Visions of Paradise

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Ivanhoe

I did not begin reading Ivanhoe with particularly high expectations. After all, it was written nearly 200 years ago, and was filled with such clichéd characters as the outlaw Robin Hood, his Merry Men, the noble Richard the Lionhearted, and the evil Prince John. At best I expected it to be light entertainment, but I have been deliberately seeking out classic adventure novels, and the unread portion of my collection also contains such novels as The Hounds of the Baskervilles, The Man Who Was Thursday, Riders of the Purple Sage, The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Three Musketeers, The Maltese Falcon, King Solomon’s Mines, The Call of the Wild, Treasure Island, and a few others as well.

I decided to start with Ivanhoe since I have considerable interest in medieval times, having already read several nonfiction books about that era, and having purchased three sets of lectures from The Teaching Company about that era, from the dawn of the Carolingian era to the dawn of the Renaissance.

The overriding story of Ivanhoe is the conflict between the Saxon people of the England and the Norman conquerors, one hundred and thirty years after William of Normandy conquered the country and became King William 1. The current king is Richard the Lionhearted who was been taken prisoner in continental Europe while returning from the Crusades. His deceitful younger brother John has been doing whatever he could to make sure Richard remains a prisoner, while he plans a coup to seize the throne himself. Meanwhile, a group of Saxon lords try everything in their power to regain control of the country from the Normans.

The novel begins at a jousting competition organized by Prince John and featuring several of his primary supporters, including a Templar knight named Brian who is apparently undefeated in such competitions. But he meets his match in two anonymous knights, one of whom is Ivanhoe, the disinherited son of a Saxon lord because of his support of King Richard, and the Black Knight, whose identity becomes obvious very early in the story. Another participant in the competition is an archer named Locksley whose identity also becomes obvious when he shoots an arrow through another arrow into a bullseye.

There are many major characters in the novel, including:
• Cedric, the Saxon lord who is father of Ivanhoe;
• Rowena, the gorgeous young ward of Cedric who is intended to marry another Saxon lord for political purposes, but who loves Ivanhoe;
• Isaac, a Jewish moneylender who is one of Prince John’s major sources of funding;
• Rebecca, his daughter who is a healer responsible for bringing Ivanhoe back to health after he is nearly killed;
• The Templar knight Brian who falls in love with Rebecca, a twice-forbidden love because of his vow of celibacy and their different religions.

There are also many minor characters who play important roles in the novel, including:
• Wamba, who is Cedric’s jester;
• Gurth, a servant of Cedric who, against his wishes, becomes Ivanhoe’s squire;
• the Norman prior of a nearby abbey;
• Friar Tuck.

The pacing of the novel never slows down in spite of long periods of discussion among the characters, and there are several scenes which are outstanding in themselves. One such scene is the battle between the Norman forces who have kidnapped Ivanhoe and taken over a Saxon castle against those who are fighting to recapture it, led by the Black Knight and Locksley. Another climactic scene is the trial of Rebecca for witchery.

It is not surprising that everything works out well in the end, and both the anonymous Black Knight and Locksley become fast friends, while King Richard and the Saxons bury the hatchet between them. There are definitely historical inaccuracies in this book, and much of it is over-the-top, but it was so much fun I recommend it highly.

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