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Ivanhoe | Study Guide

Sir Walter Scott

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Ivanhoe | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Published in 1819, Sir Walter Scott's first novel set in England, Ivanhoe, tells the heroic story of Saxon knight Wilfred of Ivanhoe. Ivanhoe returns from the Third Crusade with King Richard I and must try to foil the attempt of John, the king's brother, to usurp the crown when Richard is taken hostage.

The novel was an immediate success, both critically and with readers, selling out its first printing of 10,000 copies in about two weeks. Reviewers stated it was "a performance of unequalled excellence" and a "splendid masque." Though some have questioned its historical accuracy and criticized its somewhat archaic prose, it has been translated into dozens of languages and is still popular today.

1. One professor cut nearly 100,000 words from Ivanhoe to make it easier to read for students.

Scott's Ivanhoe was once required reading across the United States. Many students enjoyed the adventure and excitement of the story, but others got bogged down in Scott's convoluted sentences and formal diction. Despite the protests of purists, in 2012 a Scottish professor cut nearly 100,000 words from the novel to make it more palatable to modern students, arguing that Scott's writing is "long and wordy and difficult for the modern ear and modern attention span."

2. In Scott's time, Ivanhoe was his most popular novel.

When Scott was alive, Ivanhoe was the most favored of his books among readers. In fact, it sold out its first printing of 10,000 copies in about two weeks. Europeans from many different countries were entranced by the medieval setting and the gripping plot. German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, recognized worldwide for his contributions to the romantic movement, even claimed Scott had created a "wholly new art" with the novel.

3. An American woman is said to have been the model for the character of Rebecca in Ivanhoe.

Rebecca Gratz, an American Jew from Philadelphia, is reputed to have been the inspiration for Scott's Rebecca. Gratz was an educator and charity worker who combined a life in society with good works for those less fortunate. She was courted by Samuel Ewing, the son of the president of the University of Pennsylvania, but she refused to marry him because he was not Jewish. Gratz had literary correspondences with many writers of her day, including Washington Irving, who was a friend of Scott's. Supposedly Irving described her to Scott, and Scott used the description as the basis on which to build the character of Rebecca.

4. The modern concept of Robin Hood comes originally from Ivanhoe.

The Robin Hood that most people know today was born from Ivanhoe. The character Robin of Locksley is an Anglo-Saxon outlaw who has been robbed of his rights by the Norman overlords who, in Scott's novel, are in power in the Middle Ages. Robin Hood's popularity began with Scott; he helped to save the nation from the evils wrought by King John and his Norman followers. Over time, Scott's Robin of Locksley evolved into the Robin Hood of modern fame, a thief who stole from the rich to give to the poor.

5. Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge had some nasty things to say about Ivanhoe.

Ivanhoe was Scott's first novel set outside Scotland, and its setting and subject offended some who had been fans of the author, including the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He wrote that the clash between Normans and Saxons was "a mere conflict of indifferents," describing it as "minim surges in a boiling fish kettle." Of Ivanhoe, Coleridge admitted that he had never "been able to summon the fortitude to read thro'," but he insisted on calling it one of "two wretched abortions" composed by Scott (the other being The Bride of Ravensmuir).

6. Mark Twain blamed Ivanhoe for many of the problems of the pre–Civil War South.

Writer Mark Twain disapproved strongly of the way in which Scott romanticized the Middle Ages, feeling that Scott had helped to create a romantic, chivalric past that never really existed. In his book Life on the Mississippi (1882), Twain wrote:

[Scott] sets the world in love with dreams and phantoms; with decayed and swinish forms of religion; with decayed and degraded systems of government; with the sillinesses and emptinesses, sham grandeurs, sham guads, and sham chivalries of a brainless and worthless long-vanished society. He did measureless harm; more real and lasting harm, perhaps, than any other individual that ever wrote.

Twain blamed Scott for supporting the character of the Southern gentleman, a man who viewed himself as chivalric and honorable in defending his land, his religion, his culture, and his way of life from northern aggressors: "Sir Walter had so large a hand in making Southern character, as it existed before the war, that he is in great measure responsible for the war. "

7. Author William Makepeace Thackeray wrote a satirical sequel to Ivanhoe.

In 1849 English novelist William Makepeace Thackeray published Rebecca and Rowena: A Romance Upon Romance. It was a satirical response to Scott's novel in which the dark-haired Jewish woman Rebecca converts to Christianity and wins the love of Ivanhoe. This happy ending only occurs, however, after Thackeray thoroughly skewers marriage, imperialism, and Scott himself, saying,

Had both of them got their rights, it ever seemed to me that Rebecca would have had the husband, and Rowena would have gone off to a convent and shut herself up, where I, for one, would never had taken the trouble of inquiring for her.

8. Scott had to write himself out of debt.

Scott began having financial troubles in 1826, when the publishing house in which he was a partner failed. On the verge of losing his home, he chose to put his assets in a trust and wrote nonstop to try to pay off his debts. He sold the copyrights to many of his novels to his London publisher but was not paid in full. Overwork led to bad health, and he died in 1832 after a series of strokes.

9. Scott is considered the father of the historical novel.

Beginning with Waverly (1814), set in Scotland in the 1740s, Scott's novels focused on events in the past. Most featured Scottish history, but Ivanhoe took place in England and others were set in France and Palestine. By combining historical detail, realistic treatment of romantic topics, and regional dialogue, Scott created what are often called the first historical novels.

10. Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin recommended that his fans read Ivanhoe.

George R.R. Martin, author of the series of books A Song of Ice and Fire, on which the award-winning television series Game of Thrones is based, is a fan of Ivanhoe. In a blog post he recommended a number of books for readers and viewers who enjoy his work. Many of these were fantasies, but he also mentioned historical fiction, saying, "Sir Walter Scott is hard going for many modern readers, I realize, but there's still great stuff to be found in Ivanhoe and his other novels."

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