I was surprised to find that Ivanhoe was easier to read than I had imagined, although Scott does use some archaic language and there were a few words that I had to look up. It took me some time to read as it's nearly 500 pages of quite small font in my copy, but I’m glad I’ve read it. It’s a mixture of romance and historical fiction, although I can’t vouch for its historical accuracy and Scott admits that “it is extremely probable that I may have confused the manner of two or three centuries, and introduced, during the reign of Richard the First, circumstances appropriated to a period either considerably earlier or a good deal later than that era.”
Set in England in the 12th century, ruled by the Normans it is the story of the continuing conflict, approximately a century after the Battle of Hastings, between the Normans, and the Saxons. There are many characters, including Saxon nobles and peasants; Norman knights and Knights Templar; Jews; and outlaws - Robin Hood and his merry men. Ivanhoe is the son of a Saxon noble, Cedric who has plans to marry his ward, the Lady Rowena to Athelstane, a descendant of the last Saxon monarchs, in an attempt to regain the throne. However, Ivanhoe and Rowena are in love and so his father has banished him.
As the story begins Ivanhoe has returned from the Crusades, in disguise, to his home hoping somehow to win Rowena as his bride and he challenges the Knight Templar, Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert at a tournament held by Prince John. As a result he is severely wounded and cared for by the Rebecca, the beautiful daughter of the Jew, Isaac. With the reported escape of King Richard the Lionheart from imprisonment by the Duke of Austria, Prince John fears that the unidentified Black Knight who is victorious at the tournament is his brother returned from the Crusades.
A series of events then rapidly follows including the capture of Rowena, Cedric, Athelstane, Rebecca, Isaac and Ivanhoe by the supporters of Prince John. They are held in the ancient castle of Torquilstone, now belonging to the Norman, Reginald Front-de-Boeuf. The Black Knight is of course Richard and he enlists the help of the outlaws Locksley (also known as Robin Hood), Friar Tuck and Alan-a Dale to rescue them.
Scott gives a blow-by-blow account of the siege of the castle and rescue of the captives. I normally gloss over battle scenes as I find descriptions confusing and I admit boring, but Scott won me over completely. Rebecca gives such a vivid description of the battle to Ivanhoe, as he lies wounded on his sick bed, that it seemed as though I was there seeing it for myself. Rebecca of course falls in love with Ivanhoe, who at first seems to be enchanted by her, until she reveals that she is a Jewess.
The racial tension between the Christians, the Jews and the Muslims is one of the themes running through the novel, and is paralleled by the tension between the Normans and the Saxon “porkers”. Rebecca’s position as one of the despised Jews is contrasted with Rowena’s with her proud disdain of the Normans. However, lust overcomes prejudice as Bois-Guilbert is infatuated with Rebecca and attempts to seduce her.
The story has many twists and turns. Athelstane is declared dead and then later is found to be alive; Ulrica, the dispossessed Saxon heiress of the castle of Torquilstone dramatically takes revenge on Front-de-Boeuf; and Rebecca is accused of practising witchcraft on Bois-Guilbert. She is condemned to death but pleads for a champion to fight her cause against Bois- Guilbert. Ivanhoe still suffering from his wounds races to the combat and declares himself as Rebecca’s champion. He is victorious but spares Bois- Guilbert’s life.
Ivanhoe almost takes backstage being injured and out of action for most of the novel, with the spotlight mainly on the heroic actions of Richard and also on the story of Rebecca. I think Rebecca is actually the star of the book and the scenes of her conflict with Bois-Guilbert reflect the misogyny and racial oppression of the times. ‘Rebecca’ is a good title for a book, yes?