Ivanhoe by Paul J. DeGategno Summary
Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, published in 1819 as one of the earliest historical novels in the English language, remains a classic tale of romance and high adventure, of knights, kings, brigands, and ladies acting under the impulse of love and the sway of war in medieval times. But Ivanhoe's staying power relies less on its capacity to entertain (though it does) and to convey historical fact (sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't) than on its masterful portrayal of an inescapable force in the modern world: change. Scott's spirited retelling of the struggle for power between the Saxons and the Normans in twelfth-century England can be read as the unceasing struggle between old and young, past and present, as one generation is compelled to yield to the next. Scott uses his gift for characterization to center his narrative on the relation of the individual - the young Ivanhoe - to the shifting dynamic of history. Paul deGategno argues that this focus renders slavish attention to historical detail - the lack of which has been one of Ivanhoe's few but persistent sources of criticism - less significant as Scott pursues a greater, more universal truth. Scott himself (1771-1832) lived during the Scottish Enlightenment - a period in which his native Scotland was deeply stirred by change, in which advances in agriculture, industry, and commerce made possible economic and social growth for the lower and middle classes. Scott was skeptical of the emerging cult of progress - of the idea that it was an unequivocal good - and anxious about his country's future, particularly about what he perceived to be the dangers posed by a disruptive democratic spirit to a monarchist society. In Ivanhoe, deGategno writes, Scott acknowledges the need for change and the ultimate failure of the old regime - embodied by the chivalric Saxons - but "charts a difficult passage" from this "romantic, heroic era" to the next, one characterized by "tenuous optimism and inconclusive progress" - embodied by the headstrong and often brutish Normans. A rich source of creative inspiration for numerous plays, paintings, and operas (many of which deGategno reviews in the last chapter of this volume) and of critical discourse (with historical, feminist, and reader-response readings among the most fruitful today), Ivanhoe has continued to hold meaning - and hope - for Scottish and non-Scottish readers alike since Scott's age of enlightenment. "The eventual message of Scott's work provides a nostalgic, wistful conjuring up of the past, comments deGategno, "and yet an optimistic belief in humankind's ability to puzzle out the difficulties and paradoxes of the new order." Ultimately, the novel has less to do with conflict than with reconciliation and union between Saxon and Norman, past and present.