Ivanhoe is set against the backdrop of the clash between two cultures, the Saxons and the Normans. Saxon is a catch-all term to refer to several Germanic tribes that migrated to the British Isles beginning in about the fifth century; often the term ‘‘Anglo-Saxons’’ is used. At the time of the novel, the Saxons were regarded as native Englanders. In contrast, the Normans were a French people, originating in the northern French province of Normandy. The name is derived from ‘‘Northmen,’’ referring to the Normans’ Scandinavian origins. The two cultures had considerable contact, but matters changed in 1066 when Duke William II of Normandy invaded Britain, subdued the Saxon nobles, and established the Normans as the ruling class of England. This event is generally referred to as the Norman Conquest.
The Saxon nobles, whose land was taken away and whose influence was reduced, resented the Normans. Each group held stereotypes of the other. To the Normans, the Saxons were crude, coarse, and uneducated. To the Saxons, the Normans were haughty, arrogant, and overly sophisticated. The distinction becomes apparent in the opening scene of Ivanhoe when Gurth the swineherd and Wamba discuss pork. Gurth notes that pigs are referred to by their Saxon name, swine, when they are alive and being tended by Saxon laborers. When they are dead, they become pork, a dish fit for lavish Norman feasts. Later, in Chapter 27, Wamba recites to de Bracy a proverb that captures the tension between the Saxons and the Normans:
“Norman saw on English oak,
On English neck a Norman yoke;
Norman spoon in English dish,
And England ruled as Normans wish;
Blythe world to England never will be more,
Till England’s rid of all the four.”
This culture clash motivates Cedric, a Saxon noble, to cut his son, Ivanhoe, out of his will, because Ivanhoe decided to serve the Norman king Richard I during the Third Crusade. Thematically, the character of Ivanhoe functions as a bridge between the two cultures, suggesting that in time the Saxon and Norman cultures will merge and tensions will disappear. In this way the novel reflects events in Scott’s native Scotland. Historically, the English had regarded themselves as superior to the supposedly coarse and backward Scots. The two nations, though, merged in the early eighteenth century.
Ivanhoe depicts a number of religious characters: Prior Aymer, the abbot of Jorvaulx; a friar who turns out to be Friar Tuck, one of Robin Hood’s men; and the palmer, who is Ivanhoe in disguise. Additionally, Isaac and his daughter Rebecca are Jewish, while all the other characters are at least nominally Christian. King Richard and Ivanhoe fought in the Crusades, a series of religious wars fought as European Christians tried to drive Muslims out of the Holy Land. Brian de Bois-Guilbert is a member of the Knights Templar, a religious-military order founded in 1119. The name of the order derived from Jerusalem’s Temple of Solomon, the headquarters of the knights. They originally protected Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land, but over time the order fought many battles in the Crusades and acquired secular power and wealth.
Ivanhoe does not deal with the inner religious life of the characters. Rather, the focus is on religion as a social and cultural institution. De Bois-Guilbert holds power not because of his beliefs but because he belongs to a powerful religious order. Characters such as Prior Aymer are depicted as hypocritical and corrupt, more interested in creature comforts than in the life of the soul. Yet many of the novel’s characters, including Ivanhoe, Rowena, and Rebecca, are profoundly moral, and a character such as Locksley practices a morality outside of church dogma, even though he is an outlaw. The suggestion is that true morality and religion are to be found not in titles and institutions but in having a kind and honorable heart.
Closely related to the theme of religion is antiSemitism, or prejudice against Jews. This prejudice was widespread both at the time of the Crusades and at the time when Scott wrote. Prior to the Crusades, Jews had established communities throughout Europe. These communities tended to remain separate from broader Christian communities. Jews were often seen as outsiders. The Crusades worsened this situation: European Christians came to regard anyone who was not Christian, both Jews and Muslims, as an enemy. During the Third Crusade, antiJewish riots broke out in York, the English city that was home to Isaac and Rebecca. This prejudice continued in Scott’s day, and well beyond.
Scott shocked some of his readers by including sympathetic Jewish characters. While Isaac conforms to some Jewish stereotypes, primarily by being greedy, he has redeeming qualities in his love for his daughter and his kindness to Ivanhoe. Rebecca is an even more sympathetic character. Throughout, she is depicted as noble, kind, and courageous, and both her trial for witchcraft and the unwanted attentions of de Bois-Guilbert make her a character of great sympathy. Many readers expect that Ivanhoe will marry Rebecca, though such a marriage would have been impossible at the time. Again, the suggestion from Scott is that prejudice against Jews is unjust and religious dogma is less important than character.
The novel’s two major heroes, Ivanhoe and King Richard, are brave and chivalrous knights. Chivalry was a code of conduct that knights and others aspired to. It demanded bravery, care for the weak, championship of the good and resistance to evil, loyalty to truth, generosity, and similar virtues. The novel’s heroes and heroines exhibit these virtues.
Scott raises questions about the value of chivalry. In one important exchange in Chapter 29, Rebecca says to Ivanhoe, ‘‘Alas! and what is it, valiant knight, save an offering of sacrifice to a demon of vain glory . . . ? What remains to you as the prize . . . of all the tears which your deeds have caused?’’ Ivanhoe defends chivalry by replying, ‘‘What remains? Glory, maiden—glory! which gilds our sepulchre and embalms our name.’’ Rebecca scoffs at the notion of glory, but Ivanhoe remains adamant:
“Chivalry! Why, maiden, she is the nurse of pure and high affection, the stay of the oppressed, the redresser of grievances, the curb of the power of the tyrant. Nobility were but an empty name without her, and liberty finds the best protection in her lance and her sword.”
Scott questions the value of chivalry by suggesting that King Richard’s quest for adventure comes at the expense of his people. And in the novel’s climactic scene, Rebecca is saved not by heroic action on Ivanhoe’s part but seemingly by fate. Ivanhoe rides in to defend Rebecca in a trial by combat, but he is so exhausted that he falls off his horse. De Bois-Guilbert is defeated not by force of arms but by his own emotions, which lead to his death.
A theme related to chivalry is courtly love, the rules and conventions that governed intense love between members of the royal class, or those at court. European conventions of courtly love developed in France among poets and troubadours, though they had their origins in Muslim lands during the Crusades. While European Christians to this time had regarded women as a source of temptation into lust, based on the biblical story of Adam and Eve, Muslims regarded women more with a sense of worship. Crusaders brought this notion back from the Holy Land, and the conventions of courtly love were then celebrated in songs and poetry. Chief among these conventions was the knightly lover’s belief that his lady-love was a saint, someone beyond reproach, an ideal person.
Many of the characters in Ivanhoe regard women as objects for their own desires. This belief is stated by Malvoisin in Chapter 36: ‘‘Women are but the toys which amuse our lighter hours.’’ In contrast, de Bracy uses the language of courtly love when he tries to woo Rowena: ‘‘Alas! fair Rowena, you are in presence of your captive, not your jailor; and it is from your fair eyes that De Bracy must receive that doom which you fondly expect from him.’’
Ivanhoe is structured around three major quests. The first, which occupies roughly the first third of the novel, involves Ivanhoe’s return to England in disguise and the jousting tournament at Ashby. The second involves the kidnapping of the Saxons, particularly Rowena, by de Bracy and the efforts of King Richard, aided by Locksley, to free the prisoners from de Bracy’s castle. The third involves Rebecca’s capture by de BoisGuilbert, her trial for witchcraft, and Ivanhoe’s heroic effort to win her freedom in trial by combat. Typically, the quest theme in literature leads to greater knowledge, wisdom, or self-awareness on the part of the character who engages in the quest. Difficulties are thrown in the hero’s way, and in the process of overcoming those difficulties, the hero grows and changes. Although the characters in general, including Ivanhoe, remain fairly static, Scott depicts these quests in the context of social growth and change. The book is not a psychological portrait of characters but rather a portrait of a society that grows and changes through the actions and behaviors of its people. The quests, then, represent aspirations for a more just and equitable social order.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Novels for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 31, Sir Walter Scott, Published by Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.