[(essay date 1989) In the following essay, Lauber offers a thematic analysis of Scott's Ivanhoe that notes Scott's criticism of the chivalric code and how the story's reliance upon a central Norman-Saxon conflict was based upon a faulty understanding of twelfth century England.]
Scott's productivity was nearly incredible--as though the author of the Waverley Novels had been a syndicate rather than a man: "December 1819 saw the completion of Ivanhoe--March 20 of The Monastery, The Abbot in September, and Kenilworth in the January following."1 But the public had not yet tired of its favorite. The first edition of ten thousand copies, at thirty shillings a copy (a week's wage for a skilled workman), promptly sold out. Here was a Waverley Novel set in England instead of Scotland, in the twelfth century instead of the comparatively recent past. Patriotic readers welcomed this turn to their own history and the novel's theme of national unity, and were thrilled as well by the siege of Torquilstone Castle, fascinated by Rebecca, the lovely Jewess, and moved by the pathos of her hopeless passion for Ivanhoe. Reviewers were equally delighted. "A splendid masque," said the Quarterly Review; "a splendid Poem," said the Edinburgh Review; "never was the illusion of fancy so complete," observed Blackwood's.2
Ivanhoe added to Scott's European fame as well. Visiting Paris in 1826, he saw an operatic version, richly produced, at the Comédie française. The great Goethe, after reading Ivanhoe, pronounced that he discovered in Scott's work "a wholly new art which has its own laws."3 Without the strangeness of Scottish dialect and the little-known details of Scottish history, the novel was more accessible to European readers (chivalry and the church were parts of their heritage as well), and its rather formal standard English was easily translatable.
Ivanhoe seemed new, yet familiar--almost a guarantee of popularity. As in Waverley there are two heroines--the blonde and proper Rowena and the dark, intense Rebecca. Again, the hero--Wilfred of Ivanhoe--has been dispossessed, disinherited by his father, Cedric, who is angered by his son's friendship with King Richard I, the famous Coeur de Lion (Lion-Heart) and by his love for Rowena. Cedric, a fanatical Saxon nationalist, hates the ruling Normans and hopes to revitalize the Saxon cause by marrying Rowena, a descendant of King Alfred, to Athelstane, who is descended from Harold, the last Saxon king. Like the Jacobites of Waverley and Rob Roy, Cedric expects to reverse the verdict of history--and with no more success. Returning, penniless, from the Holy Land where he has been crusading with Richard, Ivanhoe enters a great tournament at Ashby-de-la-Zouche under the name of "El Desdichado," or "the Disinherited." His horse and armor are provided by Isaac, a rich Jew of York. Ivanhoe vanquishes all his opponents, including an old enemy, Brian de Bois-Guilbert, but is gravely wounded himself. Isaac's daughter, Rebecca, tends his wounds.
Passing through a forest after leaving Ashby, Isaac, Rebecca, Rowena, Ivanhoe, Cedric, and Athelstane are all captured by retainers of...