by Sir Walter Scott
Forgive me if I borrow time from this book review to indulge in my favorite passtime: whining. I had wanted to borrow an audiobook version of this classic novel from the County Library, but when a copy finally became available, I found out the first disk wouldn't play in my car's CD player. The reason was that the publisher very helpfully added a bonus track of CD-ROM data that could only be opened by a computer, and which made machines designed to play only audio CDs unable to read the disk. My friendly librarian first suggested that I listen to the book on my home computer, but when I told him that the whole point of borrowing an audio book was so that I could read while driving my car, he went the extra mile and ordered another CD-book edition for the library's holdings. I therefore got to be the first library patron in the St. Louis metropolitan area to listen to Michael Page's spirited rendering of this medievalist romance, penned in 1820 by the author of such swashbucklers as Rob Roy and The Bride of Lammermoor, which inspired an opera by Donizetti.
Scott, working often under a pseudonym because at that time there was a stigma attached to writing prose fiction, was a prolific writer who helped create the genre of historical novel, and also made a certain pride in Scottish nationality acceptable to English readers for the first time. In fact, it might even be said that Scott invented much of what is now considered traditional Scots-Gaelic culture, although he himself was a lowlander. And although his fiction would be criticized for its plot-heavy, character-light writing style, many of his books continue to provide entertainment and enchantment to this day. Owing to their slight literary merit—at least when judged against such deeply penetrating character studies as the works of Trollope, Hardy, Austen, and the Brontë sisters—they may even be regarded as pioneering works in children's fiction.
And it is true that they appeal to the imagination of children who read books, much as action-packed movies appeal to younger audiences. These are stories that have been, and will continue to be, imitated in the make-believe play of all boys and girls for whom chivalric duels, castle sieges, and forest-dwelling outlaws are a source of inspiration. But it isn't only children, or authors who write for children, who have been inspired by Scott, and by this work in particular. Consider Howard Pyle, Roger Lancelyn Green, and other authors whose compilations of Arthurian legends and Robin Hood tales, as well as original stories, owe a debt to such models as Scott's Ivanhoe. I have even seen signs of our culture's debt to Scott outside literature, including a street named Ivanhoe not far from where I live.
For all that, Ivanhoe himself—a knight in the time of King Richard the Lion-Heart—is not actually all that important a character in the book to which he gives his name. After acquitting himself heroically at a tournament given by Prince John in the earlier part of this novel, he spends most of the remainder recovering from his wounds while events swirl around him. By the final pages he is just sufficiently recovered to mount a horse and face his opponent in a climactic duel which, fortunately for him, ends without a blow being struck. In between there is much ado about the last holdouts for Saxon independence accepting the reality and permanence of the Norman conquest, and about Prince John accepting the return of his brother Richard's all-too-brief reign over England after the glory and folly of the crusades.
The prince tries to pull together an army to resist Richard's return, and the Saxons pull together a fighting body (partly made up of Robin Hood's merry men) to resist the prince's allies, and the Castle of Torquilstone sees a glorious siege, and a self-sacrificing jester pulls off a feat of folly that turns the tide, and the noble Wilfred rides to the defense of a lovely Jewess before she can be burnt by the Templars for sorcery, and suddenly between the covers of one book the English-speaking world discovers Robin Hood as we know him, develops a conscience regarding the treatment of the Jews, coins the word "freelance," and begins to expect a more realistic depiction of social conditions in its historical fiction, romance though it may be. And though the book's characters may be accused of being one-dimensional, they nevertheless have great charm, and some (such as Gurth and Wamba) actually cry out to be loved.
This is, in fact, such a successful piece of entertainment that I am resolved to read more of Scott's books. I refuse to feel guilty about pursuing what literary critics regard as lighter entertainment, suitable for children. Now and then, to be sure, I will take a dose of my medicine in the form of some novel of high literary merit. But you'll have to forgive me if, when I need to pass the dull hours of highway between home and office each day, I err on the side of enjoying myself.
St. Louis, USA
Recommended Age: 12+
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