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.