Walter Scott's classic novel Ivanhoe is, in my opinion, an excellent read. Written and completed 200 years ago this November, it combines a pleasant reading experience with good moral values and strong characters and (for the teacher) a great source of history as it engulfs the reader into life during the medieval time period.
Setting the stage
The story takes place in England, about 1200 A.D. It had been about a century since the French-Viking people known as the Normans had taken over control of England. To the common people of Anglo-Saxon descent, these new rulers are tyrants who look down and exploit them.
The king is Richard I, but he has been away with the crusades. His brother, Prince John (yep, we've heard of him) reigns in his stead and, in reality, had taken over the kingdom.
Another group of interest is known as the “Knights Templar.” Originally commission to protect pilgrims in the holy land, this order was an interesting hybrid of practices.
They were knights and warriors of the purest kind.
They also lived the life of a monk; being very pious in their life, having their religious rituals and forbidding to marry.
Lastly, but certainly not least, are the Jews. The laws of the time had restricted them in their professions to either money lenders or merchants. In the book, the Christians look down on them as dishonorable, tight-fisted lovers of money. For their part, the Jews didn't hold the Christians in any higher regard themselves.
Some of the characters, in brief:
Saxon lord and proud of it. He detests all things Norman and longs for a Saxon to again sit on the throne of England.
Wilfred of Ivanhoe
Cedric's son. His was previously disinherited and disavowed by his father for following king Richard on his crusade and for becoming like a Norman.
Ward to Cedric, she and Wilfred are in love with each other.
Kin to Cedric and the man Cedric wants Rowena to marry. Their marriage is part of his ambition to have a Saxon rule over England.
A Jewess and daughter of Isaac of York, a rich money-lender. A kindhearted woman, she knows how to apply plants for healing. She is very good at this.
You simply must like Rebecca, because not only is she a good person at heart, she also has a moral fortitude to match. Whether she is in a cell fearing being physically put-upon, or facing a very real prospect of being burned at the stake, she is immovable in staying the course in doing what she feels is right.
Brian de Bois-Guilbert
A knight-Templar and the chief bad-guy in the novel.
The “merry men”
Yes, they're in the story. However, the book does not refer to them as the "merry men." Robin Hood introduces himself as Robin of Locksley, and friar Tuck is mentioned by name. Everyone else is just referred to as outlaws or bandits.
The plot – in brief
In the beginning, Cedric is holding a feast prior to an upcoming jousting tournament.
Amongst the contestants in the tournament itself is an unknown knight who refuses to identify himself and remains in his armor. The unknown knight, known only as "the disinherited knight," carries the day; ending up badly wounded and fainting due to a loss of blood. He is whisked away before anyone can find out who he is.
The disinherited knight, who we learn is Wilfred of Ivanhoe, gets treated for his wounds by Rebecca and, with her care, he begins his recovery back to health.
Later, a party containing Cedric, Rebecca, her father and others set out through the wilderness and end up being attacked by a group of what appear to be outlaws. They are, in fact, Brian de Bois-Guilbert and his gang. the group gets kidnapped and is taken back to his castle. The men are to be held for ransom. However, Brian makes advancements to Rebecca (nothing bad ends up happening) and wants her to marry him. She refuses.
Meanwhile, some of Cedric's people meet up with the merry men and enough of a force is gathered to attack the castle and rescue the prisoners … Almost.
In the final fighting, Brian takes Rebecca and rides to a Templar castle. There she finds herself on trial as a witch. The trial is a fraud and the witnesses phony, but nobody is prepared to speak up about it. The inevitable verdict is reached. Finally, she looks at a note slipped to her by Brian before the trial. It advises her to ask for a champion.
In this day disputes were often settled by the two parties fighting it out. By making this request she asked for the matter to be settled by combat and asked for somebody to be her champion to fight for her.
But who would fight for her? Only one can come to her rescue, Wilfred of Ivanhoe.
Still recovering from his wounds and barely able to ride, he rushes in to be Rebecca's champion. She had saved him and, Jew or not, he is prepared to do right by her.
The ending? It all turns out for the right (almost). Ivanhoe jousts Brian de Bois-Guilbert who dies, but not from wounds of combat. The strain on his heart between needing to do his best to defeat Rebecca's champion at the loss of her life proved too much.
So, the guy gets the girl, Wilfred and Rowena go off and get married. Ivanhoe is reconciled to his father Cedric. Saxon and Norman move towards getting along better with each other.
And Rebecca? She had fallen for Wilfred. But in the final analysis, he is untouchable. So she ends up moving away.
A happy ending (largely). Just the way a story should end (almost).
(1952) A good movie that does as much justice to a book as any 90-minute movie can. Elizabeth Taylor makes a very good Rebecca.
On the web
This presentation covers all aspects of knights, becoming a knight, code of conduct, etc.
Medieval Jousting - Hever Castle - The Knights of Royal England
Video showing highlights of modern recreation of a jousting tournament.
Jews In Medieval England
A brief telling of the Jewish experience in medieval England.
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