May 21, 2012

Book: Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 3:35 pm

This is a classic and so you would expect it to be deep and poignant, wouldn’t you?  Instead, it is the story of knights and tournaments and romance, lightweight in nature and therefore an easy read too.

The story is told in the backdrop of the Norman conquest of Saxons, where the Saxons are sullen and resentful, and the Normans treat the Saxons as boorish and uncultured. The Saxon language is despised even by the ‘elite and rich’ Saxons themselves, who, like the Normans prefer the speak the preferred language of the land. (Yes, England of today.) And the language preferred? French!

It is much later that the Saxon language mixed with the Norman French and evolved as the English language that we use today.(So. in effect, English is the daughter language of Franch)

The story involves Cedric the Saxon, who is bringing up the beautiful Lady Rowena, a relative’s daughter, as her own child. Cedric is proudly Saxon and refuses to speak French or dress like the Normans. He is a chiefton and has English royal blood in him. He refuses to recognize Richard the Lionheart or his appointee Prince John of Anjou as the legitimate rulers of his beloved England, they being Normans. He dreams of the day where Athelstane, a lazy, lethargic and unambitious Saxon can reclaim the throne of England and restore the Saxon glory of the days past – an impossible dream given the circumstances. He is so upset with his son, Wilfred of Ivanhoe (or Ivanhoe for short) for joining Richard the Lion Hearted in Palestine that he disinherits him.

He wants Lady Rowena to marry Athelstane to pursue his dream but she is in love with Ivanhoe.

The story begins with the return of Ivanhoe in disguise. Prince John is planning to overthrow Richard and take the crown for himself, in his brother’s absence. Brian de Bois Guilbert, a Templar who is fond of wine and women, and Prior Aymer of Jorvoulx, another priest equally debauched, stay in Cedric’s palace on their way to participate in a tournament organized by Prince John. With them is a Palmist and Isaac, a Jew. It is sadly fascinating to see how much racial slurs were heaped on Jews in that era too; they were openly ridiculed and treated worse than dogs. Palmist rescues Isaac, who realizes that he is really a knight in disguise (yes, Ivanhoe) and helps him get a horse and weaponry including armour and Ivanhoe wins the tournament and crowns Lady Rowena as the Queen of Love in the tourney. But he wins with the crucial help of a mysterious Black Knight.

But, being injured severely, Ivanhoe faints and is rescued by Isaac’s daughter, the beautiful Rebecca, who is in love with Ivanhoe. Theyall are captured, along with Cedric, Rowena and Athelstane, by the evil  De-Boeuf, who plans to marry Rowena forcefully. Bois de Guilbert though a minister, falls for Rowena and wants to have her as his consort, and she refuses.

In the meanwhile, the Black Knight discovers that the Holy Clerk of Clockmanhurst is not the pious Friar that he should be, but is not above shooting King’s protected deer for Venison or stocking his cellar with the best wines the country has to offer. The endearing Clerk is a friend of a band of outlaws, who are not above kidnapping and ransom and is led by an incredible archer called Locksley.

They go to rescue the captured prisoners.and are helped by the help from inside of a Saxon princess mistreated for years by the Baron.

Bois De Guilbert kidnaps Rebecca and carries her off to lodge her illegally into the head quarters of the Templars itself, against the Templar’s rules. When Beaumanoir, the head hears of it, he concludes that it is Rebecca, with evil magic powers who has bewitched Guilbert and sentences her to death. She asks for a Knight to defend her and awaits patiently, but no one comes forward for a while. Finally Ivanhoe, though weak and wounded and in no condition to do more than walk, agrees to fight the best known Knight of Templars, Bois de Guilbert. All seems lost…

The story is interesting and is narrated clearly and in a straightforward manner. If you get used to even robbers in the forest talking like ‘Hark thee knave, thou knowest the peril that faces thee” (or if you have read Shakespeare lately where everyone talks like that) then you can sit back and enjoy the story. It is very simplistic and it is not hard to see through disguises – enough clues and very simple devices to hide them. In addition, it is not difficult to guess who Locksley and Clerk of Clockmanhurst are really are – though I confess I did not get it till it was ‘revealed’ later!

Ivanhoe, though the hero of the story, does precious little and spends most of his time in a sickbed, wounded grievously.

The story starts and ends with a tournament which has a nice symmetry to it.

An interesting read,  and a light classic.

I would say it deserves a 6/10

— Krishna


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