Archive for January 8th, 2011

Walter Scott – Ivanhoe

Saturday, January 8th, 2011

With Ivanhoe (1819) by Walter Scott I turn to the mediaevil times where chivalry meets the actual historical truth. Back when it was published Ivanhoe quickly became popular all around the world, but I expect many would not know about it except for some Hollywood movie adaptations. Still it is considered a classic in it’s own sense, as it also presents the figure of Robin Hood as we know him today.

As a novel from the early nineteenth century one might expect Ivanhoe to be a modern kind of novel, but I was surprised that it looked more like an actual mediaevil novel I read by Wolfram von Eschenbach about Parzival (c. 1220). For this reason I don’t categorize it as a modern novel. The reason for this came forth from the way the story was told and the style of prose. It is hard to describe what this is. The best way to do so is by saying that we read it from a story teller’s point of view. This narrator has his own voice, usually at the beginning of each chapter. There is also specific attention to setting the scene which is different.

Another typical style was a lack of real dialogue. Characters often seem to make long speeches to each other. It is a dramatic way of telling the story, almost like it is a play. It does take away the feel of a normal dialogue away, but I guess it makes it easily adaptable for a movie.

As I wrote in my first sentence Ivanhoe als presents a contrast. Chivalry plays an important theme in Ivanhoe and also that loyalty and other good virtues are important. Opposed to this is the historical late twelfth century setting: The tensions between Normans and Saxons, the strife within the royal English family, the dubious practices of the Templar Knights, the Jewish role in mediaevil society and anti-semitism. Scott doesn’t just write a story but he also provides the reader with the historical background and makes sure the reader is able to place the events in their time-frame. He also refers to later historical events so that the reader doesn’t get the wrong ideas.

The pace of the story is fairly decent, even with extended descriptions to set the scene and long dialogues, but in the middle part this becomes only relative as many scenes happen parallel to each other. This does rise up the tension as the reader what is happening elsewhere. It is a trick Scott uses several times: setting up a cliffhanger and then turning to some other characters who are almost dallying around for some time.

The end of Ivanhoe is almost anticlimatic. Most of the exciting action happens at the end of the first and second thirds. The titular hero does not even play that a prominent role. It almost feels toned down. The way Scott tells his story there are several main characters, either good or bad. He gives them a clear characterization so that the reader understands them well.

Ivanhoe is surely a remarkable novel with many elements that make it stand out. However, it does feel that it is a classic of it’s own time, but not particularly one of modern times. It did not impress me, but I can put myself in the position of an early nineteenth century reader who would be blown away.