Every time you read a literary classic, it’s different.
I’ve just finished re-reading Ivanhoe, which I hadn’t visited in, I guess, ten years. Maybe more. And it was different. Almost like reading it for the first time.
At first I was a little put off by Sir Walter Scott’s language. Ivanhoe came out in 1830, just two years before Scott died; and I wondered why he’d written it in such a wordy, effusive, 18th-century style. What was he thinking?
By and by, it became clear.
Written by a modern writer according to modern story-telling and stylistic conventions, Ivanhoe would be… raw. Sir Walter approached the story with the delicacy of a man tiptoeing through a shop stocked with bottles of nitroglycerin.
Because this story is not a pretty story. Underneath the flowery language, it’s about hate, savagery, totally irresponsible leadership, lawlessness, anti-Semitism, and personal depravity. I mean, once upon a time, Scott could’ve been thrown into jail for writing such a story. No wonder he tiptoed.
Scott shows us medieval England–not really such a nice place to visit, and heaven help you if you live there. The Church is everywhere–and everywhere corrupt and ineffectual. Christianity is on everybody’s lips, with crime and violence in everybody’s hands. Even the good guys are dangerous: King Richard the Lionheart, traveling incognito to amuse himself, at his nation’s expense, is so unstable that Robin Hood soon realizes that even friendship with this king could be hazardous to your health. Cedric the Saxon, like a modern-day “progressive,” is pathologically consumed by ancient historical grudges. And then there are the villains.
You could rack your brain all day for a week and still not come up with anything too evil for Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert to do. And he’s one of the nice Templars. His friends are murderers and thieves.
Henry II did try very hard to put England on a sound footing as a nation, reforming the law code, straightening out an arbitrary and capricious government; but his two sons that followed him, Richard and then John, almost succeeded in tearing it all down. Their shortcomings are clearly seen in Ivanhoe.
Judged only by his writings, Sir Walter Scott believed in the power of goodness. Usually in his stories, good things are achieved by characters’ courage, selflessness, and other virtues. In Ivanhoe, most of the good things that happen are the work of God Himself.
Note: Scott explains in a footnote that he was forced to bring Athelstane back from the dead because his printer was “disconsolate” over the dull glutton’s demise. When I read this in high school, I thought it was just about the most ridiculous thing I’d ever read. But now I’m old and experienced enough to appreciate how Scott handled this near-impossible task–turning it into a comic scene that made me laugh out loud. Like, the poor guy has come back from the dead and still nobody listens to him!