(Since the beginning of 2008 I've been writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this label. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)
By Sir Walter Scott
Book #45 in this essay series
The story in a nutshell:
Widely credited as one of the first novels of the Romantic Era to reignite an interest among the public for the Middle Ages, Sir Walter Scott's 1820 Ivanhoe is actually set in 1194, and mostly concerns itself with the permanent social rupture between the English Saxons (the Viking descendants who had ruled the British Isles for hundreds of years) and the French Normans who earlier that century had invaded and taken over; specifically, it's the adventures of one Wilfred of Ivanhoe, who was recently disinherited by his proudly Saxon father Cedric for agreeing to go fight in the Third Crusade on behalf of the Norman king Richard I (a.k.a. "Richard the Lion-Hearted," or simply "Richard Lionheart"), and who has snuck back into his homeland of northern England in order to compete anonymously in a local knights tournament (based on a real-life one that used to be hosted by the actual castle of Ashby de la Zouch), being overseen that year by the much-hated ruling monarch Prince John Lackland and his private army of corrupt Norman Knights Templar (who so you're not confused have all been given such ridiculously Frenchie names as Brian de Bois-Guilbert, Reginald Front-de-Boeuf, and Maunica de Bracy). And in fact not just one but three mysterious, anonymous knights end up winning it all at that year's tournament, who turn out to be no less than Ivanhoe, the gentleman thief Robin of Locksley (a.k.a. Robin Hood), and Richard Lionheart himself, under the guise of the "Black Knight" since most believe him to still be a prisoner back at the Crusades' battlefront.
And declaring, then, his childhood sweetheart Rowena to be "queen of the fair" (a privilege granted to the tournament's winner), our scummy Templar villains start noticing for the first time her comely nature themselves, as well as that of the feisty young Jewess Rebecca, who by coincidence happens to be traveling through the area at the time with her moneylending father Isaac of York; and so is the entire group (including Cedric) attacked and kidnapped by the Norman ruffians in the woods outside town after the tournament is over, producing first a crisis then a temporary alliance between Ivanhoe, Richard, Robin, their good-natured servant Gurth and more, as they plan an "Ocean's 11" style caper to break into the Norman compound to rescue them all, the mechanics of which take up the majority of the book's second half. Add some dramatic unmaskings, lots of derring-do, an examination of the horrid ways that Jews were treated by most back then, and an unnecessary witch trial for good measure, and you essentially have the gist of this feel-good swashbuckler, and one of the first really big hits of post-Austen England.
The argument for it being a classic:
Well, as mentioned, although definitely also a product of its times (it certainly wasn't the first novel of the early 1800s to deal with the subject), many credit Ivanhoe for first producing a profound rise in interest among the population as a whole in the Middle Ages, a period of history sort of rediscovered at the tail-end of the Enlightenment, and re-embraced by these early Romantics for the exact reasons the rationalists and proto-scientists of the 1700s hated it -- for the era's passion, for its dogmatic dedication to such emotion-based concepts as love and loyalty; and by co-opting many of the traits that were found in the then-popular "gothic literature" while excising all of that genre's supernatural elements, Scott created a book that could be equally embraced by both DaVinci-Code-loving wives and their more sober, history-loving husbands. Then there's the fact that, even though it once again didn't invent the subject, this was the book that established for the first time many of the details we now associate with the Robin Hood legend, including the idea of his gang of fellow criminals being "merry" instead of scary, the famous scene of Robin winning an archery tournament by literally splitting his opponent's arrow in half, and the idea of Robin being a contemporary of Richard Lionheart in the first place, when most Hood stories before this were set in the 1300s, two centuries after Richard's time. (And in fact, this book even accidentally established many of the eventual tropes of the Robin Hood legend to come, such as Robin's supposedly aristocratic background and his own history in the Crusades, becuase of later adapters lazily mixing Robin and Ivanhoe's stories together; don't forget that in this 1820 original, both Robin and his gang are merely hastily-sketched minor characters, existing mostly to provide a militia for the eventual sacking of the Norman compound, taking a far back seat to the adventures of Ivanhoe and Richard themselves.) Add all this, say its fans, to the fact that it's also still a ripping good action-based novel, and you have a book that by any definition deserves to be known as a classic.
The argument against:
Like many of the novels written in this period, the main complaint of Ivanhoe among its critics tends to be of its anachronistic writing style; because don't forget, this is not only the work of a pre-Victorian Romantic, but is supposed to feel like the even older style of Medieval "Middle English," an already overly flowery writer affecting an even more deliberately overly flowery style, which to many can become unbearable rather quickly. (Oh, Walter, all those overused "thee"s and "thou"s -- you're freaking killing me here!) And then of course, now nearing its 200th anniversary, the creaky nature of its actual storyline is also becoming more and more obvious with each passing year, which certainly doesn't help with any argument one would want to make about its longevity.
While I'm glad to finally have this title under my belt now (there's something really satisfying to me, for some reason, to be able to say that I've read Ivanhoe), I have to admit that I reacted to this book in much the same way I have to many titles from the first half of the 19th century, with mostly a shrug and a simple sense of relief that I will never have to revisit that book ever again. Because let's face it -- although sharing a common language, most books from 150 or 200 years ago are simply written in a style that anymore we find purplish and fussy, with Ivanhoe being absolutely no exception at all, but rather maybe even the perfect example of the rule itself. Although it was interesting to see the establishment of many of the stereotypes of both Robin Hood and the more general Middle Ages that we now take for granted, I cannot in honesty say that this was exactly a pleasurable read, but rather mostly a chore that I was proud of myself for finishing in the first place. A fascinating challenge, for sure, for those who have the inclination to take it on, this is much more of historical importance anymore than of general entertainment value; and unfortunately, under the criteria we are using in this essay series, this makes Ivanhoe certainly still worth reading but not officially a classic.
Is it a classic? Almost, but not quite
The next four books scheduled to be read:
Lord of the Flies, by William Golding
All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque
The Executioner's Song, by Norman Mailer
Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy
(And don't forget that the first 33 essays in this series are now available in book form!)