Why Don't Students at This School Read Ivanhoe Anymore?

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Defenders of Ivanhoe sometimes suggest that they learned from the book to appreciate a compelling and well-managed plot.

Few experienced English teachers will not have encountered such a query, usually posited in a confrontational tone, during meetings with parents or alumni; I have attempted to respond to some form of this challenge at three different schools. The citation of Ivanhoe in a discussion of curriculum flags an attitude common among a party of educated but nonacademic adults, a rather narrow version of the traditionalist stance in the "canon" debate: The ability to think and write with sophistication results largely from reading particular 18th- and 19th-century British novels. (Studying grammar systematically helps, too, they would allow.) While the particular text adduced is not always Sir Walter Scott's romance (substitute Vanity Fair, for instance) Ivanhoe is so frequently named that it might aptly serve as the escutcheon for champions of this outlook.

Prompted by the coincidence last spring of yet another challenge from a parent and the appearance of a tedious made-for-television film of Ivanhoe, I decided to reread the book. Like Cedric the Saxon, father of its eponymous hero, Ivanhoe is slow, thick, single-minded, and antiquated. The novel is not so bad that a 15- or 16-year-old enamored of fantasy or adventure and unconcerned with style could not find it enjoyable, and as a reflection of literary romanticism, it makes a revealing study. As a teaching text for high school students, however, it resembles a suit of chain mail--difficult to penetrate, yet full of holes.

Defenders of Ivanhoe sometimes suggest that they learned from the book to appreciate a compelling and well-managed plot. The action, focused on the efforts of Saxon nobles in 12th-century England to maintain pride and position and to resist exploitation in the face of the Norman conquest, is unarguably complicated, with a large cast of characters and frequently shifting venues. In a narrow sense, Scott wins his battle with plot--he eventually weaves its many threads into a patchy tapestry, less Bayeux than blarney--but necessity and plausibility are mortally wounded in the fray. Even the author must have flushed with embarrassment to contrive the premonition calling Wilfred of Ivanhoe to battle at a crucial moment ("Have you never," he asks, "felt an apprehension of approaching evil, for which you in vain attempted to assign a cause?"), or the miracle cure enabling him to take up arms and fight. Lanced only a week earlier and bedridden, his only hope, apparently, the ministrations of the Jewess Rebecca, the hero makes this report on his health: "It is better than my fondest hope could have anticipated; either my wound has been slighter than the effusion of blood led me to suppose, or this balsam hath wrought a wonderful cure upon it."

Scott once even acknowledges that he has violated his own better judgment in plot design. Happier proving his manhood with a cup in the great hall than with a lance in the jousting list or field of combat, the noble Athelstane of Coningsburgh, scion of the great Alfred himself, deserves, by the logic of the plot, to die, and die he does--for a while. At Athelstane's wake, however, Scott causes the blue-blooded drunkard to reappear. Scott actually offers a footnote of apology ("The resuscitation of Athelstane ... was a tour de force, to which the Author was compelled to have recourse by the vehement entreaties of his friend and printer, who was inconsolable on the Saxon being conveyed to the tomb"), but resurrecting his plot's credibility after such episodes proves a feat beyond the prowess of the author.

Some who fly the pennon of Ivanhoe have claimed that in his depiction of character Scott offers a microcosm of human experience. To do so would indeed be a sign of great storytelling. In this regard, the author strives to emulate Homer and Shakespeare, two of the writers quoted in his chapter epigraphs; he certainly can't be faulted for his models. Scott creates a cast that embraces all social classes--esne, yeoman, noble, royalty. If even one of these figures were a round representation of a believable human being, his achievement would be impressive.

Sir Walter Scott never met a stock character he didn't like: the faithful servant (loyal, lumpish Gurth); the clever Fool (Wamba); the unshakably pure and beautiful heroine (the Saxon and Jewish counterparts Rowena and Rebecca); the dastardly villain (the arrogant, corrupt Bois-Guilbert and De Bracy, among others). Imagine the most shallow, ridiculous, and ugly stereotypes, and you will know Scott's French (the invariably "dark" and "luxurious" Normans) and his Jews (Rebecca's father Isaac, most notably).

The 'it worked for me therefore it must be right for everyone' argument reflects a self-deluding nostalgia.

In fairness to Scott, his Rebecca is deeply principled and intelligent--not merely "Jewish" and in fact almost human. In one of the book's most intriguing passages, Scott puts in her mouth an articulate denunciation of the values at the core of his romance: Is "glory" a sufficient reward, she asks Ivanhoe, "for a life spent miserably that ye may make others miserable? Or is there such virtue in the rude rhymes of a wandering bard, that domestic love, kindly affection, peace and happiness, are so wildly bartered, to become the hero of those ballads which vagabond minstrels sing to drunken churls over their evening ale?"

The last word in this debate, however, belongs to the hero, Rebecca ultimately conceding that "it ill beseemeth the Jewish damsel to speak of battle or of war." In the end, though showing that Ivanhoe in his heart of hearts loves Rebecca more deeply than he does the less interesting Rowena, Scott refuses to throw down the gauntlet at convention: The Saxon hero marries the Saxon heroine, and Rebecca devotes herself to thoughts of heaven and "works of kindness to men."

Other characters of psychological complexity Scott relegates to secondary roles: Waldemar Fitzurse, the retainer of Prince John (later King John, he of Magna Carta fame), who recognizes the stupidity and corruption of his master, yet continues to serve him; the witchlike Saxon princess Ulrica, who, in despair, had become a concubine to the Normans during her youth and now lives in self-hatred. Such figures, the author perhaps feared, might steal the spotlight from characters fighting a clearly delineated battle of good and evil.

One parent who urged a return to Ivanhoe in the English curriculum advocated the book as a model for style. With Scott's prose in front of them, he argued, students could learn to write complex sentences. Perhaps he had in mind expository passages such as the following:

"Desolate, however, as it was, this was the apartment of the castle which had been judged most fitting for the accommodation of the Saxon heiress; and here she was left to meditate upon her fate, until the actors in this nefarious drama had arranged the several parts which each of them was to perform. This had been settled in a council held by Front-de-Boeuf, De Bracy, and the Templar, in which, after a long and warm debate concerning the several advantages which each insisted deriving from his peculiar share in this audacious enterprise, they had at length determined the fate of their unhappy prisoners."

As stiff and clunky as a rusty ball-and-chain, it is this kind of writing, in fact, that gives complex sentences a bad name. The notion that young people learn to write well by reading great authors is, of course, a fundamental premise of any sound English curriculum--and happily, in most schools students still study Shakespeare, Austen, Joyce, Woolf. Indeed, even in the likes of Toni Morrison, say, or Richard Rodriguez, writers of the sort who, Scott's proponents might feel, have supplanted their favorite, one may occasionally encounter a passage of stylistic grace and sophistication.

Wherein, then, lies the appeal of Ivanhoe to those who remember the book fondly? The answer has to do partly with processes of education, with learning to read and the nature of young people's introduction to serious literature. With its obvious symbolism and heavy-handed irony, Scott's romance allows an inexperienced reader--one perhaps engaging a substantial literary narrative for the first time--to feel intellectually sophisticated in the presence of art and apparent complexity. The book's pasteboard historical backdrop creates an illusion of depth. The unambiguous nature of the story's characters and moral conflict invites the audience to take sides and to exult when the right knights and their brave ladies prevail. I wonder how many of Ivanhoe's champions have reread the novel as adults.

The novel itself offers an instructive resolution for teachers, for parents, and for students as they make judgments about the books young people will be asked to read.

Books that are cleverly simplistic, in fact, often make effective teaching texts; such novels as Siddhartha, Animal Farm, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest are much beloved of high school students. If works like these excite students (I don't think Ivanhoe will any longer, if it ever did) and lead them to enthusiastic exploration of subtler literature, then they may deserve a place on school reading lists despite their deficiencies.

One cannot help detecting in the challenge of those who bear the Ivanhoe escutcheon, however, a political agenda as well. The it-worked-for-me-therefore-it-must-be-right-for-everyone argument reflects a self-deluding nostalgia based in resentment not just of educational but of social change. In both form and content, Ivanhoe symbolizes this outlook with peculiar appropriateness.

The book's subtitle, "A Romance," not only denotes the genre in which Scott labors but also implicitly identifies a set of aesthetic perspectives from which the name of the literary movement Scott follows is derived. As one of its defining impulses, romanticism is radically retrospective, questing for insight from the past--beyond exploitation of nature, beyond mechanical explanations of the universe, beyond rationalistic views of human experience. Many romantic writers purposefully adopt a form that is medieval in origin: the symbolic adventure narrative called romance. Transformed, elements of this genre become powerful tools in the hands of writers like Coleridge and Hawthorne. While lacking such artists' depth of vision, Scott shares with them the romantic way of seeing.

Those who cite Ivanhoe while advocating a return to the past in English curricula, then, are advancing an old book that is itself retrospective in form. But Scott's romance also looks backward in its subject matter: The plot is set 600 years in the past, and within that time frame, the book's central characters yearn for a golden age in the even more distant past. The thematic premise of Ivanhoe is the idea that the past--not just the pre-Industrial Revolution past but the pre-Norman past, the world of Saxon England--was better than the present. From the vantage point of quadruple regression, readers with a battle-ax to grind might easily find in the text an allegory for late-20th-century concerns: The Normans are the canon-sackers and multiculturalists, the grammar-busters, the destroyers of tradition; the doomed Saxons are the keepers of classic literature, the guardians of the language, the preservers of a purer past. But in reality the days of yore are only gilded by the dim light of selective memory; like the Cedric and Athelstane, Ivanhoe's modern-day champions base their position on emotion recollected in senility.

Yet the novel itself offers an instructive resolution for teachers, for parents, and for students as they make judgments about the books young people will be asked to read. In the eyes of his staunchly Saxon father, Ivanhoe has betrayed his family, his race, and his nation by following the Norman king Richard Coeur-de-Lion. But Richard and Ivanhoe, having alike learned to judge men not by the color of their cuirass but by the content of their character, save the day for Cedric, Rowena, and England. The bad Normans and lazy Saxons are punished (most of them, anyway), and the good Saxon and the good Norman seek out and draw from the best in one another. With tolerance and compromise, schools and their constituencies can carve a path to a future in which all students will read and write with confidence and fluency.

Except that, alas, Richard died prematurely, as Scott reminds us, and with him "perished all the projects which his ambition and his generosity had formed."

Vol. 17, Issue 14, Pages 31, 33

Published in Print: November 26, 1997, as Why Don't Students at This School Read Ivanhoe Anymore?
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