Is it possible for two cultures thrown together on a single landmass to mingle peacefully? It is one of the core questioned asked by Sir Walter Scott in his 1820 novel Ivanhoe. But before you ponder that question too much, get ready for adventure!
The story takes place in the late twelfth century. King Richard the Lionhearted, upon his return from the Crusades, falls into the hands of the Duke of Austria. Prince John, Richard’s hapless brother, has usurped his throne, but things aren’t going well. There are financial concerns, Robin Hood and merry men are running rampant in the forests, and the tensions are high between the native Saxons and the recent Norman conquerors.
The plot details involve love-hate relationships that cut across racial and religious boundaries. The Christian Knight Templar Brian, a Norman, eyes the Jewess Rebecca, herself drawn to the Saxon Ivanhoe. Cedric, a Saxon freeman, has pledged his ward Rowena in marriage to Athelstane, in an attempt to keep the Saxon leaders united against the Normans. Yet she loves Ivanhoe, Cedric’s son, who has been recently disowned by his father for following the Norman king (Richard) to Palestine. As a Jew, Rebecca’s father, Isaac, is hated by all major ethnic groups in England, and yet the nation’s financial woes require that John look to the Jewish community for support.
All of these conflicting ties nearly blow up, and one castle actually does. And who is this mysterious Black Knight that is able to best all other knights in their contests of strength and valor? And when will King Richard ever return and right all the wrongs? Or has he come already?
Ivanhoe is primarily a romance. Adventure, chivalry, fair maidens, jousting battles, and castles with towers and moats appear on nearly every page. But much of the storyline surrounds the conflicts between Saxon and Norman, and their united distaste for the Jews. Still, this is a romance, and the ending is happy. In the last chapter, Scott reminds the well-read follower that English—that strange mix of Norman and Saxon tongues—became the official court language just 150 years after the events in the book. And history shows how King Richard, upon his return, decreed protection for Jewish citizens. For Scott, we can all just get along, but it might take a few knights in shining armor to reach that goal.
(For more information on this book, visit its project page.)