Ivanhoe is the one novel by Sir Walter Scott that needs to be discovered twice – if, that is, you first encountered it at school, as I did. To me then the plot seemed overcomplicated, and the whole thing only vaguely interesting; but reading it afresh as an adult, it strikes me as that rare thing, a great book, albeit a flawed one. Better novels of Scott’s such as Old Mortality and The Heart of Midlothian are no longer household names. Yet Ivanhoe lives on in the national consciousness for, clumsy as it sometimes is, it strikes a powerful chord, being a morality tale about the English vice of hypocrisy.
Ivanhoe was published in 1819: it was Scott’s first novel not set in Scotland, but it is by no means ‘late’; in fact, he had been writing novels for only five years, and it followed hard on the heels of the much admired ones (in academic circles at least) mentioned above. In addition to the English setting, Scott also moved back in time with Ivanhoe, to the end of the twelfth century, and the reign of Richard Coeur de Lion, the age not of the religious conflict that had made modern Scotland, as with his previous novels, but of chivalry.
The year is 1193, and in King Richard’s absence his worthless brother John, egged on by some unpleasant Norman barons, is plotting to usurp the throne. John holds a passage of arms at Ashby-de-la-Zouch, where an unknown knight wins the contest. He turns out to be Wilfred of Ivanhoe, faithful retainer of King Richard, and estranged son of Cedric the Saxon. Wilfred loves Rowena, Cedric’s ward, who is destined for another. Beautiful Rowena, however, crowned Queen of Love and Beauty at the tournament by Wilfred, attracts the attention of Maurice de Bracey, one of John’s Norman supporters, who decides to kidnap her and force her into marriage; the Templar Brian de Bois-Guilbert joins in this plan, deciding at the same time to kidnap the beautiful Jewess Rebe
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