Walter Scott


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Ivanhoe Summary

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Ivanhoe (1819), a work of historical fiction by Walter Scott, provides a fanciful account of English life in the medieval twelfth century. Weaving together historical models of the tournament, witch trials, outlaws, and Jewish-Christian conflict, Scott’s book attempts to revive interest in medievalism and romance in modern literary culture. It succeeded in doing so, contributing to popular character archetypes, such as King John and Robin Hood. The book primarily concerns the protagonist Wilfred of Ivanhoe who goes on a journey full of romance, tournaments, and familial reconciliation.

As a result of his support for King Richard, Wilfred of Ivanhoe is disinherited by his father, Cedric of Rotherwood. Included in his father’s grievances is the fact that Ivanhoe has fallen in love with one of Cedric’s wards, Lady Rowena, a descendant of one of England’s Saxon kings. Cedric had hoped to force Rowena to marry Lord Athelstane, a possible future King of England. Disinherited, Ivanhoe goes with King Richard on the Christian Crusades, playing a leading role in the Siege of Acre. He also gives medical aid to Louis Thuringia while he suffers from malaria.

A group of Norman knights and other ranked officials seek Cedric’s attention, having been led there by a pilgrim. The night of their arrival, a Jewish lender Isaac of York arrives from Israel to ask for refuge at Rotherwood. After dinner, the pilgrim sees one of the Norman knights, a Templar called Brian de Bois-Guilbert, give orders to his soldiers to take Isaac hostage. The palmer helps Isaac escape from Rotherwood, assisted by the swineherd Gurth. Believing him to be a knight in disguise, Isaac of York pledges to pay back the pilgrim with one of his suits of armor and a horse with which he can take part in a tournament at Ashby-de-la-Zouch castle. The pilgrim is confused but accepts anyway.

The pilgrim attends the tournament officiated by Prince John. Also attending are Athelstane, Lady Rowena, Cedric, and Isaac of York with his daughter Rebecca. Prince John’s advisor Fitzurse comes with a troop of Normans. On the tournament’s first day, the competitors joust. A knight who calls himself only “Desdichado,” Spanish for “disinherited,” wins every jousting match he takes part in. Even though at Prince John’s request, he refuses to reveal himself, he is named the day’s champion anyway. He chooses the tournament’s Queen, picking Lady Rowena. On the tournament’s second day, Desdichado is nearly bested in a melee but is rescued by a knight called “Le Noir Faineant,” French for “the Black Sluggard.” His rescuer vanishes. Desdichado is forced to unmask himself to be awarded the championship, revealing himself to be Wilfred of Ivanhoe. Prince John becomes hostile, fearing that King Richard will return.

Ivanhoe’s father is reluctant to help heal Ivanhoe’s wounds from the tournament. Rebecca, a competent healer, helps him in their temporary lodging, and then travels with him toward her home in York. In the forest, Rebecca and Ivanhoe are abandoned by their guards, who steal their horses. Cedric, Lady Rowena, and Athelstane join them. The whole group is captured by de Bracy and taken to the castle of Front-de-Boeuf. The Black Knight offers to rescue them. When he arrives at the castle with his army, he delivers a note demanding the hostages. The captors request a priest to give Cedric the Final Sacrament; pretending to cede to their demands, they send Cedric’s jester Wamba in disguised as a priest. He takes Cedric’s place in the cell, who escapes and gives the besiegers intelligence about the castle. As they launch an assault, the daughter of the castle’s first lord, Torquilstone, sets it on fire to avenge his death. Front-de-Boeuf dies, and de Bracy surrenders to the Black Knight. The Black Knight reveals himself to be King Richard and releases him. Bois-Guilbert flees with Rebecca and the Clerk of Copmanhurst saves Isaac. Cedric saves Lady Rowena and King Richard rescues Ivanhoe. Athelstane is assumed to have died before being rescued.

After the siege, Locksley hosts King Richard. De Bracy tells Prince John that the King has returned and that Torquilstone has died. Bois-Guilbert takes Rebecca to a Templar preceptory, where the Grand Master rejects his love for her and subjects her to a trial for witchcraft. She writes her father to get a champion to engage in battle for her. Cedric sets up a funeral for Athelstane; the Black Knight appears. Cedric is upset after learning who the knight is, but Richard calms him and they reconcile. As they speak, Athelstane suddenly emerges from his coffin alive. Pledging loyalty to King Richard, he tells Cedric to set up Rowena and Ivanhoe. Cedric agrees.

Not long after the reconciliations at the funeral, Ivanhoe receives a message from Isaac asking him to fight for Rebecca. He rides for many hours without rest to get to the castle on time, arriving exhausted and unlikely to win. He faces off against Bois-Guilbert, and they charge at each other with their lances. Bois-Guilbert seems to be winning, but dies of natural causes, having misplaced his energy in selfish pursuits.

In the battle’s aftermath, Rebecca and her father decide to flee England for Granada to avoid persecution. Rebecca says goodbye to Rowena on the day of her wedding. Rowena marries Ivanhoe and they have a happy marriage. Ivanhoe continues to serve in the military until King Richard dies. Having traversed all of the obstacles of combat and medieval royalism successfully, the characters left at the end of the novel view themselves as the victors and fated protagonists, having created order out of the chaos of human life.