Norman knights have returned from Jerusalem, and now that King Richard is being held captive in Austria – an event that was in no small part helped by his brother Prince John – they are confident that Prince John can rule safely and that the conquered Saxons, yeoman, and Richard’s subjects can be scattered to the winds. Before the Normans returned from Jerusalem, warriors of the Temple, and particularly notorious knight Brian de Bois-Guilbert, aligned themselves with the French and thwarted King Richard’s conquest of Jerusalem. Those Saxon knights loyal to King Richard have yet to return to England to see the state it is in, or so we believe.
Strong and reckless oath-breaker and warrior of the Temple, Brian de Bois-Guilbert, is not one for subtlety, and makes his desire plain for beautiful Saxon ward Rowena as one of a few Norman guests of Cedric the Saxon’s keep in Rotherwood. The heart of the Saxon cause beats strongly in fiery leader Cedric, who detests the plight their Normal conquerers have put them in, never mind King John’s betrayal of his brother Richard and the oppression perpetrated by Norman knights. There is, however, more at stake than the political affairs of England, and of Rowena. In the keep a jousting tournament is discussed, to be held at Ashby de la Zouche to symbolise the ascendancy of Prince John (and so that he can raise his funds) and the Normans over the English Saxons. When the Jewish Isaac of York enters the guest hall and becomes the subject of slights and planned cruelties, one man gives up his seat so he can sit down. This man challenges Brian de Bois-Guilbert’s assertion that King Richard’s knights are second only to the warriors of the Temple: King Richard’s knights are ‘second to none’.
The jousting tournament is competitive. The Norman challengers beat the home team on the field, again and again, and the crowd are losing hope. Then, a mysterious knight appears, determined to fight every single one of the challengers for the defenders’ side. The Saxons and yeoman are emboldened by the knight’s victories and their honour is restored. Shocked Cedric is, when at the end of the joust it is revealed to all that the mysterious knight was none other than his disowned son Sir Ivanhoe, who bestows his favour on Rowena as the Queen of Love and Beauty, throwing a spanner in Cedric’s plans for Rowena to marry a Saxon heir. Prince John struggles to maintain dignity, especially when intrepid yeoman Robin Hood speaks of King Richard as England’s rightful King, and is ordered to prove his archery skills or be wrestled off the field.
I enjoyed Ivanhoe much more than I thought I would. There were unforgettable characters, and clashes in battle. There was that medieval romantic feeling as well, hinted at in a few passages. The reader sees the attraction and longing between Ivanhoe and the daughter of Isaac, Rebecca, and yet they cannot be together because of their different faiths in an intolerant and quarrelsome country. Though Ivanhoe and the Black Sluggard knight were adept in battle and showed valour in joust and siege, I also had a huge admiration for Rebecca’s forthright manner and how she could defend her sex, honour, and faith with a strength that stymied even the immoral/conflicted Brian de Bois-Guilbert whose physical strength and capacity for treachery were great.
The background to the entire story and the competing factions within was fascinating. It was Norman vs Saxon, and in the middle were outlawed yeoman led by Robin Hood and a few knights errant loyal to Richard. Robin Hood’s courage was great to read, and brought excitement and fast pace. The author had a grasp for how each faction would think. The Order of the Temple was originally corrupt before their extreme Grand Master put the Preceptory into order.
On the downside, there were too many references specific to the period in which Ivanhoe was written, in 1819, and though the quaint language wasn’t a barrier to understand most of the story, there were times when it was. After Rebecca is captured, three-quarters through the story, it slows down and is immersed in moralistic arguments. The end was disappointing too, and could be considered deus ex machina. I nearly gave Ivanhoe five stars.
Nevertheless, it is one to keep on your shelf. The excitement, battles, personality contrasts, romanticism, and chivalry made it fantastic.