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Ivanhoe | Study Guide

Sir Walter Scott

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Ivanhoe | Introduction to Ivanhoe | Summary



"The Author of the Waverley Novels" decided to change topics so as not to wear out his welcome with his readers. At first he intended to publish Ivanhoe "as a new production of the Author of Waverley" but changed his mind. The new story dealt with Richard I's reign, which made it possible to explore the "striking contrast" between the Saxons and the Normans. The Saxons were "the vanquished distinguished by their plain, homely, blunt manners, and the free spirit infused by their ancient institutions and laws." The Normans were "the victors [and distinguished] by the high spirit of military fame, personal adventure, and whatever could distinguish them as the Flower of Chivalry."

A popular scene in the novel—the meeting between Richard I (in disguise) and the hermit Friar Tuck is a conceit often used in the literature of all times and places. The name Ivanhoe came from an old rhyme. He chose it because it "had an ancient English sound" but didn't give away the book's plot. The book's success allowed its author to keep writing about English subjects.

Some readers may wish that Ivanhoe had married Rebecca rather than Rowena. But that would have been unrealistic, given the anti-Jewish sentiments of the time. Also it would have given young readers the false impression that the good are always rewarded. Life teaches us otherwise: "Consciousness of their high-minded discharge of duty, produces on their own reflections a more adequate recompense, in the form of that peace which the world cannot give or take away."


Scott wrote this introduction to his own edition of the novel in 1830. In 1827 he had admitted to the authorship of all his novels. Therefore, he is talking about himself when he writes "The Author of the Waverley Novels," and his readers know it.

He explains why he wrote Ivanhoe: to explore political issues of that time. But his actual reason had to do with the politics of his own time. Britain had been suffering a series of crop failures, and a glut of returning soldiers from the Napoleonic Wars was putting a serious strain on the economy and generosity of the British, especially the working class. There had been numerous clashes between workers and government troops. In fact just four months before Ivanhoe was published, as many as 20 people were killed and hundreds injured in Manchester. Some 100,000 or more supporters of parliamentary reform holding a peaceful meeting in St. Peter's Fields were dispersed by mounted soldiers of the Manchester Yeomanry wielding sabers. Public opinion was very much on the side of the victims of what came to be called the Peterloo Massacre—a play on the name Waterloo, the town where Napoleon was defeated. But Scott himself took the government's side. In order to promote national unity, he used Ivanhoe to demonstrate reconciliation between the Saxons and the Normans.

Scott also explains where he got some of his ideas. In doing so he misquotes in almost every instance. For example he says the title of his novel came from the rhyme that begins "Tring, Wing, and Ivanhoe"; however, the last word in the original trio of villages was "Ivinghoe." Also the three villages are in Buckinghamshire, which is nowhere near the setting of Scott's novel.

In his last paragraph Scott addresses a feeling common to many Ivanhoe readers. Rebecca is the beautiful, fascinating heroine of the novel, and readers often feel frustrated that she doesn't get the guy at the end. But Scott explains why this can't be so. His first reason is practical, but the second is a bit of a surprise: Young readers need to know "virtue is its own reward," as Cicero wrote in De finibus. Rebecca heals people and loves generously but expects (and gets) nothing in return. In fact she will voluntarily go into exile. Through her story, Scott really does illustrate this principle.

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