Wednesday Book Club: Ivanhoe

Wednesday, 27 August 2008 — 6:51am | Book Club, J.R.R. Tolkien, Literature

This week’s selection: Ivanhoe (1819) by Walter Scott.

In brief: Somewhere halfway between Shakespeare and Tolkien resides this beautifully written romance of 12th-century derring-do, an exemplary specimen of literary nostalgia for some good old-fashioned English chivalry. Armed with a healthy measure of Norman-Saxon linguistic hostility, a critique of Christian anti-Semitism, and a bit of Robin Hood here and there, Ivanhoe is, in a word, ideal. While the novel loses its focus as the plot expands in scope, and at least one plot thread feels resolved by divine providence rather than moral action, Scott’s colourful supporting characters and sweeping historical reach keep the story alive at every turn.

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on Ivanhoe, keep reading below.)

I’ve come to the conclusion that nobody actually knows what novels are. In my youth, I adhered to the view that novels were any works of prose fiction above a certain length; the precise minimum word count is a matter of publishing convention, and varies by genre. By and large, this is still as specific as I’ll define the novel in criterial terms, and one of the rare instances in which I agree with the commonsensical perspective of the laity.

As I was exposed to more literary history and criticism, I was astonished to discover that the application of the term is often more specific, yet more ambiguous on account of the inconsistency of its use. Apparently, not everything textual that sees its way to publication is called “literature” (imagine that), and not every work of prose fiction above a certain length is automatically a “novel”—at least, not in the sense of the words employed by scholars and critics of linguistic constructions, narrative or otherwise. Much of this, I suspect, prevails as a relic of the institutions of scholarship that not too long ago regarded prose fiction as a lesser form of art than drama and poetry. In historical terms, only recently did contemporary novels begin to be taught as serious literature—not unlike our growing but begrudging acceptance of genre fiction and comic books these days.

I bring this up in relation to Ivanhoe because one of the statements that has always puzzled me is the claim that Don Quixote was the first novel. The proponents of this statement typically constrain the novel to an equation with the modern, realistic, and low mimetic: the novel, they say, triumphs over its antithesis, the high romance, by the maturity of its valorization of the ordinary and human. As the paragon of chivalric parody, Don Quixote bears the standard for this particular idea of the novel thanks to its wholesale lampooning of knightly escapism.

Personally, I’ve always read Quixote’s disillusionment as the height of tragedy, and I find that the lasting charm of Cervantes’s novel is how in mocking the conventions of knight-errantry, it became the greatest chivalric romance of all. But that’s another story.

Two centuries later—1819, to be precise—along comes Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, an English epic of jousts and castle sieges that delivers a list of gallant heroes and nefarious villains without a trace of irony: in short, precisely the sort of book that would send your friendly neighbourhood Quixote to the nearest windmill posthaste. And, might I add, definitely a novel.

Mind you, it would be inaccurate to portray Ivanhoe as being solely or even predominantly concerned with the exploits of its trio of archetypal champions, the disinherited crusader Wilfred of Ivanhoe, the mysterious Black Knight, and the ever-trusty Robin Hood (here called Locksley). Hamlet needed its Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and Star Wars needed R2-D2 and C-3PO; likewise, the heart and soul of Ivanhoe are its characters of lower standing—the jester, the friar, the oppressed Jewish moneylender (to name but a few). Indeed, it is initially unsettling to see just how little the book is about the Knight of Ivanhoe, though it bears his name: he sits out half the book as an invalid, and exists primarily as a lofty ideal.

Nonetheless, Ivanhoe is fundamentally a story of knights and lords amidst the strife and disorder of Prince John’s England in the absence of Richard the Lionheart, and never are we made to forget it. It is perhaps telling, then, that its place in literary history—insofar as it has been accepted by those who perceive escapist romances to be more than idle fancies for children to outgrow—appears to centre around its historicity.

Ivanhoe, we are told (in the admittedly small sample of bits and pieces I have read), is significant because it is the first historical novel, the precursor to the likes of Alexandre Dumas and James Fenimore Cooper. If you pardon the minor anachronisms, the 19th-century rendering of 17th-century theatrical English depicting the 12th-century stew of Saxon and Norman speech, and the occasional historical liberties Scott makes for the sake of letting King Richard get in on the action, the novel is a panoramic window into the customs, manners and dress of medieval rulers and subjects who toasted one another with a Waes hael and Drinc hael. To celebrate Ivanhoe in its capacity as a work of historical fiction is to acknowledge its dedication to historical accuracy.

Not being a medievalist, I appreciate the level of detail, but locate the appeal of Scott’s novel somewhere completely different. The historical setting is a bonus, as it must inherently be whenever we are dealing with England in the time of Robin Hood, but the true accomplishment of the book is how it plays with familiar ideals in a way that evades cliché.

Let me put it another way: Ivanhoe is the most proto-Tolkienian novel I have encountered to date.

As far as I can discern with the help of my assistant, Google, this isn’t a comparison that many have made, though the connection is so obvious to me that Sir Walter’s influence on The Lord of the Rings is just begging to be explored. In some ways, Ivanhoe is a stronger reminder of Tolkien than any post-Tolkien high fantasy I’ve ever touched—which, I’ll grant, isn’t much; I adore Tolkien, but have very little patience for his legion of imitators. It reads like a distillation of all the elements of The Lord of the Rings that people forget to copy: the centrality of language to the characterization of individuals as well as society; the genuine, folkloric Englishness that drips from every line of dialogue, whether it is the rustic speech of a servant or the decorative rhetoric of a nobleman; the periodic digression into verse and song, usually with the complicity of a pint of ale.

Consider Wilfred of Ivanhoe, the disinherited wandering knight, and his paternally forbidden pursuit of the Lady Rowena. We know, as a consequence of chivalric convention, that he overcomes the necessary obstacles and wins her in the end; I am sure I spoil nothing by giving that away. Gradually, though, we discover that the plot of the novel is so aware of the cliché’s sheer inevitability that it relegates it to the background for much of the action. In the scheme of things, Ivanhoe is only one hero among equals, and Rowena is too much of a perfect Saxon princess to be a significant agent of plot progression: they are both made compelling by the external impediments to their desires than any internal defects of character, and Scott is too busy to threaten the two of them all the time.

In many ways, the true heroine is Rebecca, the daughter to match the ducats of the book’s Shylock figure, Isaac of York. In Scott’s portrait of England, the Jews are clear victims, at once depended upon as the gatekeepers of the financial system and derided as extortionists by borrowers who have no intention to settle the bill. Rebecca is a heroine by way of generous action, not social standing: she is the story’s healing force. Conversion to Christianity is out of the question to her, as is any hope of being wedded to Ivanhoe, though there remains the lingering feeling that Rebecca is a deserving woman curtailed by circumstance. So of course Ivanhoe and Rowena end up together—but the convention is renewed afresh because Scott asks us to wonder about an impossible alternative.

To turn to The Lord of the Rings for a second, we can discern a similar triangle. The relationship between Aragorn and Arwen is peripheral at most, and is more of an exogenous source of characterization for Aragorn than a significant piece of the foregrounded plot. Éowyn, on the other hand, is the woman who proves her mettle and worth for the reader to see, though the royal couple leaves her on the outside looking in. Now, I should clarify that Scott’s Rebecca is nothing like Éowyn, but they do perform similar functions in the way they introduce a hint of complexity to an otherwise straightforward story of forbidden love.

If high romance and escapism meet with frequent criticism on account of their natural predisposition to be conventional—if the familiarity of events that simply must conclude a certain way is what separates them from “novels” or “literature” in some eyes—then we should look to the uniqueness of the medieval romance as it is practiced by the masters of the form. Walter Scott is one, and I daresay Tolkien is of his ilk. In any genre or medium, the nature of an exemplum is to manage the feat of being ideal and inimitable at once.

But it’s only chivalry if the language is up to task, and Ivanhoe captivates in no small part thanks to the elegant lyricism of Scott’s prose and dialogue. Sir Walter’s English has the flavour of a lost art, and the sincerity of his style feels beyond duplication in modern times. Oh well; man dies, but glory lives.


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