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Ivanhoe | Study Guide

Sir Walter Scott

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Ivanhoe | Motifs



Disguise is a constant motif in Ivanhoe and is essential for the protection of the characters. Some characters disguise themselves as unknown knights, others as simple English yeomen, still others as pilgrims or outlaws to hide their identities. Ivanhoe himself starts the novel in disguise as a pilgrim so that he can return home without being recognized by his father, who has disinherited him, or his enemies, who are likely to kill him. His use of disguise is mirrored in Richard, who protects himself by dressing in unadorned black armor and allowing himself to be known only as "the Black Knight." Robin of Locksley has a myriad of identities, such as Locksley and Diccon Bend-the-Bow—all to avoid being recognized as the infamous outlaw Robin Hood. Wamba masquerades as a monk, and then Cedric takes over the disguise. Isaac habitually travels in the disguise of a poor man. In each of these cases the disguise is also a protection. At a much higher level, Sir Walter Scott himself was in disguise: He wrote the novel under the pseudonym Laurence Templeton.


Heraldry refers to a knight's practice of symbolically representing and displaying his character and genealogy. A knight's shield provides one medium for this practice by featuring an image on it called a device. A device is an image that symbolically connects the knight with his ancestors, a place, or, in this book, a defining trait. The Disinherited Knight, for example, uses the device of an uprooted oak tree to illustrate his having been torn from the soil of his home. Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert begins the tournament at Ashby with a shield bearing the device of the Knights Templar. But, having forfeited his armor after losing the first day's joust, the second day he uses a completely new device—one that is more revealing of his dangerous character: "a raven in full flight, holding in its claws a skull, and bearing the motto, 'Gare le Corbeau'" (Chapter 8). Then there is the Black Knight. His shield is black like his armor and bears no device at all; this rejection of heraldry makes his anonymity complete.


The subject of language comes up again and again in Ivanhoe. People don't speak one another's languages; even being born in England is no guarantee a person can communicate with other English people; there are two distinct languages—Saxon and Norman. Cultural conflicts—including over language—between the Saxons and Normans contribute to growing animosity. Cedric, although he understands Norman French, refuses to speak it. For political reasons he speaks only Saxon. This means that the most haughty of his Norman neighbors cannot understand him. Richard, however, speaks three languages: Norman French, Saxon, and the new blend of both, English. This is fitting since as king he must reign over all his subjects, Norman and Saxon alike, and lead them into a unified English nation. (Still, Scott points out in the last chapter that it was not until much later that English replaced French as the language spoken at court.) Other languages also play a role in the book: Latin, Spanish, Arabic, and Hebrew. Rebecca's use of Hebrew, for example, is used against her in her trial; it is claimed she is performing spells. Yet, it is her mastery of these languages that have enabled her to become so skilled a healer.

Narrative Intrusion

The narrator often inserts his own personal comments into the text, most commonly seeming to address the Rev. Dr. Dryasdust, the fictional character to whom the dedicatory epistle was written. In these comments he addresses topics such as his sources for the story, what a historian might make of his version of events, and how historians themselves write about real events.

A few times, especially in the final chapters of the book, he reminds readers of historical fact, such as, in Chapter 44, how long it would be before English would be spoken by the country's royalty and how Richard left England to fight in France. Richard spends most of Ivanhoe as the heroic Black Knight who is always rescuing people, but in Chapter 41, just after the king has revealed himself to Robin Hood, Scott reminds readers of historical reality and expressing a very different opinion of Richard than the one engendered by the narrative:

His reign was like the course of a brilliant and rapid meteor, which shoots along the face of Heaven, shedding around an unnecessary and portentous light, which is instantly swallowed up by universal darkness; his feats of chivalry furnishing themes for bards and minstrels, but affording none of those solid benefits to his country on which history loves to pause, and hold up as an example to posterity.


Scott pays little attention to historical accuracy in Ivanhoe and is therefore guilty of anachronism, or the misplacing of people, events, objects, or practices in time. His sources include Shakespeare and other writers whose works were created much later than the 1100s, when Ivanhoe takes place. Much of Scott's language is also borrowed from Shakespeare; it sounds old, but it isn't as old as the setting. He also invents details. For example Gurth's iron collar showing he's Cedric's serf from Chapter 1 is a product of Scott's imagination. Also in Chapter 1 Wamba mentions King Oberon and Fairyland. This is not a reference to Shakespeare, but it's still anachronistic; it refers to a 13th-century French romance, Huon of Bordeaux. In this epic Huon of Bordeaux accidently kills Emperor Charlemagne's son, but he will survive the punishment of death if he can complete several impossible tasks. In Chapter 27 Wamba says he has "not a doit"—a doit is a Dutch coin first minted in the 1600s.

In order to convince readers of the Saxon-Norman divide, Scott also gives a false impression of how close in time the characters are to the Norman Conquest of 1066. It is in fact highly unlikely that so many people had grandparents who fought at Hastings, some 130 years earlier, as the archer Hubert claims at Ashby. It is also impossible that Cedric's father feasted with King Harald in Torquilstone before the battle of Stamford Bridge; Stamford Bridge took place before the Battle of Hastings.

The biggest anachronism of all is the pretense for the major conflict in the novel: the Saxon-Norman divide, which no historians of the 1190s report as existing at that time. However, Scott wanted to use the Saxon-Norman divide to comment on the Scottish-English divide that still affected Britain in his own day, so he compressed time for his own purposes.

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