Ivanhoe: Theme Analysis
The England depicted in the novel is divided. There is strife between the Normans and Saxons. The Normans conquered England in the eleventh century following the famous Battle of Hastings in 1066. The Saxons are the defeated race. But the antagonism between the two races over a century later is an invention on the part of Sir Walter Scott, created for the sake of telling a good story. Scholars have concluded that any conflict between the Normans and Saxons had been resolved before the times in which Scott sets his novel.
Far from showing the differences between Normans and Saxons in the twelfth century, the novel in fact reflects English nineteenth century views about the English and the French. The English character is reflected in the earthy good nature of Cedric and the uprightness and courage of Locksley. The English view of the French character is shown in the Normans, with their high-flown language of chivalry and honor, concepts which are shown to be hypocritical.
But Scott does not present a romantic and unhistorical vision of how national unity might be attained. Obviously, this has to come through the establishment of harmony between Norman and Saxon, not a restoration of Saxon control (hence Cedric’s plans come to nothing). What the Saxon English bring to the nation is a gift for decency and order, as is shown in Chapter XXXII, when Locksley and his men show their mastery of the principles of good government.
But Norman values also have their place. King Richard, after all, is a Norman, and he shows he has the required values of leadership and justice. The key figure is Ivanhoe. He is a Saxon, but he chose to enter the service of Richard, learn all the arts of chivalry and go off to the Crusades. He therefore represents the best of both cultures and is a model for the future unity of England.
No hope is offered to the Jews, however, to become part of this new national fabric. They are despised by both sides, and this shows no sign of changing. Isaac and Rebecca are forced to flee to Moslem Spain, where they will be treated with greater tolerance.
Anti-Chivalry Scott treats the ideal of chivalry with some disdain. For example, here is his biting description of the aftermath of the tournament at Ashby:
Thus ended the memorable field of Ashby-de-la-Zouche, one of the most gallantly contested tournaments of that age; for although only four knights, including one who was smothered by the heat of his armor, had died upon the field, yet upwards of thirty were desperately wounded, four or five of whom never recovered. Several were disabled for life; and those who escaped best carried the marks of the conflict to the grave with them. Hence it is always mentioned in the old records, as the Gentle and Joyous Passage of Arms of Ashby. (Chapter XII)
The representatives of chivalry, such as Front-de-Boeuf, De Bracy and De Bois-Guilbert, are shown to be corrupt. The only two characters who live up to the chivalric ideal are Ivanhoe and Richard. But Richard’s exploits are criticized by the author, who states that Richard was often too busy seeking chivalric adventure rather than laying the grounds for a peaceable and well-ordered nation.
The critique of chivalry, and of all war-like endeavors, is best captured by Rebecca, in Chapter XXIX, when she debates with the idealistic Ivanhoe about the true nature and purpose of chivalry.