Monday, November 8, 2010

Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott

Having already been introduced to Scott's novels in college, namely The Antiquary, I was a bit hesitant to begin Ivanhoe, expecting more of the same--overblown prose, historical inaccuracies, and a vague sense of self-indulgent pomposity. Ivanhoe certainly doesn't disappoint in that regard, but these same traits are actually a blessing to the narrative: the prose gives grandeur to the royal characters and the chivalric heroes, the historical inaccuracies demonstrate the pervasive and mutating nature of myths and legendary characters, and the pomposity fits right into the milieu of Norman England, a world of tournaments and dramatic favor-throwing.

The tale is relatively straightforward: Norman nobles and Saxon peasants (for the most part) coexist uneasily in England, without even the benefit of a crowned sovereign given that Richard the Lionhearted is being held prisoner by Leopold of Austria and Young John is gunning for the throne. A huge tournament held in the north-central part of the country, used as a smokescreen by John and his cronies to distract from their attempts to get John crowned, attracts a huge melting pot of characters, including a frighteningly passionate Templar, a Jewish moneylender and his astonishingly beautiful daughter, a Saxon thane and his ward, a descendant of Alfred the Great, and even Robin Hood (though sadly, no Sheriff of Nottingham). As one group manipulates another for their own gain, be it monetary or amorous, true natures are revealed and the question of loyalty to one's identity and heritage, one's country, and one's leaders are examined in great detail.

Over all, a thought-provoking and enjoyable read. Definitely one of Scott's most approachable novels.

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