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Ivanhoe | Study Guide

Sir Walter Scott

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Ivanhoe | Themes



In Ivanhoe Sir Walter Scott examines dispossession, or the depriving of home, possession, or security, on several levels: national, individual, and cultural. On the national level the Normans have displaced the Saxons. This is best explored by examining the character of Ivanhoe's father, Cedric of Rotherwood, also known as Cedric the Saxon because of his persistent refusal to accept Norman domination. He is constantly plotting to put his Saxon friend Athelstane on the throne—despite the fact that Athelstane himself is not particularly interested in upsetting the status quo.

King Richard has been taken captive and his brother, Prince John, schemes to take his throne. This may be seen as a case of individual dispossession, but it has national implications. Ivanhoe himself, though he is named after the estate he should have inherited, has been dispossessed as a result of Prince John's desire to reward his loyal followers. Locksley and his "merry men" have had to leave their previous lives, including their families, to live in the greenwood as outlaws as a result of the precarious political situation in England.

At the Ashby tournament, Ivanhoe calls himself the Disinherited Knight. Not only has he lost his lands to one of Prince John's followers, but his father, Cedric, has disinherited him for going off on Crusade with Richard, the Norman king. Cedric considers this a betrayal of their Saxon heritage. With Ivanhoe, too, dispossession is both national and personal.

On the cultural level, dispossession stems from prejudice. The main targets of this prejudice are the Jews, who are hounded from their homes. This cultural dispossession takes a very personal toll. Their Jewish identity makes each Jew a target of thieves and murderers with little protection from the law. The lives of both Isaac and his daughter, Rebecca, are threatened in the course of the narrative as a result of their Jewishness, and loss of life is the ultimate form of dispossession.


Scott approaches identity from two angles: individual identity and cultural identity. Many of the characters hide their identities, generally for their own protection. Ivanhoe has been disinherited by his father for following the Norman king, whom all believe is being held for ransom in Europe while his brother, John, holds the power in England; so Ivanhoe keeps a low profile. King Richard, who historically warred with the French, Middle Easterners, and his father, also hides his identity until he can muster his allies behind him. Isaac often masquerades as a poor Jew so he will not be robbed or worse. Saxon and Norman identities blend into an English identity. Locksley is the alias of the most wanted outlaw in England, Robin Hood, and it enables him to interact safely with others—even with Prince John. In Chapter 20, Locksley says:

I am ... a nameless man; but I am the friend of my country, and of my country's friends—With this account of me you must for the present remain satisfied, the more especially since you yourself desire to continue unknown. Believe, however, that my word, when pledged, is as inviolate as if I wore golden spurs.

So on a broader level these questions of individual identity have to do with the clash of cultures, whether Saxon and Norman or Christian and Jew. Culture, language, and adherence to a code—such as chivalry for Christians and martyrdom for Jews—define identity in Ivanhoe. Cedric refuses to speak French to make known his pro-Saxon politics. Many of the Normans refuse to speak Saxon. Yet those who are working toward a unified England, like Ivanhoe and Richard, are fluent in both languages (and others, such as Arabic).

Rebecca serves as a touchstone for the issue of religious and cultural identity; many of the Christians she meets feel un-Christian if they care for and trust her. This shows in Ivanhoe's response to her when he wakes after being wounded at Ashby and feels attraction to her only as long as he thinks her an Arab. The moment he thinks her a Jew, he becomes cold. Bois-Guilbert, in contrast, is willing to give up Christianity and his career in the Templars for love of Rebecca; in this, he is nobler than Ivanhoe—although that is not how other Christians of his time would view things. Rebecca is also a touchstone where chivalry is concerned. She is treated unchivalrously until the very end of the novel, while in contrast, she treats others with unfailing courtesy and generosity. She challenges Ivanhoe's slavish devotion to the rules of chivalry, and they engage in a philosophical discussion on the topic during the fighting at Torquilstone.

Abuse of Power

In Ivanhoe people on all levels of society abuse their power. Because chivalric practice allows knights to hold captured enemies for ransom, the Norman knights believe they can capture passersby and demand money for their release. They expect no official consequences for such actions. In contrast when Locksley and his band of yeomen waylay wealthy travelers in Sherwood Forest to hold them for ransom, they are branded as outlaws.

Individuals become the pawns of those who have power over them. For instance Prince John sees no harm in marrying Rowena to de Bracy to keep the Saxons in check. But he is not the only one to disregard her own wishes. Her guardian, Cedric, decides to marry her to Athelstane in order to foment Saxon rebellion, and he does so even though he knows Rowena and his son, Ivanhoe, are in love.

Throughout the narrative, Christians abuse Jews with impunity. This applies not only to the bad guys in the story, but also to the good guys—even, at least in the first half of the story—to Ivanhoe himself. It is ingrained in the culture. Readers first experience it when Isaac arrives at Rotherwood seeking shelter in Chapter 5. Before he even appears, Cedric has sent the swineherd to show him in rather than the steward, and the religious men who are already enjoying Cedric's hospitality are horrified that a Jew would be shown into their presence. Once in the room, no one but Ivanhoe will give the old man a place to sit or a plate of food. Before he leaves in the morning, Isaac's life has already been threatened. Later, at Torquilstone, he will be tortured till he agrees to pay a huge ransom while Christian hostages are brought their lunch by servants as their ransoms are being arranged. Jews are not protected by law in the same way that Christians are, so every Christian has power over them.

Frustrated Love

In Ivanhoe no one really ends up with the person he or she wants or should be with. Perhaps the most poignant example of this is Rebecca and Ivanhoe. Rebecca loves Ivanhoe, but religion gets in the way. If it didn't, perhaps Ivanhoe could allow himself to reciprocate her feelings. She saves his life through her medical skills, and he is willing to die to save her life when the Templars accuse her of witchcraft. But Rebecca's Jewishness is simply too great a hurdle to overcome. Scott acknowledges this in his introduction to the first edition of the book. He also says it would be unrealistic to think that the good—and Rebecca is undeniably the most deeply good character in the novel—are always rewarded.

There are many other examples of frustrated love as well. Ivanhoe's first love, of course, is Rowena, but his father's political ambitions have kept them apart for years. It is not until the end of the novel that Athelstane relinquishes his claim on Rowena and she is free to marry Ivanhoe. Bois-Guilbert loves twice and is frustrated twice: His first love marries someone else while he's away, and then he falls for Rebecca, who's already in love with Ivanhoe. And anyway, Bois-Guilbert does not court her very effectively; he kidnaps her and tries to force her to become his lover. In the end his passion for Rebecca is so overwhelming that it actually kills him, ironically allowing Bois-Guilbert, who fights as the Templars' champion, to be the one who saves her life.

Frustrated love also appears on a political level. England loves Richard, but Richard loves France and spends barely any time in England. He throws his life away trying to hold on to his French lands. John, in contrast, wants England but can't convince the country that he is worthy. Similarly, Cedric is frustrated in his love for the old days of Saxon domination.

Writing About History

This theme is not actually addressed by the narrative of Ivanhoe alone. Instead, it begins in the dedicatory epistle, which is addressed to the fictional historian. The theme evolves in an interplay among the story, the narrator's comments on his sources for the story, and how other historians have written about it. Since the story and the fictional author's comments on it are largely fictional, they must be considered part of the novel. Scott uses this interplay to explore how historians write about history versus how he does it. Part of this is to juxtapose an emotionless, fact-based narration of history (the Dryasdust method) with Scott's fictionalized but also humanized version. This view is clearly introduced in the dedicatory epistle.

But Scott also offers some insight into how historians rewrite history. For example, in Chapter 12 he mentions that the bloody tournament joust at Ashby was dubbed by historians "the Gentle and Joyous Passage of Arms of Ashby." And in the final chapters he passes historical judgment on Richard the Lionheart for his poor performance as king of England.

Questions for Themes

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Objectives A large percentage of the writing we do in the workplace involves writing routine, neutral, and/or goodwill messages. Routine and neutral messages cover a wide range of topics, from the ord
Which empire claimed England before the Germanic tribes settled there?
how can i solve the first reaction question im confused i need help. Arnett (2002): Strategic Reading Worksheet Reaction Questions: I want you to REACT to the claim, using the questions to help you. I
I am writing a thesis for the last big assessment of my Gr 12 English course. I am still developing it, but I need help creating a really good thesis statement. So far my rough thesis is something lik
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