Tuesday, May 19, 2015

On Authors, Ivanhoe & Sir Walter Scott

Back to the 2015 Classics Challenge. Here's a funny thing ... the reason I signed up for this comes down to a Card Game.

For years, my family has played a card game called Authors. (Kinda similar to Go Fish but with famous authors of classic novels.) And every time we play, I hope to collect the works of Sir Walter Scott.

Something about his cards has always intrigued me. Perhaps it's the blue gaze in his eyes or his dashing cravat. Perhaps it's the titles, which include Lady of the Lake and Ivanhoe, tales by their very name that inspire the romantic in me with thoughts of chivalry, knights in armor and damsels in distress.

I signed on for the 2015 Classics Challenge so I could finally have no further excuse to delay the reading of a book authored by Sir Walter Scott. And when the gauntlet for this category was thrown -- a book with only a character's name as its title, I selected Ivanhoe. And I was not disappointed.

Let's begin with the plot, which is well crafted and rolls out artfully. See, Scott was originally a poet. He didn't start writing novels until his middle years -- guess that gives hope to any aspiring author of my age out there!  His first love and early success was as a poet. Bet you didn't know that Sir Walter Scott was the best known, widest read and most popular poet of the Romantic Period. He was highly influenced by his friend Lord Byron. So, the words selected and descriptions used in this tale evoke intense visual images -- a movie in the mind if you will.

The novel (set in the 12th Century) follows the tale of Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe. Disinherited by his Saxon father as a result of his love of his father's ward Rowena and his refusal to deny that love amidst his father's own "career" goals for the girl, Ivanhoe returns from the Crusade to find the land a mess due to the machinations of the Norman Overlords, the crafty Templars and the wicked Prince John.

Of course, it begins with a tournament in which the disguised Ivanhoe triumphs (with the help of a mysterious Black Knight) then collapses. During that tournament we meet long-bowman Locksley (aka Robin Hood) and a bit later run into his friends Allan-a-Dale and Friar Tuck. The tale also follows the travels of this mysterious Black Night aka Sir Sluggish who we always kinda suspect and eventually know for a fact is Richard the Lion-heart, who has a passion and preference for acts of valor and is in disguise (of course). Underlying the plot rests the hatred and conflict of Norman vs Saxon. But perhaps more significantly to me is the blatant social commentary on religious intolerance, specifically addressing the animosity between Christian (referred to as Nazarene) and Jew.

On the surface, the book reads as an entertaining, escapist romance with swordplay, kidnappings, beautiful women locked in towers, and a Champion who rescues the damsel before she is burnt at the stake. There's Locksley, who wins the Archery Tournament with his bow, splitting an arrow in half.  Sir Walter Scott, poet that he was, created with this writing the genre that became known as Historical Fiction. For that I will ever be grateful.

But Ivanhoe is more than chivalry and knights in armor, though if you are looking just for that, it is a well-written example that I highly endorse.  

What truly struck me in reading this novel was the remarkable ways Scott portrayed the oppression of the Jewish people and the words he chose/characters he created to get his point across that "people are people no matter their religious preference." Pretty forward-thinking for the time. Made me like Scott even more than I did before!

Such intolerance is beyond my understanding and I reject it fully. Different isn't bad. But when it came to religion in the 12th Century world, guess it was. Reading about such cruelty simply because of faith choices -- or because one was a Norman and the other a Saxon -- set my teeth on edge. I mean, Christianity is founded on the principle of selfless love ... intolerance and unkindness is NOT what was written or condoned on the pages of any Bible I've ever owned. Why it has ever been so is beyond my understanding. But clearly, Scott didn't like it. So he portrayed his Jewish characters as more heroes than villains and called to question the behavior of the Christians.

The Jews of the time were wealthy money-lenders -- the Normans depended on their loans to enjoy the life they wanted to live. But, they mistreated and victimized the very people who helped them. The Christians were completely intolerant of the Jewish people. Yet while Scott portrayed the moneylender Isaac the Jew as a victim whose very treatment affected is behavior and psychology, Isaac's daughter Rebecca rose above that ... choosing instead to be gracious, forgiving and selfless to the end. That's all part of the story Scott crafted so beautifully.

I can see why many critics consider Rebecca -- who doesn't end up with the guy but I suspect (and my romantic heart likes to believe) ends up with a portion of his heart anyway -- as the book's true heroine. Scott even states in his final paragraph that recollection of Rebecca's beauty and magnanimity recurred to Ivanhoe's mind more than once in a while. And, Scott's positive portrayal of the Jewish people amidst the strife they suffered reflects a call for humanity and a concern for religious tolerance to the world of his own time. Gotta say, I didn't expect to find that in this tale. 

And while the unkindness bothered me, I enjoyed the read immensely. I was happy to see that the most worthy characters DID rise above the muck they faced. I was also pleased that the women of the book weren't weak. And in no place were the characters two-dimensional. They were all complex with their own merits and foibles.   

I started playing Authors over 40 years ago and finally made the time to pick up Ivanhoe. Why did I put it off? I don't know. Why do we put off things we truly want to do and wait for the right time? We only get so much time after all ...

Thanks Ron, for helping me find the right time. I highly recommend this book to someone seeking 1) a book with a character name as the title, 2) classic historical fiction with romance and chivalry and 3) a darn good read with poetic and evocative word choices by an author considered upon his death in 1832 as the most famous novelist the world had ever known.

Thanks Sir Walter Scott for the great adventure up close and personal with my favorite medieval heroes. Thanks for strong female characters who didn't fall down when they ran, stood up for their beliefs and kept their faith and strength to the very end. Ivanhoe now holds a place in my heart. 

Sharing him with Rebecca and Rowena is okay ... I'm in good company.
                                                                                        -- Jenni