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Free Study Guide - Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott

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The plot of Ivanhoe has a classical structure, based upon an introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution (denouement). The first chapter is largely expository. The novel opens with two of Cedric’s servants, Gurth (the swineherd) and Wamba (the Jester) talking to each other in the forest. They introduce some of the main characters in their speech and give the historical and social background necessary to understand the plot. Gurth and Wamba talk of the absence of King Richard, who is held captive abroad; they also discuss the unjust Forest Laws, the danger of outlaws, the cruelties practiced by the Normans against the Saxons, and the consequent antagonism between the two races. In short, they introduce the themes of the book and foreshadow some of the action of the conflict.

The Rising Action begins with the sudden appearance of Bois-Guilbert and the Prior Aymer. It is an immediate confrontation between two established rivals; Wamba and Gurth represent the Saxons, while Bois-Guilbert and the Prior represent the Normans. During the conversation between the two parties, it is revealed that Cedric has disinherited his son Ivanhoe and that he has a beautiful ward, Rowena. The Normans demand to be lodged with Cedric, a staunch Saxon, and ask for directions, which are falsely given by the two servants. The banquet at Cedric’s castle introduces the Jews, Isaac and Rebecca, and reveals the poor treatment they receive. Only Ivanhoe, disguised as a Palmer, is kind to Isaac.

The action keeps moving upward to the tournament at Ashby, where Ivanhoe, now disguised as the Disinherited Knight, beats all the Norman knights, including Bois-Guilbert. It becomes obvious that these two contrasting knights will be again placed in opposition. The climax is neared when the wounded Ivanhoe and all of Cedric’s party are captured by De Bracy’s men and imprisoned in Torquilstone Castle. Wamba hastens the climax when he changes robes with Cedric who, once free, joins the outlaws and the disguised King Richard to attack the Normans held up on the castle. The Normans are defeated and Urfried sets fire to the castle, killing both herself and Front-De-Boeuf.

All of the prisoners are released from Torquilstone, except for Rebecca. She is still held captive by Bois-Guilbert, who continues to have designs on her. When she is accused of being a witch, Ivanhoe comes to her aid. He fights Bois-Guilbert for Rebecca’s release and emerges victorious over his enemy, who dies in the contest. It is an ultimate victory for Ivanhoe and the point of climax in the novel.

In the falling action, the Black Knight, who has helped Ivanhoe and the Saxons, reveals himself as Richard the Lion-Hearted, the rightful King of England and is restored to the throne. Cedric mellows and seems to accept that the Saxons will never regain the crown. He also forgives his son, allowing Rowena to marry Ivanhoe. In the conclusion, all of the loose ends are tied up. Before departing from England with her father, Rebecca comes to express her appreciation to Rowena; she is unable to face her beloved Ivanhoe in person.

The narrative line of the plot moves slowly and smoothly through the rising action to the conclusion, except for some infrequent occasions when Scott uses flashbacks to explain his plot, to link up characters, or to supply missing information. There are also a few moments of authorial intrusion into the plot line, when Scott enters the novel to directly give additional information, especially related to medieval history or customs. Neither the intrusions or the flashbacks detract significantly from the well developed and unified plot he has created in Ivanhoe.


Major Theme

All the characters in Ivanhoe are in some way affected by the themes of conquest and dispossession. The smoldering hatred between the conquered Saxons and the conquering Normans is the major theme that runs throughout the novel. Scott masterfully develops the unscrupulous leadership of Prince John and shows its affect on the common people of England. The prince has stolen the land of the Saxons, taken their money, and usurped all of their power. He also allows his knights to behave in immoral ways and to take any women they so desire. Even though King Richard is kinder and more popular than Prince John, some of the Saxons even resent him. Cedric, in particular, hates all Normans.

There are several smaller examples of conquest and disposition in the novel. Prince John has stolen power from his brother, King Richard. The king himself is displaced, being held captive in a foreign land. Ivanhoe has been disinherited by his father because of his love for Rowena and his allegiance to King Richard. Robin Hood has lost his earldom of Locksley. Isaac, as a Jew, is permanently displaced and persecuted. De Bracy tries to conquer Rowena, Bois-Guilbert tries to conquer Rebecca, and the Prior and Isaac are conquered and ransomed. Rebecca is conquered because of her Jewishness and accused of being a witch; to save her, Ivanhoe finally conquers Bois-Guilbert. In the end, all of the conquests and dispositions are favorably resolved.

Minor Themes

Civil unrest is a minor, but recurrent, theme in the novel. The Saxons are discontented because they have lost their lands and their power to the Normans. Additionally, they would like to again have a Saxon King on the English throne. They also resent the contempt and mockery of the Normans, who pride themselves as a superior race. The common people are frightened of Norman cruelty and injustice. The frustration and tension in the novel is constantly suggestive of civil unrest.

Honor among thieves and the profession of outlawry is another recurring theme of the novel. The general discontent of the common Saxon people and the strict embargoes placed on them by their conquerors naturally leads to increased crime. But in Scott’s chivalric novel, the criminals are heroes of their own sort; they are actually Robin Hood and his legendary band of outlaws, who rob from the rich to give to the poor. These “outlaws” have more honor and chivalry than many of the Norman knights.

The cruelty of anti-Semitism is another theme of the novel. In the Middle Ages, there were widespread discrimination and persecution of the Jews. They were not allowed to own land or to become craftsmen. As a result, Jews engaged in trade and money-lending, often becoming rich through their natural aptitude for commerce. The Christians were jealous of their successes, but depended upon the Jews for loans. As such, they were regarded as a necessary abhorrence and were hated and treated cruelly by the very people whom they helped. The Jews were especially susceptible to accusations of witchcraft, chiefly because they had learned the art of healing. Rebecca, who cures Ivanhoe of his wounds, is suspected of being a witch both because of her knowledge of medicine and because of her unusual beauty which attracts many men. Because she is a Jew, her case is more serious. Everyone expects Rebecca to be burned at the stake.


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