Review: Ivanhoe

Sir Walter Scott (1819)

My book club has a yearly tradition: Each January we choose a classic British novel to read and meet to discuss it over tea at the Drake Hotel downtown. (Brit Lit…tea…get it?) We’ve been doing this for seven out of the past twelve years the club’s been in existence. Selections have included Hard Times (Charles Dickens,) The Return of the Native (Thomas Hardy,) and Vanity Fair (William Makepeace Thackeray.) One year we stretched the term “classic” and read The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley which we all thought a pretty lousy book, but it made for a good discussion.

So this year’s tea time selection was my suggestion—Ivanhoe, a book that I’ve been wanting to read for as long as I can remember. Knights, jousting tournaments, Robin Hood and maidens fair—a historical epic to the max. Now, Ivanhoe often gets the same bad rap as Moby Dick. Tell people you want to read Ivanhoe and they look at you like you’re a glutton for punishment. So, I was pleasantly surprised when my book group agreed to it, giving me the excuse I needed to commit a few snowy weeks this winter to reading this thoroughly entertaining book.

Here’s the 500-page story in a nutshell: Ivanhoe, a 12th-century knight loyal to Richard the Lionhearted, returns from the Crusades ready to pick up where he left off with the woman he loves, Rowena, who just happens to be his father’s ward. Unfortunately for Ivanhoe, his father has other plans for his ward, which involve marrying her off to a man who spends much of his time preoccupied with food. Ivanhoe’s romantic conflict pulls him into the political situation between the Normans (the conquerors) and his fellow Saxons (the oppressed,) crossing paths with the scheming Prince John and the merry men of Sherwood Forest among many other colorfully drawn characters. Also central to the story is the radiant Jewess Rebecca, the most fully realized and memorable character in the book. Her beauty incites one man to kidnap her, setting the plot in motion toward its exciting conclusion.

I found Ivanhoe to be full of surprises:

Surprise #1: While he gets title credit, the book’s not so much about Ivanhoe.
He’s one of the more two-dimensional characters and not central to much of the action. In fact, he spends a good portion of the book injured and out of the picture. His character is said to represent the melding together of the two cultures that became England, since he acts as the moderating bridge between characters from opposing sides, hence the name credit.

Surprise #2: It was really quite easy to read.
Despite the fact that this book was written almost 200 years ago and is set in Jolly Olde England, the prose isn’t creaking with age and there aren’t too many “thees” and “thous” to get in the way of understanding and enjoyment. The prose is rich in detail without being ponderous, dense with historical context without being dull, and truly exciting throughout.

Surprise #3: The anti-Semitism. 
The discrimination of Rebecca and her father Isaac and the intention of the author was a hot topic of discussion at book club.

Surprise #4: The book is fast paced and action filled.
There’s a jousting tournament, a castle siege AND a witch trial!

Surprise #5: You learn something new every day.
Richard the Lionhearted was king for only ten years, and spent a mere six months of his reign actually IN England! I also learned the laws of chivalry, rules of engagement during a tournament and about Knights Templar.

Surprise #6: Sir Walter Scott is a mighty fine writer.
I will definitely be adding more of his works to my bookshelf.

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5 Responses

  1. I do hope one of your next reviews is about the mini-series of the same name from about five years ago. Ciaran Hinds as a Templar Knight: Oooo, lovely!
    But seriously, I found it rather good, though I didn’t find the actress who played Rebecca very interesting! (it’s out on DVD, I was just looking at it last night in B & N)

  2. Me

    Indeed, it has been added to my Netflix queue. I was considering bumping it to the top of the list so I can see it while the book’s still fresh in my head. Now that I know Ciaran Hinds stars, it will definitely go to the head of the class.
    Thanks for the heads-up.

  3. mimi

    Thanks for the great review of Ivanhoe. I’ll put this one on my reading list. I’ve been reading alot of 19th century literature lately, but I hadn’t thought of this book.
    I did like The Mists of Avalon, but then I am a real King Arthur nut(having read The Once and Future King in 10th grade). What I liked was the interaction of the old and new religions and different take on the old legend.
    I still have to get to Moby Dick, although I’ve been out to sea several times already in The Heart of the Sea, and Ahab’s Wife and alittle bit reading the review of the Bounty in the New Yorker. Those whalers were nuts to do what they did!
    The best book I’ve read in the last few years remains Great Expectations. I couldn’t wait to get back to it and it was hard to put down.
    The last 19th century book I’ve read it The Trail of the Serpent, by Mary Braddon. It’s a great mystery, although you know who the killer is, it is still interesting watching him get caught. It was one of the first mystery novels.
    Currently I’ve just started The Mill on the Floss…we’ll see.

  4. Me

    Mill on the Floss–yikes, George Eliot. “Middlemarch” cured me of George Eliot. Let me know if you really like it and maybe I’ll reconsider.
    You reminded me about “Ahab’s Wife” and “Heart of the Sea” which are both high on my list of books to read. And anything by Dickens is a winner in my book. My favorite is Bleak House, which I read many years ago; I’m looking forward to rereading it sometime soon.

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