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)

Image result for images of the heart of midlothian

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

https://leeduigon.com/2016/06/17/how-good-should-your-heroes-be/

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!