Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Review: Ivanhoe

By Walter Scott
Dodd, Mead, and Company 1943
500 pages
From the library


My first experience with the story of Ivanhoe was as a child when my parents got me a bunch of Illustrated Classics. I loved Ivanhoe and read it over and over again. As an adult, I was excited to experience the work in its entirety and see the difference between the sanitized children's version and the full novel.

I have to give the Illustrated Classics some respect here because they managed to fit all of the major plot points into that slim volume. Ivanhoe tells the tale of a young knight who is disinherited by his father because of his love for his father’s ward Rowena and his determination to follow King Richard, even if it means losing his fortune and taking part in the Crusades. Ivanhoe returns home to reclaim his title and his love, but his attempts are complicated by the scheming Prince John, a determined Templar, Robin Hood, and a beautiful Jewish healer.

For a book entitled Ivanhoe, we get surprisingly little time with our hero. This novel can truly be called an ensemble piece. We spend a lot of time with Ivanhoe’s father Cedric, some of his servants, and perhaps the most time with the villains of the piece. By doing this, Walter Scott gives a detailed picture of medieval life, that of the master and servant, the Christian and Jew; even if he himself admits that his details may not be 100 percent historically accurate.

And speaking of the Christians and Jews, you have to read this novel while remembering that this was a very long time ago. While Scott makes Isaac and his daughter Rebecca complex characters that are easy to relate to, most of the Christian characters are not so gracious. It can be difficult to stomach just how nasty some of them are just because of Isaac and Rebecca’s Jewish faith. I also have to admit that as a woman, I found Scott’s portrayal of them to generally fall flat. There are three women who appear in this novel. The two women who make up the love triangle with Ivanhoe leave something to be desired. While Rebecca does have some spunk and a little personality, we are informed that Rowena is simply spoiled and accustomed to having her way because of her beauty and position.

Walter Scott is big on the descriptions. As you read, you will know the most minute detail of everyone’s clothing, the architecture of every building, and the topography of every piece of land that the characters traverse. He also likes to throw in some history and analyze major battles, political rivalries, and oh, some random tidbits that you may find interesting (he certainly does).

But lengthy descriptions aside, this is a great story. It has knights and battles, tournaments and castles afire. And sometimes the book can be downright funny, especially when we are following the misadventures of various servants and yeomen. You can find the origins of so many of our notions about the medieval time period here. If you really want to take your time with a classic and get involved with many characters and plot lines, Ivanhoe is a great choice. 


  1. You read it! This book scares me as does anything set in the medieval period. It's interesting to explore the prejudices of the time but the thought of 'lengthy descriptions' puts me off a bit!

    1. I did! I felt very triumphant when I finished those 500 pages. The language isn't really an issue, in my opinion. Scott is looking back on the period from the 1800s, so the writing is more of that time than the medieval one.
      I wonder if the descriptions seemed even longer to me because I already knew what was going to happen...
      You should give it a try! We could discuss it...:)