Write what you know, says the old proverb. Well, apparently no one is listening, because everywhere I look there’s an author jabbering on about something clearly beyond their field of expertise. Tolkien’s violent, beer-swilling depiction of dwarves in The Hobbit made me wonder if he had ever actually met a dwarf; William Golding, though never having been stranded on a tropical island, had no hesitation writing about such an experience in Lord of the Flies; and don’t get me started on The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe author C. S. Lewis. The man studied literature and philosophy—not wardrobe manufacturing—and his writing shows it. So it was a refreshing treat to read something credible in Ivanhoe. Here we have a story about knights, written by an actual knight, Sir Walter Scott. And I dare say it is a formidable warrior who lives to write about his profession. I expect many an enemy of England and Christendom met his demise at the pointy end of Sir Walter’s lance.
Ivanhoe takes us to England in the Middle Ages. The country is in turmoil under the corrupt leadership of Prince John, who intends to usurp the throne from his brother, King Richard the Lionheart (last reports have Richard captured and imprisoned while crusading in the holy land). There are spiteful divisions among England’s inhabitants: Norman and Saxon are enemies, and Christian and Jew are not exactly best buddies either. At a tournament presided over by Prince John, three mysterious men distinguish themselves: a knight who reveals himself to be Wilfred of Ivanhoe, returned from the crusades; an unknown knight in black who disappears before he can be awarded his prize; and a bold fellow of the forest whose skill with a bow is unparalleled. It’s not all about the fighting though; a couple of stunners, Lady Rowena and the Hebrew Rebecca, catch the eye of more than a few admirers at the tournament. From here we get into the real action: treachery, kidnappings, a siege, romance, an ambush, and a rescue by a band of merry outlaws. It builds to a climax of courage and chivalry, with Ivanhoe proving worthy of his renown. The ending is bittersweet: peace returns somewhat to the kingdom after the knight in black is revealed as King Richard, while Ivanhoe gets married, though not to the woman this reader wanted him to end up with.
I was surprised how much I enjoyed the non-action elements of this story. The way the good guys follow their code of honour and bravery is as interesting as the actual battles they fight. The romance, too, drew me in. And I don’t usually like romances; I’m very macho; I like football and can name over four types of cars.
The greatest surprise though in Ivanhoe was that Robin Hood is in it. I didn’t know you could do that! Take a character from folklore and insert them into your own story—brilliant. At the beginning of most novels I feel a little lost, like I’m attending a party where I don’t know anyone, and I’m trying to remember everyone’s name and what they do. But in Ivanhoe, Robin Hood shows up and I’m like, “Oh thank God this guy’s here. At least now I kind of know someone. I’m going to hang around him until I get to know the other characters.” This inclusion of Robin Hood also has me wondering what other surprise characters await in the novels I have not yet read. In Treasure Island, might the protagonist’s best friend be Hercules? Will Batman make a cameo in Catcher in the Rye? Does Snoopy turn villain in The Jungle Book? I can’t wait to find out.
If Sir Walter was half as good with a sword as he was with a pen, I pity the poor Saracen who met him in battle. I give Ivanhoe 8/10.
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