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‘Glory, Maiden, Glory!’: The Uncomfortable Chivalry of Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe

By (August 1, 2012) 2 Comments

For readers of a certain age, the mention of Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819) will bring some predictable images to mind. Perhaps you see the garish cover of the abridged copy which an aunt sent you as a birthday present, a disappointing substitute for the bank note on which you had pinned your hopes. You remember the picture well, though (it may be the only part of the book which you do recall). You see again the eponymous hero, mounted on a powder-white charger and sporting a set of auburn moustachios and an oversized lance which would invite comment from any Freudian psychoanalyst …

Sir Wilfrid of Ivanhoe (such is his unglamourous Christian name) is caught at tournament, observed on the one side by a damsel with plaited flaxen hair, sleeves so long that you expect her to trip on them, and a concerned expression – and on the other by a huge and threatening opponent partially enveloped in a helmet with bovine horns, a sort of medieval Minotaur. Or perhaps your Ivanhoe presented you with a sturdy grey castle colourfully on orange fire, in front of which a villainous Templar knight is fending off fresh-faced assailants in Lincoln green, while simultaneously manhandling an exotic, dark-eyed maiden onto a rearing horse (who said men can’t multitask?). Now you drift off into memories of old film adaptations and see Elizabeth Taylor as an implausibly well-corseted Rebecca, or Roger Moore posing manfully with a sword and a cemented coiffure, or (if you are younger) Anthony Andrews, looking like he has lost his teddy bear in the Crusades.

The book covers and the films tell you what to expect of Ivanhoe, and indeed what generations of readers have found in its pages. The founding father of the modern medieval romance, the swashing-buckling adventure story per excellence, it was enthusiastically received by its original audience – who lost no time in converting it into plays, operas, paintings and illustrations, and  producing numerous imitations of it. All the required elements are there: we are immersed immediately in the merry middle ages of the crusades and the castle, of chivalry and tournaments, of damsels in distress and gallant knights, of fat friars who sing ballads and kings who hold feasts. Robin Hood? But of course – and all his merrie men. Richard the Lionheart? Inevitably – and like his shadow, bad King John. Adventure, disguises, fights, flights, imprisonments, escapes, ambushes, and then a happy ending: well, sort of. In fact, it is the ending which should make you think again about Ivanhoe.

The resolution of the novel has never been universally popular: the very earliest readers found fault with Scott’s decision to marry the hero to the blonde Anglo-Saxon princess, Rowena, rather than the beguiling brunette Rebecca, daughter of Isaac the Jew. Scott’s decision was not taken lightly: the marriage of Ivanhoe, the friend of the Norman King Richard and the flower of chivalry, was intended to symbolise the reconciliation of the Anglo-Saxons with their French conquerors and the foundation of an inclusive English nation. But not that inclusive: Scott, no mean medieval scholar and no rosy-eyed observer of his own time, does not pretend that Rebecca and her fellow Jews were acceptable to the new English people – or even to their nineteenth-century descendants. At the close of the novel, Rebecca and her father depart to Spain and we hear no more of them.

This was – and still is – very unsatisfactory for many readers. True, Rowena is Ivanhoe’s childhood sweetheart: he was disinherited before the novel begins by his father, Cedric the Saxon, for threatening to disrupt her dynastic marriage to the portly Anglo-Saxon pretender Athelstane, and returns in disguise to try and win her hand. That was what brought him to the tournament illustrated on the cover of your abridged copy. But then it is Rebecca who has ensured that he has a horse and armour and could participate in the chivalric combat; it is she who will nurse him after he is wounded at the tournament, and it is for her that he fights in the concluding trial by battle at Templestowe. What a disappointing ‘happy ending’ it is then, when he marries the marginalised Rowena: Rebecca might be a Jewess, but then this is a romance and surely a timely conversion to Christianity and a runaway marriage to Ivanhoe (in the style of Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, and her Christian lover Lorenzo) is a narrative possibility? Not for Scott, whose nationalist and historicist agenda demanded the union of Saxon princess and Norman sympathiser under the aegis of the self-declared king of the ‘English’ people, Richard the Lionheart.

Scott’s original readers loved Ivanhoe, but they often did neither liked nor understood what the novel had to say about the creation
of nationhood, the character of historical change and the human consequences of it. So they frequently rewrote the plot to satisfy their narrative desires for a happier ending. In Thackeray’s comic sequel, Rebecca and Rowena (1850), the marriage of Ivanhoe swiftly becomes a penitential one, as Rowena develops into a monumentally pious nag. Ivanhoe’s escape to join Richard I’s campaigns in France proves less than entirely successful, as the crusader king has become debauched and unappealing. Relentlessly engaged in the non-stop slaughter of all the enemies of England and Christendom (and these appear to be many, and remarkably poor at warfare), Ivanhoe works his way round Europe like a middle-aged backpacker in armour. In his absence, he is presumed dead, and Rowena marries her old suitor, the fat and jovial Athelstane. He keeps her firmly and affectionately in her place – until she eventually dies in prison, having tactlessly taken King John to task. This neatly emancipates the long-suffering Ivanhoe, whose tour of duty now takes him to Spain: here he again encounters Rebecca, who does now obligingly abandon her faith in favour of Christianity, facilitating their eventual union. One of the great Victorian realists, a still greater satirist, Thackeray was not entirely comfortable with his ‘improved’ ending to Ivanhoe: the couple have no children and are rather melancholy in their mirth. Perhaps Thackeray realised that Scott’s ending was, after all, a more meaningful one.

For there is definitely more to Ivanhoe than those book covers and old films would suggest. Initially, the central three set pieces of the novel seem to be unadulterated celebrations of chivalric colour and values. But, on closer inspection, they reflect the ambiguous response of the Enlightenment Scot who wrote the romance. The tournament at Ashby-de-la-Zouche, where our hero, Sir Wilfred, jousts in disguise as the ‘Disinherited One’ – winning the honours of the first day under the eyes of his father Cedric, and the novel’s two heroines, Rowena and Rebecca – seems like the standard fare of adventure stories. Then comes the second day, in which a melée is scheduled, a barbaric staged battle at which Ivanhoe is wounded and only rescued from a worse fate by the mysterious black knight, Le Noir Faineant. Scott does not spare his hero, nor does he spare us his sarcasm:

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 armour, had died upon the field, yet upwards of thirty were desperately wounded, four or five of whom never recovered. Several more 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 Free Passage of Arms of Ashby.

The result of this ‘Gentle and Free Passage’ is that our hero is unable to exercise his chivalric virtues to any effect for the rest of the novel. He sits out the next spectacular event – the siege of Torquilstone Castle, where three Norman villains are holding hostage the Anglo-Saxon characters and Isaac and his daughter Rebecca. The rescue party which assails the walls of the castle consists of a motley and unknightly collection of Anglo-Saxon churls and outlaws, led by an unlikely combination of Robin Hood and the Black Knight. Being on the bench does not suit Ivanhoe, who positively bounces with impotent zeal on his bed of pain, while his nurse – Rebecca – kindly narrates to him the advancing attack. A Jewish outsider, Rebecca lacks Ivanhoe’s idealist belief in the Norman value of chivalry: after all, her father, Isaac, is being tortured in the dungeon below by one Norman knight, greedy for his wealth. Not to mention the fact that she herself has been threatened with rape by another Norman, the Templar Brian de Bois-Guilbert, a predicament from which she has rescued herself by her own courage and quick wits.

Delacroix, The Abduction of Rebecca
Accordingly, Rebecca acts as Scott’s mouthpiece by offering a measured critique of chivalry as a social ideal, in what is perhaps the most important passage in the entire novel. Ivanhoe tries to educate her in the manly and Christian character of chivalry:

“Rebecca,” he replied, “thou knowest not how impossible it is for one trained to actions of chivalry to remain passive as a priest, or a woman, when they are acting deeds of honour around him. The love of battle is the food upon which we live – the dust of the mellay is the breath of our nostrils! – We live not – we wish not to live – longer than while we are victorious and renowned – Such, maiden, are the laws of chivalry to which we are sworn, and to which we offer all that we hold dear.”

“Alas!” said the fair Jewess, “and what is it, valiant knight, save an offering of sacrifice to a demon of vain-glory, and a passing through the fire to Moloch? -what remains to you as the prize of all the blood you have spilled – of all the travail and pain you have endured – of all the tears which your deeds have caused, when death hath broken the strong man’s spear, and overtaken the speed of his war-horse?”

“What remains?” echoed Ivanhoe; “Glory, maiden, glory! which gilds our sepulchre and embalms our name.”

“Glory?” continued Rebecca; “alas, is the rusted mail which hangs as a hatchment over the champion’s dim and mouldering tomb – is the defaced sculpture of the inscription which the ignorant monk can hardly read to the enquiring pilgrim – are these sufficient rewards for the sacrifice of every kindly affection, for a life spent miserably that ye may make others miserable? Or is there such virtue in the rude rhymes of a wandering bard, that domestic love, kindly affection, peace and happiness, are so wildly bartered, to become the hero of those ballads which vagabond minstrels sing to drunken churls over their evening ale?”

“By the soul of Hereward!” replied the knight impatiently, “thou speakest, maiden, of thou knowest not what. Thou wouldst quench the pure light of chivalry, which alone distinguishes the noble from the base, the gentle knight from the churl and the savage; which rates our life far, far beneath the pitch of our honour; raises us victorious over pain, toil, and suffering, and teaches us to fear no evil but disgrace … Chivalry! – why, maiden, she is the nurse of pure and high affection – the stay of the oppressed, the redresser of grievances, the curb of the power of the tyrant – Nobility were but an empty name without her, and liberty finds the best protection in her lance and her sword.”

Ivanhoe’s stout defence of chivalry is further challenged by the final grand scene of the novel, when he arrives to defend Rebecca from a charge of witchcraft in a trial by combat at Templestowe. At first glance, this is a heroic rescue by the preux chevalier of a damsel in distress; Scott seems to say to us, see how even the rational and enlightened Rebecca has been forced into appealing to the laws of chivalry as her only hope in the face of racial prejudice and rampant superstition! But, in truth, Ivanhoe does not rescue Rebecca: he arrives at Templestowe too weak from his earlier wounds to offer any resistance to his opponent, Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert. In fact, the Templar defeats himself: ‘unscathed by the lance of his enemy, he died a victim to the violence of his own contending passions,’ his desire for Rebecca conflicting fatally with his ambitious wish to retain and advance his reputation as a Templar knight. Becoming Grand Master of a chivalric religious order sworn to chastity and driving the heathen out of the Holy Land is simply not compatible with keeping a Jewish mistress – and even Sir Brian knows it, and explosively shows it.

Scott was not blind to the attractions of the chivalric ideal, embodied at its best in the novel’s central character. But Ivanhoe’s relative impotence as chivalric hero hints at his creator’s ambiguous response to chivalry, as does the nuanced portrait of the Black Knight – who is, of course, Richard I in disguise. While Le Noir Faineant functions as a rex-ex-machina in the course of the novel – rescuing Ivanhoe at Ashby, leading the assault at Torquilstone, forging an alliance with his Anglo-Saxon subjects, and banishing the troublesomely international Templars – Scott is critical of the king’s penchant for playing the knight errant. For Scott, a king who spends his reign wandering about Europe in quest of chivalric adventures is errant indeed, a prince who fails to fulfil his national duties and to protect his subjects from his exploitative and usurping brother. It is only when Richard is exposed to the rule of the monarch of Sherwood Forest, Robin of Locksley, that he begins to learn how to govern the commonwealth of which he is monarch. Scott clearly believed that chivalry needed to be tempered with commitment to the advance of constitutional liberties, and the development of national identity and community. And essentially democratised: at the siege of Torquilstone, our three evil knights are particularly outraged when they receive a chivalric letter of defiance in which the challengers are Wamba, the son of Witless, a jester, and Gurth, the son of Beowolf, a swineherd. Yet these two Saxon serfs exhibit more true chivalry than their Norman superiors, as they attempt to rescue the castle’s assortment of hostages, without fear or favour.

For it is only on first viewing that Scott appears as a straightforward Romantic conservative, the editor of ancient ballads, the poet of medieval epics, the builder of a baronial pile in the Anglo-Scottish borders, the orchestrator of chivalric ceremonies during the visit of George IV in 1822, and even a modern knight as member of the Edinburgh light dragoons. We should remember that he was also a lawyer, and a canny one. In an article in Criticism in 1997, Gary Dyer pointed out that Ivanhoe was published in the wake of a famous court case, Ashford v. Thornton. In this telling episode, Abraham Thornton, accused with good reason of raping and murdering Mary Ashford, appealed to trial by battle to defend himself, knowing that his victim’s brother William was physically unable to fight him. The case against Thornton was accordingly dropped. As Day puts it, ‘In effect, Thornton was rescued by his own strength – which apparently had enabled him to rape and kill Mary Ashford in the first place.’ In the light of this case, Ivanhoe’s appeal to chivalry as the ‘stay of the oppressed’ seems remarkably hollow. Thornton had cynically exploited an anachronistic medieval ideal to deny justice to his victim, employing the might of the armoured fist, not to defend, but to crush the damsel in distress. No wonder that Scott imagined such a strange resolution to the trial at Templestowe, dependent not on the chivalric intervention of Ivanhoe, but the guilty conscience and competing passions of Bois-Guilbert. Rather than furthering the conservative, Burkean project of converting chivalry into a viable contemporary ethic, Ivanhoe comes close to undermining it entirely.

In fact, the book is remarkably similar to Scott’s architectural masterpiece, Abbotsford, his ‘Conundrum Castle’ in which medieval and modern are not entirely in harmony. The entrance hall with its stained glass and its ‘dim, religious light’; the armoury with its bristling display of weaponry and historical relics, including the broadsword of Rob Roy and the keys of Lochleven Castle which featured in the famous escape of Mary Queen of Scots; the library with its impressive collection of antiquarian texts: these rooms create the illusion of a Romantic baronial castle. But this medley of historical artefacts is shot through with some unashamedly modern improvements: Abbotsford was the first house in Scotland to have gas lighting, and the dining room is decidedly contemporary, an elegant Enlightenment eatery with views over the Tweed. It was in this dining room that Scott chose to die, listening to the sound of the passing river. When it came to history and the passing of time, Scott – like Heraclitus – knew full well that you cannot step into the same river twice. This is the message of Ivanhoe, with its equivocal chivalry: you can learn from the past, you can even recreate it, but ultimately you cannot and perhaps should not try to return to it.

Rosemary Mitchell is Associate Principal Lecturer in History and Reader in Victorian Studies at Leeds Trinity University College, U.K; she used to work for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. She is interested in Victorian historical culture, and enjoys all varieties of Victorian historical novels, history books, and history paintings, particularly the bad ones.


  • Martin Walker says:

    As I was (and still am) intending to reread this book, I searched on the net and found this – for which I am very grateful. My memory of a childhood reading was very vague and mixed with memories of the Robert Taylor film, so I was quite shocked to discover that Ivanhoe does not in fact conquer Sir Brian. I am quite convinced of the truth of your analysis, Ms. Mitchell – and stunned by the revelation of the contemporary court case Ashford v. Thornton. So much for the vain illusion of chivalry!

  • Carrie C. says:

    What a wonderful essay. Thank you for sharing your (eloquent) thoughts on Ivanhoe – a childhood favorite.

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