by his father and married to his lady in waiting, and the war between the ethnicities is solved in a largely bloodless, peaceful manner. In short, the good guys win and order is restored. Martin leans hard on the style of Ivanhoe but pulls hard away from its conclusions in killing off characters, shattering romantic ties and generally letting order spiral out of control. I’m sure I’m not breaking any news here by saying this.

But it’s in realizing those shared qualities that really brought me to a stronger appreciate of Martin’s work, if not Scott’s. Because in the older novel, the frayed nature of the narrative hardly does anything except confuse the reader. Like I said, if Ivanhoe holds true to any idea it’s that main characters can “disguise” themselves by changing their shirt – ultimately confusing their foes who have no idea what’s happening and the book’s reader who has every idea and just can’t believe this shit was even printed. My strong suspicion is that these lapses in logic are the result of the serialized nature of 19th century novels (plenty of dropped balls in Great Expectations if you’re looking for them). But whatever the cause, Scott shows that despite his book’s many small charms, he’s simply lacking in skill with prose enough to elevate this book to a real literary triumph outside its reputation as a popular entertainment.

Martin on the other hand has his hand firmly on the till all the way through. The go-to knock on ASOIAF is that for all its pulpy pleasures, the series lacks prose style that elevates its ideas outside mechanical plotting. This is the same complaint that’s been levied against popular masters from Stephen King on down, and occasionally it’s an argument that holds merit. But I’m done hearing about how the lean, focused nature of Martin’s prose is somehow a hinderance to its greatness. Again, looking at his first Dunk and Egg novella “The Hedge Knight,” the author spends pages describing every banner, ever bit of mud, every subtle detail surrounding the tournament not just because of some kind of medieval action fetish but because those details eventually combine to build character bonds and an ultimately tragic finish. Sure, the prose doesn’t skip along with a flowing poetical flourish, but it’s not fucking supposed to. Martin uses prose as a weapon. It’s blunt not to deliver a cheap thrill but to land an emotional punch. It’s not a question of a writer doing something the right or wrong way. It’s one of the writer doing something their way. And reading a book like Ivanhoe where so many of the same plot and style features are used in a more meandering, uneconomical manner shows just how strong a writer Martin is on a sentence-to-sentence level. No wonder Winds of Winter isn’t done yet.

Anyway, that’s Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe – fascinating but irrevocably flawed. I’ll say that in my trips through Google to investigate some of the novel’s historic references, I came upon more Spark Notes-esque features on the book than I’d have imagined. With the novel’s rep, I’m sure that it was once a go-to book for mid-century high school AP classes and the like. But in the here and now, if a teacher is assigning this text for students anywhere under the 400 level at university, they deserve to be slapped in the face hard.