A Looking Glass for Our Time: Lessons From the 200-Year-Old Novel ‘Ivanhoe’

One of 12 Great Books
February 2, 2021 Updated: February 5, 2021

Late last year, in separate conversations with three friends, I realized how slack I had grown in the reading of books. I read more than the average person. I’ve written weekly book reviews for the Smoky Mountain News for over 20 years, and I daily speed through a dozen or more articles online. But compared to my friends, my time spent with a book in my hand was pitiful.

Moreover, I realized how few old books I’ve read in the last decade: novels, histories, and political tracts written before the middle of the last century. Many years ago, I devoured such writers as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, the great American authors who wrote between 1920 and 1960, and French and English novelists now long dead. That habit had vanished without my even taking notice.

And so in late December, I resolved for the New Year to read 12 books, half of them old, in addition to the books required for my reviews.

As a result, this month I found myself sailing back through time almost a thousand years to the England of King Richard and Robin Hood, a time of political turmoil and battles, tournaments and ladies, and a society rich in religious faith. Remarkably, I also discovered in that distant age a mirror reflecting today, in some regards.

Sir Walter Scott was my guide, and our shared vehicle was his most famous novel, “Ivanhoe.”

Title page of Walter Scott’s “Ivanhoe,” first edition, 1820. (Public Domain)
_Ivanhoe-chapter-1st-Wavely illustration
Chapter One frontispiece illustration from the 1871 edition of Walter Scott’s “Ivanhoe,” from the “Waverley Novels.” (PD-US)

Language of Yesteryear

At first, “Ivanhoe” proved a challenge for me. The sentences tend to run longer than our present-day fictions, the paragraphs are fatter, the descriptions of the characters and the landscape are long and detailed, and the author intrudes throughout the story—a literary no-no nowadays.

To illustrate these barriers, I’ve just now opened “Ivanhoe” at random and instantly found these two sentences, which are indicative of Scott’s style:

“Two things displeased Cedric in this speech. It contained the Norman word melee (to express the general conflict), and it evinced some indifference to the honour of the country; but it was spoken by Athelstane, whom he held in such profound respect, that he would not trust himself to canvass his motives or his foibles.”         

After making my way through the first few chapters, however, I soon became an admirer of Scott’s prose, if for no better reason than it is so utterly foreign to our literature today. Moreover, “Ivanhoe,” which was first published in 1819, gave me an appreciation for the literacy and tastes of our ancestors, for in both Britain and the United States, this novel and other works by Scott were wildly popular.

And as I plunged more deeply into the story, I found many of Scott’s themes pertinent to today’s culture and politics.

Poster for the 1913 film “Ivanhoe,” featuring actor King Baggot. London, Middlesbrough: Jordison & Co., Ltd. Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division. (Public Domain)

Stolen Power and Ambition

Believing that his older brother Richard remains in a prison far from England, John and some of the nobles set out to steal the crown from him. Though opposed by men like the Saxon chieftain Cedric, the noble Ivanhoe, and the forest outlaws headed by Locksley (alias Robin Hood), John commands far greater numbers of knights and soldiers. He also has the support of certain counselors pursuing their own ambitions.

A statue of Richard the Lionheart, 1856, by Carlo Marochetti, outside the Palace of Westminster, London. (Mattbuck/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Nearly all the people of power depicted here are ambitious, which is not in itself an unworthy trait. Disguised as the Black Knight, for example, Richard eventually reveals himself to Locksley, Ivanhoe, and his supporters, and he displays the chivalric qualities of that age: largesse, mercy, and courage. He seeks his throne not through the underhanded machinations of his brother, but through honesty, forthrightness, and a desire to gain what rightfully belongs to him.

Others are devious plotters always seeking to put foot on another rung up the ladder. Here’s just one example: Albert Malvoisin, the Preceptor of the Templar Order at Templestowe, “knew how to throw over his vices and his ambition the veil of hypocrisy, and to assume in his exterior the fanaticism which he internally despised.”

These excursions in leadership studies gave me pause to consider our federal government: the elected leaders, the heads of various agencies, and the bureaucrats. How many of them, I wondered, actively work for the good of our country, taking the right path even when it portends dire consequences? How many others in our Capitol put ambition and the cushy job ahead of the flag and patriotism?

Ivanhoe on the Walter Scott Monument, by John Rhind, in Edinburgh, UK. (Stephencdickson/CC BY-SA-4.0)

A Virtue Shared

Knights and commoners, priests and monks, women, even the knaves in this story all hold to a code of honor. For some, honor is for outward show only. For others like Ivanhoe, like Brian de Bois-Guilbert who is willing to throw away his status as a Templar to take as his consort Rebecca but will never abandon what he regards as his honor, and even like Wamba the Fool who risks his life helping his master, Cedric, escape imprisonment and then rescues King Richard from assassins, all hold themselves to some standard demanding integrity and rightful behavior.

Wamba the Fool blows a bugle, in an 1897 illustration by C.E. Brock for “Ivanhoe” by Sir Walter Scott. The British Library. (Public Domain)

Rebecca, the beautiful Jewish woman who near the end of the novel stands accused of sorcery, resists the advances of Bois-Guilbert. And though angered by her refusal to take him as a lover, he nevertheless comes to admire her for her courage. Rather than surrender her honor, she prefers death before dishonor. Scott’s vivid portrait of Rebecca—her faith, her goodness, her knowledge of right and wrong—alone made “Ivanhoe” worth the read.

Rebecca and Wounded Ivanhoe
“Rebecca and the Wounded Ivanhoe,” 1823, by Eugène Delacroix. Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Public Domain)

Until recently, most Americans had some rough sense of honor, a code that demands the individual’s honesty, decency, and respect for others. This sense of personal integrity led to such duels as those fought by Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, and later by Andrew Jackson (who dueled more than 100 times), and became the core of the Code of the Old West.

Burr and Hamilton duel
A code of honor sparked the duel between American politicians Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, in Weehawken, New Jersey. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Comparing Scott’s characters to the men and women in our Congress and in our federal agencies made me wonder whether honor, however diminished, still exists among these people. Is there in them a deep-seated code of righteousness like that of Rebecca? Or do they put on a show of honor, like putting on a dinner jacket or a cocktail dress?

The Haughty Normans         

Although “Ivanhoe” was set decades after William I’s Norman invasion of England in 1066, the strife between Norman and Saxon continued. The Normans considered the Saxons uncouth and quarrelsome, while the Saxons despised their Norman overlords for the destruction of their culture and for the arrogance with which they ruled the land.

Without that invasion, without the conquest of England and the gradual merging of these cultures, everything from our English language to our laws would undoubtedly be quite different today. We can be grateful for that merger. Nevertheless, Scott offers a fine account of elites changing and sometimes crushing a culture they regard as inferior.

Given this theme, I couldn’t help but compare the oppressive and haughty Normans to our D.C. elites. Few of them, Republican or Democrat, elected officials or bureaucrats, seem to care about the people I know: the neighbor who heads off to work every morning at 5:30 and puts in a 12-hour day, the guys who run our local auto repair shop, and the manager at the Soul Mountain Café who no matter her long hours always greets me with a kind word and smiling eyes above the requisite mask.

Our leaders want respect, but they give little in return. Have the Locksleys and Ivanhoes among us, I wondered, grown more aware of this contempt often shown by a government for its citizens?

Illustration_by_C_E_Brock_for_Ivanhoe-Ivanhoe with Cedric
Ivanhoe begs his father’s forgiveness, in an 1897 illustration by C.E. Brock for “Ivanhoe” by Walter Scott. The British Library. (Public Domain)

Arrogance Today

When Bois-Guilbert discovers that the Grand Master of the Order intends to charge Rebecca with witchcraft, he retorts: “Will future ages believe that such stupid bigotry ever existed?”

By our standards, the characters of “Ivanhoe” are a superstitious lot, fearful of witches, ghosts, and demons, and relying on the intervention of saints to protect them. Some of us may smile at their credulity and their illusions.

But what, I wondered after reading Bois-Guilbert’s angry words, will the future make of us? How will those not yet born regard a culture and a government that allowed people to select their gender and sex, that permitted biological males to compete in female sports, that mangled the use of pronouns? What will they say of a government trillions of dollars in debt that continued to spend money rather than look for ways to pay down that debt? What will they say of a nation that locked down its businesses, churches, and schools, despite increasing evidence that such measures have long-term painful effects?

Rebecca appeals to Brian de Bois-Guilbert, in an 1897 illustration by C.E. Brock for “Ivanhoe” by Walter Scott. The British Library. (Public Domain)

Looking Ahead

Who knew that a hoary old chestnut like “Ivanhoe” could raise such questions and invite such comparisons?

Next up on the list is Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Devils,” which I was once determined to read but then failed to do so. Here’s a part of the blurb on the back of the copy I own: “The satirical portraits of the revolutionaries, with their naivety, ludicrous single-mindedness and readiness for murder and destruction, might seem exaggerated—until we consider their all-too-recognizable descendants in the real world ever since.”

Sounds about right for our times.

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust On Their Wings,” and two works of non-fiction, “Learning As I Go” and “Movies Make The Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.