In that pleasant district of merry England which is watered by the river Don, there extended in ancient times a large forest, covering the greater part of the beautiful hills and valleys which lie between Sheffield and the pleasant town of Doncaster. The remains of this extensive wood are still to be seen at the noble seats of Wentworth, of Warncliffe Park, and around Rotherham. Here haunted of yore the fabulous Dragon of Wantley; here were fought many of the most desperate battles during the Civil Wars of the Roses; and here also flourished in ancient times those bands of gallant outlaws, whose deeds have been rendered so popular in English song.
Summary: I confess that I was expecting this novel to be a slow-build novel; a lot of nineteenth-century novels start out slowly dropping pieces into place until they pick up momentum on their own. But Ivanhoe is a very fast-moving novel from the beginning. A hundred pages in, we're at a tournament, very vividly described; two hundred pages in, we have had a kidnapping and are preparing to storm a castle; three hundred pages in, we have a fitting death, also vividly described; four hundred pages in, we are fearing for Rebecca in the perilous hands of the Templars. We get Saxons and Normans, Templars and Jews, Robin Hood and Richard the Lion-Hearted.
Not only is the pace fast, but the characterization is quite vivid -- none of the characters are merely generic. Even the villains are so vividly expressed that one can understand what they are doing and why. And, of course, in at least one case -- Rebecca the Jewess -- the characterization is so vivid that she is perhaps one of the best-written heroines of the nineteenth-century, lively and intelligent, gentle yet courageous. She steals every scene she's in, and the show overall.
The subtitle of the book is A Romance, and one of the interesting things about the work was how Scott adapts and modifies common conventions and tropes of medieval romances to the new style of the novel. We still get romantic polyphony, although not so riotously as one would get in Ariosto, jumping back and forth in place and sometimes time. We get something of the any-and-everything mix of romances, in which around the next tree some legendary figure might leap out of a sudden, and the swift movement between the comic and the terrible. The novel also shares with romances the guilelessness about 'big reveals' -- they are there, as they often are with romances, but they are not actually set up to be surprises to the reader. The acute reader can recognize very easily who King Richard is very shortly after he actually shows up; and then we follow him for quite a considerable amount of time before he is actually revealed as Richard. The revelation is given some weight, but it's simple and straightforward. Because of it, it avoids the clunky failed surprises or dubious twists of so many novelistic 'big reveals', and knowing how it turns out does not make the revelation any worse. Romances aren't out to give you innovations, although they do (and Ivanhoe certainly does), but to give you a tale. The classic romance is very much more a storytelling genre than the modern novel is.
At the same time, however, Scott's work is a novel in romance dress, not a romance proper, or even (as it pretends to be) a romance novelized. One sign of this is the tendency to give us much more of the internal thought and imagination of the characters than we would get in a romance. Perhaps the most obvious indicator that we are really getting a novel is the distance placed between the reader and the romantic elements. The novel covers its romantic elements by attributing them to a medieval chronicler. This is certainly what a romance would do, but the romance would simply take the chronicler as an authority and pass things on under its authority, while the novel looks at the chronicler's work with an antiquarian interest. And despite the immensely sympathetic narration and description, it places its characters and events under exactly the same interests. It's a different world, fascinating but not ours: we live in a time in which morals have progressed and things are done differently, and while the history is 'romanticized', the only things actually held up for admiration are some virtues and natural religion, not the most romanticized elements. (It is, of course, an error to think that romanticizing something means looking at it with rose-colored glasses.) These characters all partake something of what the novel says about Richard -- they are meteors, bright and shining across the sky, but they are not what makes our society. The novel insists on this.
MrsD noted that Thackeray wrote a satirical extension of the book, Rebecca and Rowena: A Romance upon a Romance, so I read that, as well. Whereas Ivanhoe itself is a novel in romance dress, Thackeray's work does not, despite its lying subtitle, have anything of romance whatsoever. Thackeray builds on a key concession Scott himself makes toward the end of the novel:
She glided from the apartment, leaving Rowena surprised as if a vision had passed before her. The fair Saxon related the singular conference to her husband, on whose mind it made a deep impression. He lived long and happily with Rowena, for they were attached to each other by the bonds of early affection, and they loved each other the more, from the recollection of the obstacles which had impeded their union. Yet it would be enquiring too curiously to ask, whether the recollection of Rebecca's beauty and magnanimity did not recur to his mind more frequently than the fair descendant of Alfred might altogether have approved.
This is already a novelistic rather than a romantic trope, and Thackeray presses it for all the comic value it can have. He also takes full advantage of another passage:
"I forgive you, Sir Knight," said Rowena, "as a Christian."
"That means," said Wamba, "that she does not forgive him at all."
"But I can never forgive the misery and desolation your madness has occasioned," continued Rowena.
Wamba's crack is funny enough; it is given a sharper edge by the fact that Rowena goes on to show that it is not merely a wisecrack. We find another example of something that might occur in a romance given a sharply novelistic twist.
But Thackeray is also, I think, poking fun of readers more than he is poking fun at the novel. Not a few readers of the work, I imagine, have thought that Ivanhoe would have been better served by marrying the sympathetic Rebecca than the proud Rowena. But the suggestion is rather absurd; as Scott himself points out, Rebecca is a Jew and Ivanhoe a Christian knight -- and we went through this kind of story in the novel. Rebecca would not throw honor away and betray her religion for Ivanhoe any more than she did for Bois-Gilbert, even if it were more tempting, and Ivanhoe would never throw honor away and elope with her precisely because he is not Bois-Gilbert. Moreover, Rowena's pride is not a negative attribute in the context of the story; Rebecca shows herself more proud than Rowena actually is, although in admirable ways -- the primary difference is that Rebecca has never been as sheltered as Rowena. And Ivanhoe has been working the entire novel for Rowena, and Rowena herself is in love with Ivanhoe. In a romance, or even a novel yielding to romantic conventions, you do not bat an eye at the most extraordinary things along the road, but the road is going somewhere and you keep the destination in view.
What Thackeray shows is the absurdity of what happens when you sacrifice romance to a novelistic flexibility in the interest of forcing an ending -- and the fact that Thackeray borrows more than a few tropes from nineteenth-century novels in the course of forcing it is surely a mocking comment on the absurdity of those novels. But Thackeray's tale recognizes, as Scott himself does, that the feeling can still remain, and can, whether it makes for a reasonable story or not, be a crucial part of the experience of reading a novel. The impossibility, the absurdity, of Ivanhoe and Rebecca ever marrying can be felt as a loss, and perhaps it is, like the impossibility and absurdity of being young forever. Because of that, the what-if inevitably remains, as part of the taste of the story.
"There is yet one chance of life left to me," said Rebecca, "even by your own fierce laws. Life has been miserable—miserable, at least, of late—but I will not cast away the gift of God, while he affords me the means of defending it. I deny this charge—I maintain my innocence, and I declare the falsehood of this accusation—I challenge the privilege of trial by combat, and will appear by my champion."
"And who, Rebecca," replied the Grand Master, "will lay lance in rest for a sorceress? who will be the champion of a Jewess?"
"God will raise me up a champion," said Rebecca—"It cannot be that in merry England—the hospitable, the generous, the free, where so many are ready to peril their lives for honour, there will not be found one to fight for justice. But it is enough that I challenge the trial by combat—there lies my gage."
She took her embroidered glove from her hand, and flung it down before the Grand Master with an air of mingled simplicity and dignity, which excited universal surprise and admiration.
Recommendation: Great Scott! Of course it's Highly Recommended.