Memory Lane: ‘Ivanhoe’ (Again)

I was only nine years old when I watched this Ivanhoe TV show in 1958. Loved it, of course. But the abridged version they had us read in high school was wretched enough to sour me on it for several decades.

Well, I’m reading it again now, in all its original glory, and loving it again. Like all great novels, it has something new to offer every time you read it.

What impresses me this time out is Sir Walter Scott’s depiction of an England that’s still in the process of being born, it’s not quite England yet. A hundred years or so after 1066, the country has a Saxon populace and a Norman French ruling class. It’s still a conquered country, still without real law (despite the honest efforts of Henry II), and being a conquered country really sucks. It also has a population of Jews ground down by persecution. All of this was missing from that warped edition they imposed on us in high school.

We Americans founded our country and gave it a legal framework, the Constitution. But countries in Europe weren’t so blessed. Ivanhoe shows us some of England’s birth pangs. These countries had a long way to go before they became the countries that we see today: they could have easily turned out to be very different from the European countries that we know.

History lives. It’s always being made. It always needs God’s blessing. The Lord has abundantly blessed our country, sparing us much of the pains suffered by the European countries in their formative centuries.

History should teach us to be grateful for that. And to avoid mistakes!

Do You Cry While You Write?

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Ailish Sinclair

Scottish blogger and writer Ailish Sinclair asks a question which I can answer, sort of: “Crying While Writing: anyone else do this?”

Crying While Writing: anyone else do this?

The other day, as I read to my wife a chapter of my new book in progress, Ozias, Prince in Peril, I found my voice beginning to break as I came to the death of a major character to whom I’d already grown attached. I didn’t actually cry, but I came close: I already loved this character and writing him out of the saga was… well, hard.

Ailish makes a good point. If the writer can’t get emotionally involved with the story he or she is telling, why should the reader? You have to believe in your story. It has to seem real to you, at least while you’re writing it.

I won’t forget how upset Patty and my editor, Susan, got a few books ago when they thought I’d killed off the old Abnak warrior, Chief Uduqu. “I was ready to come up there and punch you in the nose!” Susan said. And Sir Walter Scott had to rewrite part of Ivanhoe because his printer was so upset over the death of Athelstane. I’m glad I didn’t have to rewrite The Glass Bridge.


what a Yarn! ‘Kenilworth’

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Kenilworth Castle today

Shh! Quiet, please! Sir Walter Scott is gonna tell a story.

Kenilworth is a political thriller inspired by a ghost story, which in turn was inspired by an unsolved murder during the reign of Elizabeth I. And speaking of Elizabeth–

Imagine: Your father had your mother beheaded, because he wanted a son instead of you. Your grandfather overthrew a dynasty that had ruled for several centuries. Your half-sister launched a wave of religious persecutions–and married, by proxy, your country’s arch-enemy, the king of Spain. Your generation’s grandparents remember the Wars of the Roses, which nearly depopulated England. Then came wave after wave of religious violence.

And on top of all that: on top of knowing that you are queen of a powder keg that could blow at any minute: on top of all that, you have to somehow dominate this nest of vipers and cannibals you’ve inherited as your English ruling class–and you dearly want to do it without resorting to tyranny and mass murder.

Welcome to Elizabethan England. If you wake up alive tomorrow, thank God and Queen Elizabeth for that.

The hero of Kenilworth tries to save a young woman who has been caught up in a web of deadly court intrigue in which more than a few lives are at stake. And because Sir Walter has provided us with the back story, in his introduction, we the readers know things that the characters don’t know, and we experience ever-heightening suspense as the characters mis-read and mis-play one situation after another. You want to warn them, but you can’t.

Oh, how I wish Akira Kurosawa could’ve made a movie out of this! It would’ve been right up his street. He might have recast it into a Japanese historical/cultural context, but so what? It would’ve been great! Starring Toshiro Mifune as the hero. There’s also a character named Flibbertygibbet. How cool is that?

No, I’m not going to tell you how the story comes out. That would be a kind of robbery. But it’s one of those stories that’ll still be suspenseful even if you’ve read it before.

Hats off to Walter Scott!

A Lame Excuse for a Literary Lapse

michael_gothard_archive | Ivanhoe: screencaps

Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe will last forever as a literary classic. Even so, there’s one little clinker in it that makes you wonder if Scott was quite sane at the time.

To show the futility of any dream of ousting the Normans and putting a Saxon noble on the throne of England, Scott gives us a lout named Athelstane as the last remaining repository of that hope. Although descended from Saxon royalty, Athelstane’s main interest in life is eating. You could put him in a stall with a feed-bag, and he’d be happy.

Toward the end of the story, Athelstane gets killed in a battle. The larders of England breathe a collective sigh of relief. The reader promptly forgets there was ever such a character as Athelstane–

Until, in Chapter XLII, Sir Walter Scott brings him back to life.

Now, this was not like Conan Doyle being forced by public outrage to bring back Sherlock Holmes after drowning him in the Reichenbach Falls. Why bring back Athelstane, a clod? Let’s let Sir Walter himself answer that question, in his own footnotes to Ivanhoe.

“59. The resuscitation of Athelstane has been much criticised, as too violent a breach of probability, even for a work of such fantastic character. It was a ‘tour-de-force,’ to which the author was compelled to have recourse, by the vehement entreaties of his friend and printer, who was inconsolable on the Saxon being conveyed to the tomb.”

That’s his excuse–an inconsolable printer? Well, it’s feeble enough to be true. What a soft-hearted fellow Sir Walter must have been! The return of Athelstane was unnecessary, unwanted, and preposterous; and you wonder how a literary giant could have taken such a fall. It’s like Hamlet’s pants splitting with an audible riiiip! in the middle of “To be or not to be.”

Note to aspiring authors: Don’t think you’ll ever get away with a honker like this.

‘Ivanhoe’ Revisited

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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!


Lunch with Sir Walter Scott

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I received a copy of Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott, for Christmas. The edition they forced on us in high school convinced me that Sir Walter was an idiot. I was not aware that the editors had done him a mischief, tearing all the guts out of his book and leaving only the hollow shell of a rather silly story. So it was decades before mere curiosity–could it really have been that bad?–moved me to read it again.

And it blew me away. Ivanhoe is a truly great novel that richly deserved to be a classic.

But there’s another thing to love about my Christmas present. They’ve included all of Scott’s notes and footnotes on Ivanhoe–how he came by this or that tradition, this or that old song, what he was thinking when he had a character perform a certain action, etc. It’s the next best thing to having Sir Walter sitting across the room from you and talking to you.

How I would love to sit down with him over tea and cigars, for a nice long natter! He had a gift for taking the reader along with him as he wrote the story. He had a gift of self-deprecating humor. I’ll bet the two of us together could talk the sun across the sky.

Well, of course I can’t do that, unless it’s one of those things the Lord has in store for us in heaven. But what I can do is always be available to my readers–and friends!–right here, on this blog. Ask me anything about my books, or how I write them, whatever. I love talking about stories, and how they come to be told.

Wouldn’t that be cool, if some famous writer read this, and replied?

‘How Good Should Your Heroes Be?’ (2016)

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The other day I talked about villains, so it’s only fair to give equal time to heroes.

Recommended: The Heart of Midlothian, by Sir Walter Scott. A young woman’s fiancee is cast into prison for a crime he didn’t commit, and there’s no one to help him–no one but her. Armed only with her faith and with her goodness, she sets out, alone, to do the impossible… Wow!