Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott

Ivanhoe, set in medieval England, is the story of the knight Wilfred of Ivanhoe, a Saxon, who seeks to help Richard the Lionhearted come back to power, defeat several cunning and vicious Normans, and marry his sweetheart, the Lady Rowena. Along the way, we meet various characters--Saxon, Norman, and even Jew--who are intent on supporting King Richard, Prince John, or on raising their own Saxon royalty back to power.

I read this gorgeous
collector's edition.
During the first 100 pages or so of Ivanhoe, I'll admit I was not impressed. The characters seemed stereotypical and flat, the plot seemed overdone and uninspired, and everything about the story seemed unrealistic and fantastic (and not in a good way). It seemed to me (as I mentioned in this post) that Sir Walter Scott was using history to serve as a convenient backdrop to his own heroical fantasies.

But after doing a bit of analysis on the character of Cedric and learning about Sir Walter Scott, I began to see a little deeper into this book. I began to see a side of Ivanhoe where history doesn't take second place to story; story serves to illuminate history.

The characters weren't what I would call "real," but I began to see them less as stereotypes (Hero, Villain, Damsel in Distress, etc.) than as representations. Cedric himself is the older generation; he wants to keep everything the same, to preserve the traditions of his people. The next generation, however (Ivanhoe and Rowena) aren't really interested in this purpose; although they respect Saxons, they are less interested in preserving the actual blood line than they are in preserving the Saxon values (courage, masculinity, integrity). They respect Richard Coeur-de-Lion because he is good and just to everyone, not just his own people.

The story is really about how a nation is created by merging two distinct peoples and cultures. As the reader, we can see both sides. Cedric, as well as the other Saxons, are disrespected and insulted by the Normans; naturally, they want to take control of their own nation again and get rid of the Normans. But on the other hand, Richard Coeur-de-Lion, who is a Norman himself, is a good king and promises to be just to both Norman and Saxon (and he carries out his promise). Why not create a new nation where both can dwell as one under a good ruler?

This reminds me of some of the difficulties that families have when they move to a different country with a different culture. (I would just like to note that I have no personal experience with this--but it's something I've discussed in several classes I've taken.) Often, the parents will try to preserve their native culture with their children, but more often than not the children will assimilate into the culture they have moved into (or have been born into). This is similar to the father-son problems between Cedric and Wilfred. Cedric sees the value and beauty of the old ways, and he wants to preserve them, particularly with his son--which is why he gets angry when Wilfred goes off to serve Richard Coeur-de-Lion. (A Norman!) Cedric has been trying all these years to teach Wilfred to be a good Saxon, and now all Wilfred wants to do is run away from home and be best pals with a bunch of Normans. Wilfred, on the other hand, sees the good in the new culture that is arising in a union between Saxons and Normans, and he is assimilating.

Near the end of Ivanhoe, the author makes a note about what became of the Normans and Saxons:
. . . As the two nations mixed in society and formed inter-marriages with each other, the Normans abated their scorn, and the Saxons were refined from their rusticity. But it was not until the reign of Edward the Third that the mixed language, now termed English, was spoken at the court of London, and that the hostile distinction of Norman and Saxon seems entirely to have disappeared. 
I began to believe that Scott was fooling me this whole time. He made it out like the Saxons were the "good guys" and the Normans were the "bad guys," but by this time, I could see that the only enemy in the story was everyone's prejudice against each other, which time finally overcame (between the Saxons and the Normans, at least). In the end, by the time Scott was writing the story, the union of the two was actually a benefit to both. Scott further brought this home with the sub-plot of the Jews, Isaac and Rebecca; they, too, were worthy of respect and even love, but they never received this from anyone in the story. Maybe if the other characters had been willing to unite with the Jews as well, their culture would have been even more improved with time. (Maybe if Richard Coeur-de-Lion had been a Jewish Norman...? Ha, ha.)

What started out seeming to me to be just an indulgent story turned out to have a lot more relevance and deep thinking than I had thought. This isn't just a story about knights and kings and damsels in distress; it's a story about how a nation is created through the union of two cultures. It's a story of oppression and prejudice. It's a story of generational distance and how to overcome it. It's a story about what it means to be truly chivalrous, truly just, truly courageous, truly heroic, and truly good.

Other posts I've written relating to Ivanhoe: 
Sir Walter Scott
Character Thursday: Cedric the Saxon
Minding the Gap in Historical Fiction

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