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I've been noticing more than ever with Ivanhoe that all too often, we superimpose current values on history. We like to have characters that promote the values of our society, sometimes forsaking the realities of the time period. I'm definitely seeing this in the first part of Ivanhoe.
Nearly every character in the book is an embodiment of some kind of stereotype. Our brave knight is perfectly selfless, chivalrous, and strong. Our lovely damsel is beautiful, modest, and loving. Our villain (so far, it seems to be Prince John) is idolatrous, self-serving, and demanding. And so on, and so forth. The book really isn't about a time period; it takes place in a kind of whimsical neverland that Romantics loved.
So, where am I going with this? Am I trying to say the book is worthless because it doesn't accurately portray the time period it's set in?
No! Far from it. What I'm realizing is that the primary value of historical fiction may not, in fact, be to learn about the time period in question. Maybe historical fiction says a lot more about the time period in which it was written than it ever could about the time period the author is writing about.
This might be obvious when we're talking about something like Ivanhoe, but maybe we need to apply it to contemporary historical fiction, which is quite popular nowadays. I like historical fiction a lot, and I don't know about you, but I often read it with the expectation that I'll be learning about history in a fun way. But all too often, I put all my faith and trust in the author to portray the time and the people in just exactly the way it really was. But maybe I'm not "minding the gap," so to speak, between the time period and the author's understanding. Maybe I'm saying to myself, "Oh, so that's what Thomas Jefferson/William Wallace/Joan of Arc/whoever was like," without taking the time to actually find out the facts and get my own impression.
Now, I would probably have told you something similar before I started reading Ivanhoe, but I guess what I'm truly realizing is the true extent to which this goes. Now, yes, I think contemporary historical fiction authors have done more research than Walter Scott and are probably more interested in giving an accurate portrayal, but we have to recognize that the authors may just be taking a creative leap and using an historical time period as their own whimsical neverland that they can play around in. The gap may be bigger than I ever thought.
Well, the lesson I take from this is that there's only one thing to do--mind the gap, and enjoy the ride.