16 January 2011

Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, or Scott’s ‘Ivanhoe’

Rebecca (Elizabeth Taylor) and Rowena (Joan Fontaine)

A reference in the notes to Trollope’s Barchester Towers prompted the realization that I had never read Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, nor indeed any of Scott’s books since a youthful attempt to decode Donizetti’s Lucia by reading Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor. That attempt ended in frustration: the novel struck me as deeply dull, and Lucy’s mad scene is dismissed in a couple of lines, perhaps the only instance of verbal economy to be found anywhere in the book. Now the editors of Trollope gave me to understand that Ivanhoe (first published in 1819) inspired a national craze for all things Anglo-Saxon, including in the present case the perspectives of the Thorpes and the fête hosted by Miss Thorpe. While many critics credit Ivanhoe with the rise of historical fiction, Gothic architecture, Pre-Raphaelite painting, and notions of chivalry persistent in 19th-century Britain, the book seems at the very least to be responsible for the otherwise largely inscrutable “Anglo-Saxon attitudes” in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass (published in 1871).

Scott’s novel inspired all kinds of 19th-century notions.
Here, Ivanhoe pays tribute to Rowena.

In short, Ivanhoe is a seminal work by a seminal author, but my knowledge of it was almost entirely derived from the MGM Technicolor extravaganza starring Robert and Elizabeth Taylor; and from Edward Eager’s delightful children’s story, Knight’s Castle, which is itself inspired more by the movie than by the book. I determined to return to the source, and what I found is one of the most curious pieces of fiction I’ve ever read.

Taylor-made: Robert and Liz, in the MGM movie.

Start with the title character, whose role in the plot is minimal and whose appearances are sporadic: Scott might just as easily, and more justifiably, have called the book Richard the Lion-Hearted or Brian the Templar — or, most aptly of all, Rebecca the Jewess. Even Wamba, the Saxon jester, has more to do than does Ivanhoe himself.

The plot that thrilled generations of readers is in constant struggle with Scott’s prose, which is verbose in the extreme. A character may typically take a long paragraph just to tell another to make haste, and my second-hand paperback edition provided very few notes (mostly Scott’s own, along with a thin glossary) to explain obscure terminology. (No attempt was made to explain the constant misuse of participles for past tense: “He sprung forth,” e.g.) Scott lards the story with “poetic” descriptions and song lyrics, and toward the end of the book, when poor Rebecca awaits her doom, Scott meanders off for several scarcely relevant chapters, sabotaging his own suspense. The resolution of the plot, hitherto relatively plausible, depends on one improbable death and an even more outlandish resurrection.

All-singing! All-jousting!
(Well, almost.)

In short, modern readers will find the odds stacked against them. And yet the damned thing does work. Almost against my will, I found myself caught up in the story, and this is largely due to Scott’s characterization, which in a couple of cases — notably the Jews, Isaac of York and his daughter — proves quite compelling. We feel so strongly the injustices they suffer that we care about what happens to them.*

Having lived so long among Christians, for whom the height of courtesy is to address him as “dog” and not to kill him on the spot, Isaac has got something very nearly like a split personality. He’s timorous and groveling among Christians, but wily and proud among his own people. Rebecca has inherited only her father’s intelligence, not his fear; to this she adds a keen awareness of the world in which she lives. Illustrating this, her debates with the villain Bois-Guilbert are wise and well-spoken.**

Rebecca is also active, in a way that her foil, Rowena, is not: both are held captive, both are victims and the objects of unwanted passions, but at least Rebecca does something: she heals the wounded Ivanhoe, using means Rowena doesn’t possess. Presaging and reinforcing the ideal of womanhood that would be held up by subsequent generations, Rowena prays and suffers nobly, but mostly she just sits around and looks pretty.

The real heroine: Taylor as Rebecca
Scott suggests that Rowena is even prettier, but MGM won’t let us think so.

Indeed, the novel’s ostensible hero and heroine, Ivanhoe and Rowena, are also the least interesting characters, without even the broad brushstrokes Scott uses to paint Friar Tuck, for example, or the oafish Athelstane: those characters are unsubtle, but at least they’re entertaining. Not so our Saxon paragons, and it’s a testament to the Victorian reader’s stubbornness that these two, with only dull virtues to recommend them, were so exalted in the popular imagination. (That said, Scott himself notes that, when the novel originally appeared, readers already complained that Rebecca should have ridden off with Ivanhoe at the end.)

One leaves Ivanhoe amused by the quaint literary tastes of those who came before us, and we may wonder why 19th-century readers were inspired to emulate any part of this singularly violent society, in which robbery and hostage-taking are not only commonplace but the foundation of much of the economy. Scott depicts a failed government, a corrupt and oppressive church, and general lawlessness and injustice. Why did this look like fun to anyone? (Least of all women readers.)

Felix Aylmer as Isaac, with Taylor as Rebecca

In most respects, I don’t think Scott intended Ivanhoe as a blueprint, but it is clear he sought to combat anti-Semitism; his sympathy for his Jewish characters is impressively far ahead of his time, and he surely understood that Isaac and Rebecca are oppressed by the same kinds of prejudices that afflicted many (most?) Jews in his own day. If Ivanhoe was indeed as influential as some critics claim, then it’s striking that so many readers ignored the theme that was so important to Scott — since far worse oppression of the Jews was still to come, a century after his death.

And yet Scott’s tale did resonate in later years, and I wind up where I started: remembering MGM’s lavish post-war spectacle. Only a few years after the Shoah, Ivanhoe was dusted off, illustrating once again the nobility of the Jews, and demonstrating that the superior Christian isn’t he who oppresses a non-believer but he who defends her — as Ivanhoe defends Rebecca. This message might have done more good in the early 1930s, when Nazi policies began to take effect, and it might have been more useful still if Isaac had led an armed uprising. But as an after-the-fact affirmation — as if to say, to those who needed to hear it, “We did the right thing in fighting the Nazis” — Ivanhoe isn’t bad. Scott might well have been pleased.

*NOTE: To the extent that Scott intended the conquering Normans’ oppression of native Saxons to reflect Scotland’s politics in his own day, his point is largely lost to a modern American reader.

**It’s anyone’s guess why Bois-Guilbert indulges Rebecca’s taste for debate when he could be raping her. This long-lost fragment may help to explain matters, however.


Anonymous said...

Hey, I think you made a mistake in the 8th paragraph : you wrote : "The novel's ostensible hero and heroine, Ivanhoe and Rebecca, are also the least interesting characters" : you meant "Ivanhoe and ROWENA", didn't you ?
I think you're tough with Christians. They certainly committed faults against the Jews -Pope John Paul II asked for forgiveness for that- ; nevertheless, I don't recognize Christians when you write that "the height of courtesy is to address him as “dog” and not to kill him on the spot"... Since you mention the Shoah and Nazi oppression, well, you know, many of those who fought the Nazis were convinced Christians.
I hope my English is not to bad : I'm French...

William V. Madison said...

Merci beaucoup! I did indeed mean Rowena -- how did I miss that? Maybe I'm so bored by her that I can't remember her name. Anyway, I've made the correction.

As for the Christians, in many cases I'm probably referring more to the Christian characters in the book, rather than to Christians generally. On the other hand, Jews suffered terribly at the hands of Christians in the real-life Middle Ages and in Scott's time (which is why he wrote the book), and they continue to do so in some places today.

Unfortunately, many Christians throughout history have found it difficult to follow instructions: "Love thy neighbor," Jesus said.

Anonymous said...

Hi, that's me again. I should have written "I hope my English is not TOO bad".... How did I miss that? ;-)
You're right, Jews suffered terribly throughout history. Not only at the hands of Christians: we could almost say that the hole history of the Jew people is a history of suffering. And this, even before Roman occupation, when the first Christians appeared.
Christians remain imperfect human beings, and as everybody on this planet, they commit faults. I admit that it's more shocking when the fault is committed by someone who decided, so as to follow Jesus, to "love his neighbour"....
However, let's be fair with Christians: they also did -and still do- much more good than what our contemporaries usually admit. Including in their relations with Jews. I know many "Ivanhoes" in real life! They'd deserve to be better known. Why aren't they? Maybe because, as we say "le bien ne fait pas de bruit" -good makes no noise-, it's true that one single falling tree makes more noise than a hole growing forest....

Anonymous said...

In my previous comment, I meant of course "the whole history of the Jew people" (and not the "hole" as I wrote).

If you can read French, I advise you to click here: http://www.marianne2.fr/Pie-XII-et-si-Marianne-se-trompait_a183428.html

This text from a French newspaper, about a Christian (Pope Pie XII), Jews and Nazis, is really very interesting. It gives a very good example about what I said before, about the "Ivanhoes" we don't know....

William V. Madison said...

Interesting article. I'm perhaps too cynical regarding the beatification of Pius: it strikes me as more a matter of politics than of devotion (like the current campaign to elevate Isabella I of Castile, who helped to launch the Spanish Inquisition). For the purposes of your argument, someone like Miep Gies is probably a better example.

Sure, a lot of the good guys went unrecognized, as you say. But the bad guys were far more numerous, and in the history of Judeo-Christian relations, I don't see that Christians generally have much cause for pride.

Also, you may want to bear in mind that Ivanhoe doesn't defend Rebecca until the end of the novel, and then primarily from a sense of debt (she saved him first, now it's his turn), rather than from any imperative of faith -- or, for that matter, any personal enthusiasm for Rebecca herself or for the task of rescuing her.