Walter Scott’s “Ivanhoe” (1819)

Introduction

Walter Scott is perhaps the most famous Scottish novelist. Born in Edinburgh in 1771, after completing his studies he was articled to the legal profession through a friend of his father’s. Throughout his life, however, in his leisure time he devoted himself to antiquarian pursuits, avidly reading scholarly works such as Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765). [1] Inspired by Percy, whose three volume work was a collection of Old and Middle English poetry, Scott went on to produce the three volume work, Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802-1803). Scott did not merely produce scholarly editions of old texts, however; he was also a poet, authoring several lengthy narrative poems: The Lay of the Last Minstrel, Marmion, The Lady of the Lake, Rokeby, and Lord of the Isles, to name but a few. His poetry nowadays has been all but forgotten except by scholars, and it is his novels for which he is chiefly remembered. He authored over 25 novels, most of which are now known as the Waverley Novels. Among these novels, it is Waverley (1814) and Ivanhoe (1819) which are regarded by scholars as his two ‘key texts’.

Most of his novels dealt with the fairly recent Scottish past: the eighteenth century. Waverley – the first historical novel in Western fiction – dealt with the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. His second novel Guy Mannering (1815) is a tale set in Scotland during the 1760s, while his third (and funniest) novel The Antiquary (1816) is set in Scotland during the 1790s. With Ivanhoe, Scott made a departure from Scottish history by writing a novel set in England during the medieval period. It is with Ivanhoe that Scott is said to have, in the words of John Henry Newman, initiated the Medieval Revival of the early nineteenth century.[2]

There were a few problems in the production of the novel, such as a lack of quality paper, and Scott’s health deteriorated at one point while he was writing it. [3] But in December 1819, just in time for Christmas, Ivanhoe was ready for retail, bound in three small octavo volumes and selling at a quite hefty price of 31 shillings. [4]

chapter 1st
Chapter One Frontispiece (1871 Edition)

The Framing Narrative

Although we class Scott primarily as Romantic novelist today, he would have seen himself as one of the gentlemen antiquaries of the eighteenth century, such as Percy or Joseph Ritson (1752-1803). Reflecting his love of antiquarian pursuits, the preface purports to be a letter sent from one (fictional) antiquary, Laurence Templeton, to the (also fictional) Rev. Dr. Dryasdust. The story of Ivanhoe, we are told, is taken from an ancient manuscript in the possession of Sir Arthur Wardour. Readers of Scott novels will quickly realise that this is another fictional character, taken from The Antiquary. The purpose of the novel, Templeton writes, is to celebrate English national history, especially when no one until that date had attempted to:

I cannot but think it strange that no attempt has been made to excite an interest for the traditions and manners of Old England, similar to that which has been obtained in behalf of those of our poorer and less celebrated neighbours [he is referring here to his own Scottish novels]. [5]

England is in need of national heroes to celebrate, just as Scotland, through Scott’s novels, had them:

The name of Robin Hood, if duly conjured with, should raise a spirit as soon as that of Rob Roy; and the patriots of England deserve no less their renown in our modern circles, than the Bruces and Wallaces of Caledonia. [6]

Conisbrough Castle
Conisbrough Castle, home of Cedric the Saxon (1871 edition)

The Novel

The actual novel is set during the 1190s, and England is in a parlous state, divided between the Normans and the Anglo-Saxons:

A circumstance which tended greatly to enhance the tyranny of the nobility, and the sufferings of the inferior classes, arose from the consequences of the Conquest by William Duke of Normandy. Four generations had not sufficed to blend the hostile blood of the Normans and Anglo-Saxons, or to unite, by common language and mutual interests, two hostile races, one of which still felt the elation of triumph, while the other groaned under all the consequences of defeat. [7]

The divisions between the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans come to a head while Richard I is captured by Leopold of Austria, and his brother John rules as Regent. John taxes the people heavily to pay King Richard’s ransom. In reality, John is hoarding the money for himself, hoping to raise an army to overthrow the few remaining barons who support Richard, while buying the others off.

Unbeknownst to John and his Templar henchmen, Richard has also returned to England in disguise. Finding his land in chaos, he allies with the Anglo-Saxons and outlaws roam in the forest, whilst Ivanhoe’s father, Cedric, plans on using his brother Athelstane as a rallying point through whom the oppressed Saxons can rise up and overthrow their Norman conquerors. Recognising the parlous state of the country, the outlaw known as Robin of Locksley teams up with both Ivanhoe and King Richard and so that Richard can regain control of his kingdom and thereby unite the nation. Added into this plot are vividly exciting scenes; jousting tournaments, archery tournaments, damsels in distress, and epic sieges and battles. It is a piece of pure medieval spectacle.

Scott completely invented the idea that the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans were at odds with each other in the 1190s. He did this because he had a message for nineteenth-century readers: society does not have to be divided the way that it was in the 1190s. The seating at the Ashby Tournament illustrates how divided English society is. The Saxons and the Normans are separated, while the burghers clamour for more prominence. [8]

Yet throughout the novel, Scott argues that if all classes of society work together, they can overcome their differences. This is symbolised in the alliance between the yeoman Robin of Locksley (the working classes), Ivanhoe (the middle class), and Richard (royalty/aristocracy). Each class has responsibilities towards and should show loyalty to one another:

The serf [should be] willing to die for his master, the master willing to die for the man he considered his sovereign’. [9]

Medieval feudalism, where each class owed loyalty to the other, could, Scott argued, be adapted for the nineteenth century.

Ivanhoe Frontispiece 1830
Frontispiece to Ivanhoe (1830 edition)

And England in 1819 was a divided society. The end of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars brought in its wake a trade and financial depression along with mass unemployment. In addition, the working classes and the middle classes were agitating for political reform. Issues came to a head in 1819, while Scott was working on Ivanhoe, in Manchester. Peaceful protesters had gathered in Peter’s Fields calling for political enfranchisement. However, the local magistrate ordered the militia to charge at the protesters. Fifteen people died and over 700 people were injured.

Scott himself was horrified by this event, and the general state of the nation. Hence the reason, as I stated earlier, that he wrote Ivanhoe was to create a shared sense of history around which all people could rally. This is why we see all classes of people working together. Through Robin Hood, for example, Scott intended to show that:

From the beginning of national history, ordinary men had an important role to play in the shaping of the nation […] his novel dramatizes the idea of history in which the lowest in the social order are as important as the highest. [10]

Robin Hood is the saviour of the nation in Ivanhoe – the upper classes need the working classes as much as the working classes rely on their ‘betters’.

Modern Robin Hood scholars are sometimes reluctant to include Ivanhoe as part of the later Robin Hood tradition. Indeed, when the Robin Hood Classic Fiction Library was published back in 2005, and edited by Stephen Knight, it was not included. But we owe our modern conceptualisation of Robin Hood almost entirely to Walter Scott. One scholar even goes so far as to say that Robin Hood was ‘invented’ by Scott. [11] Robin of Locksley in Ivanhoe is a freedom fighter first, and an outlaw second. And when you think of it, almost every modern portrayal of the Robin Hood myth sees Robin as a political fighter first, and a thief second. In fact, as in Ivanhoe, in film and television portrayals we rarely see Robin Hood robbing anybody. Indeed, Robin is only an outlaw in Scott’s novel because he and his fellow Anglo-Saxon outlaws have been deprived of their rights (perhaps Scott is subtly arguing that if nineteenth-century politicians give the working classes a part to play in the nation, then they won’t have thieves in the nineteenth century). Out of all the heroes in Scott’s novel, it is only Robin Hood who people remember.

Ivanhoe Frontispiece 1830 2
Title Page Illustration to Ivanhoe (1830 edition)

Reception

Even before its official release, the number of pre-orders for the Author of Waverley’s new novel were staggering; the publisher Robert Caddell wrote to his business partner Archibald Constable that:

The orders for Ivanhoe increase amazingly—they now come nearly to 5000. [12]

Scott’s novel was well-received by readers and critics. One reviewer in La Belle Assemblée wrote that:

This still nameless author [Scott went under the pseudonym of ‘The Author of Waverley] prepares us, in every story which falls from his matchless pen, for all that is interesting, and far beyond the usual style of other works of fiction. [13]

Readers seemed just as enthusiastic in their reception of the novel. Lady Louisa Stuart, in a letter to Walter Scott (she did not know he was the author), wrote that:

Every body in this house has been reading an odd new kind of book called Ivanhoe, and nobody, as far as I have observed, has willingly laid it down again till finished. By this I conclude its success will fully equal that of its predecessors, notwithstanding it has quite abandoned their ground and ploughed up a field hitherto untouched. [14]

Amongst all the praise being heaped upon Scott there were some dissenting voices. Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), for instance, called it a ‘wretched abortion’. [15] But on the whole most reviews were favourable.

Afterlives and Imitations

Scott’s novel was quickly adapted for the stage. At one point in London there were four concurrently running theatre shows, each which showed a different scene from the novel. [16] While the novel was expensive at 31 shillings, people from the poorer classes could read one of the many chapbook adaptations in which the story was condensed into a 24 page pamphlet such as Ivanhoe; or The Knight Templar and the Jew’s Daughter (n.d. but c.1819).

For a more striking visual representation of one of the scenes in the novel, people could go and see the large painting (see header image) by Daniel Maclise entitled Robin Hood and His Merry Men Entertaining Richard the Lionheart in Sherwood Forest (1839). Additionally, Frank William Warwick Topham painted The Queen of the Tournament: Ivanhoe (1889). If you look in Leeds City Centre today, in one of the Victorian arcades you can see the Ivanhoe clock!

Ivanhoe clock
Ivanhoe Clock, Thornton’s Arcade, Leeds c.1890

Whilst most of the characters from Ivanhoe have faded from memory, Scott’s Robin of Locksley was the model, as I suggested earlier, for every subsequent nineteenth-century portrayal of the outlaw myth. Pierce Egan’s Robin Hood and Little John; or, The Merry Men of Sherwood Forest (1840) casts Robin as a Saxon freedom fighter, as does Thomas Miller’s Royston Gower, or the Days of King John (1838). Even the 1938 movie The Adventures of Robin Hood retained the idea that Robin Hood was an Anglo-Saxon freedom fighter.

ivanhoe comic
Ivanhoe Comic [Source: Wikipedia]

Later in the nineteenth century, Ivanhoe began to be regarded as a story that was mainly for children. Indeed, Charles Hunt painted Ivanhoe, where Victorian children can be seen acting out the jousting tournament in 1871. So we begin to see adaptations of Scott’s story such as The Story of Ivanhoe for Children (1899). Additionally, a whole series of illustrations was completed in the early twentieth century by the American artist Frank Schoonover (1877-1972) for children’s copies of Ivanhoe.

Adaptations for children did not end in the nineteenth century, however; during the 1940s, with the rise of the comic book, Classic Comics released a shortened version of Ivanhoe (1941).

There have been movie and television adaptations of Ivanhoe, and some are better than others. The 1950s American version is perhaps the worst of the lot; although smaller in budget, the best version to watch is probably the 1982 television series starring Anthony Andrews as Ivanhoe. The most recent adaptation came in the late 1990s, and attempted to be a ‘grittier’ version than the 1980s version, but it feels less ‘worthy’ of being an adaptation of a Scott novel than the 1980s version due to poor acting and obviously low-budget sets.

For more information on forthcoming ‘afterlives’ and adaptations of Walter Scott’s work, see Dr. Daniel Cook’s Authorship and Appropriation website which ‘invites writers and artists of all kinds to achieve one ambition: rework the writings of Walter Scott for a new generation’.

Conclusion

There was no doubt of Scott’s popularity while he was still living, but after his death his popularity with readers and scholars alike appears to have enjoyed both high and low points. Yet Ivanhoe is significant in view of the fact that he indeed ‘first turned men’s minds in the direction of the Middle Ages’. He inspired a whole host of medievalist novels, including George R. R. Martin, the author of Game of Thrones, who recommends that all of his fans should at least read Ivanhoe. Part of this post was to encourage you, if you have not read Scott’s Ivanhoe, to do so. As Charlotte Bronte said in 1834:

For fiction, read Scott alone, all novels after his are worthless.

I would never be so bold as to say that all fiction after Scott is worthless, but he is an author who is worthy of your attention.


References

[1] David Hewitt, ‘Scott, Sir Walter (1771–1832)’ in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).
[2] John Henry Newman cited in Alice Chandler, ‘Sir Walter Scott and the Medieval Revival’ Nineteenth-Century Fiction 19: 4 (1965), 315-332.
[3] Jane Millgate, ‘Making It New: Scott, Constable, Ballantyne, and the Publication of Ivanhoe’ Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 34: 4 (1994), 795-811.
[4] All first editions, however, carry the date of 1820 on their title page, as it was originally scheduled for a release in January of the New Year.
[5] Walter Scott, Ivanhoe: A Romance Ed. Andrew Lang (London: MacMillan, 1910), xliii.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Scott, Ivanhoe, 3.
[8] Paul deGategno, Ivanhoe: A Reader’s Companion (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994), 39.
[9] Chandler, ‘Sir Walter Scott and the Medieval Revival’, 324.
[10] W. E. Simeone, ‘The Robin Hood of Ivanhoe’, The Journal of American Folklore 74: 293 (1961), 230-234 (231).
[11] Simeone, ‘The Robin Hood of Ivanhoe’, 230.
[12] Letter from Robert Cadell to Archibald Constable 19 Nov 1819. National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh MS 323, fol. 76v.
[13] Anon. La Belle Assemblée, Jan 1820, 42–44.
[14] The Letters of Sir Walter Scott, ed. H. Grierson et al, 13 Vols. (Edinburgh: Constable, 1932), 6: 115-116.
[15] Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Earl Leslie Griggs, 6 Vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956–71), 6: 24–25
[16] See the chapter ‘Adapting the National Myth: Stage Versions of Scott’s Ivanhoe’ in Philip Cox, Reading Adaptations: Novels and Verse Narratives on the Stage, 1790-1840 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), 77-120.

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