Monday, March 19, 2012

Sir Walter Scott: Ivanhoe (librivox)

I've just finished listening to this.  Like many other Librivox recordings, this reading of Ivanhoe is shared between multiple readers:  nine in this case.

A great thing about Librivox is that, right up front, they emphasize to potential volunteers that it absolutely doesn't matter about your accent; the result is unexpectedly radicalizing. Making recordings of out-of-copyright classics has something painfully traditional about it; but on the other hand, all sorts of questions get stirred up by the appropriation of e.g. Ivanhoe to the strongly regional voices of Louisiana and Wolverhampton (these are guesses);  in short, to anything but the small range of accepted voices for reading. As for Christian al-Kadi -- I can't even guess; most of his Librivox readings are German, but he's done French and Spanish as well as English. His two chapters of Ivanhoe are quietly impressive; more impressive, perhaps, than their contents absolutely merit. But anyway, the point is, there's a rush of excitement about all this, a feeling of people - just people - invading the classics in a way that is hard to contain or predict.

Unintentionally or not, these reflections are peculiarly appropriate to Ivanhoe, a crucial textbook for understanding Victorian education, colonialism and imperialism; also a seminal essay in multiculturalism. It's a remarkable thing that when Scott the novelist let go of Scotland to go south to England (and simultaneously back in time to the 12th Century), the biggest thing that he found (or if you prefer, imagined) was an exotically oriental Judaism.

Ivanhoe and Rebecca, by Abazi

[Image source: Fan painting inspired by 1982 TV movie with Anthony Andrews and Olivia Hussey.]

Ivanhoe's foregrounding of this Jewish material has a significance that is still only beginning to be appreciated. Michael Ragussis' book Figures of Conversion: "The Jewish Question" and English National Identity (Duke University Press, 1995) is the place to start: you can sample it on Google Books. Ragussis draws attention to Scott's visit to Isaac Nathan, the composer of Hebrew Melodies, in 1815. (A year before, Nathan had requested Scott to write the lyrics for his music; Scott modestly declined, but Nathan secured Byron and their joint work was published to great acclaim in April 1815.)

[Nathan's excellent music fell into obscurity after the mid-nineteenth century but you can hear fascinating performances of some of the best-known Hebrew Melodies here: . Clearly San Jose is not just about Silicon Valley!]

Ivanhoe is, not infrequently, as shockingly badly-written as Quentin Durward. Scott is almost maddening when he wastes sentence after sentence on saying nothing and saying it badly. The bagginess is more acceptable on the page than when you read it aloud. A typical sentence:
While this dirge was sung, in a low and melancholy tone, by the female choristers, the others were divided into two bands, of which one was engaged in bedecking, with such embroidery as their skill and taste could compass, a large silken pall, destined to cover the bier of Athelstane, while the others busied themselves in selecting, from baskets of flowers placed before them, garlands, which they intended for the same mournful purpose. (Chapter 42)

Take out all the bagginess, and you're left with "Women were embroidering and making garlands for the bier". OK, that's a cut too far; I confess that there are some benefits to the slow turning of the imagination in an ample sentence; the opportunity, for example, to visualize those baskets of raw floral material. But still, this is pretty lifeless stuff for what is at best only scene-setting description.

Scott's style is also not a great vehicle for action-packed drama. Here is one of my favourite all-time disastrous sentences:

To snatch a mace from the pavement, on which it lay beside one whose dying grasp had just relinquished it—to rush on the Templar's band, and to strike in quick succession to the right and left, levelling a warrior at each blow, was, for Athelstane's great strength, now animated with unusual fury, but the work of a single moment;.... (Chapter 31)

This slack manoeuvring is somehow the obverse of the structural repetitions that make the book astounding in its great scenes; Scott is also a master of structure.

Example, around the captivities in the castle of Torquilstone. Four, count'em, chapters in succession, but simultaneous in time, that all end with the bugle call from without (nb Zola learnt from this idea and used it in The Debacle). These chapters aren't great; the captors insult and threaten the men (Unbelieving dog, swine of a Saxon, etc), or protest to the coveted beauties that "You do me an injustice". With some relief, we think that we finally approach the castle assault; not at all, we've hardly got started. Now it's time for a visit outside the walls to the Black Knight, Locksley, etc., then some protracted disguise with a visiting "priest", then God help us, a second visiting priest (a real one this time), then more discussion and dissension between the variously graded villainous Norman barons. Oh, and Ulrica and her past and her plan of vengeance. Deep Breath. So finally we'll get started.

And then Scott is brilliant. Far from at last letting the clock tick on, he goes back in time yet again, this time indeed much further back than before; all the way to the end of the tournament at Ashby, and now he gives us what we had almost forgotten, the wounded Ivanhoe. Or rather, Ivanhoe and Rebecca. And immediately we're reading at a totally different level of seriousness; this then, is the big scene. It is structurally, above all, that Scott quietly enforces the novel's (unforeseen?) displacement of the expected blue-blooded Rowena by the multiculturalist figure of Rebecca. When the assault finally takes place, it is described for us by Rebecca, looking out of a window. The exotic alien thus becomes, not a bloody participant (what e.g. Ivanhoe longs to be), but the model of a modern consciousness - she becomes the reporter and the commentator.

The other really great scene is the Black Knight's carouse with the Clerk of Copmanhurst. It isn't a coincidence that this scene, too, is primarily conversation. Here the matter is about royalty, nationality, and its bond with the common man: a familiar theme in Scott, but nowhere better handled than here. The big scene between Rebecca and Ivanhoe is a critique of chivalry and Christendom, and an analysis of the conditions of an oppressed people.

re: the Introduction to Ivanhoe. Scott is right; though Ivanhoe is inferior to most of the earlier books set in Scotland, yet its existence ameliorated the status of the author, and indeed those earlier books. If he'd carried on as before, he would have been considered a genre author.

Lawrence Templeton, in his Epistle to Dr Dryasdust, concedes: "... in England, civilisation has been so long complete, that our ideas of our ancestors are only to be gleaned from musty records and chronicles, the authors of which seem perversely to have conspired to suppress in their narratives all interesting details, in order to find room for flowers of monkish eloquence, or trite reflections upon morals".

We all know what he means. But two centuries on, it's sad to say that a modern reader will often make the same reflection about Scott's own once-glowing narrative, e.g.:

When Ivanhoe reached the habitation of Isaac, he was still in a state of unconsciousness, owing to the profuse loss of blood which had taken place during his exertions in the lists. Rebecca examined the wound, and having applied to it such vulnerary remedies as her art prescribed, informed her father that if fever could be averted, of which the great bleeding rendered her little apprehensive, and if the healing balsam of Miriam retained its virtue, there was nothing to fear for his guest's life, and that he might with safety travel to York with them on the ensuing day.

The main thing we'd like to know here is just what exactly Rebecca did, and with what wound or wounds. Just as, a couple of paragraphs previously, the rather casual statement, in passing, that "The fate of Miriam had indeed been to fall a sacrifice to the fanaticism of the times", distracts us with a Who!When?Why!? reaction. However, I am not criticizing Scott for this. As it happens, Scott is ahead of us here; our provoked curiosity is all a preparation for the dismaying judgment of the Grand Master. But this dense reservation does require the modern reader to re-focus their reading; in fact, to imagine intensely that which is not spelled out because in some tortuous way it would have infringed one of the period's innumerable rules about reticence. Spreading balsam on the wounds of a young knight (maybe unconscious, maybe not) is a sexy and intimate occupation.


The geography of Ivanhoe is concentrated on a narrow North-South line between York and Ashby-de-la-Zouch, a distance of some 100 miles. The novel begins in the neighbourhood of Cedric's Rotherwood, about half-way between the two. Rotherwood was a real manor, at Treeton, E. of Sheffield.

Scott liked to use real names when he could. Aethelstane's Coningsburgh = Conisbrough Castle, half-way between Rotherham and Doncaster. Scott apparently had visited it, though he seems to be wrong in claiming that the keep is Saxon; the name is, though. At the tourney:

"Sir Thomas de Multon, the Knight of Gilsland, rather," said Fitzurse; "Salisbury is bigger in the bones."

Baron Thomas Multon of Gilsland was a real person, though anachronistic (the barony was created in 1307). In Ivanhoe he's only a name, but in The Talisman he's a major character. Scott had visited Gilsland and had used it as a major location in "The Bridal Of Triermain". It seems to have been important to him to write about places that he had really seen.

Scott invented the name Copmanhurst by combining the names of two of Yorkshire's Templar Preceptories: Copmanthorpe and Temple Hirst. The preceptory in the novel, Templestowe, does not really exist, but the name is spot on. Evidently the name "Lawrence Templeton" came to the author out of the same semi-conscious detritus.

(Scott's invented names were, of course, soon borrowed, in this case to construct the built geography of Australia. Templestowe is in Victoria, Copmanhurst in New South Wales. He also invented the name Cedric.)


Among the other things I ran across while writing this:

Arthur Sullivan's opera Ivanhoe, a successful disaster, or disastrous success, in 1891. Julian Sturgis' libretto is very faithful to the book and very interesting.

The generally abysmal standard of Wikipedia's literature entries (especially as contrasted with their scientific or geographical entries) has been mentioned here before. The Wikipedia entry for Ivanhoe tells us that Wilfred "represents a middling individual in the medieval class system who is not exceptionally outstanding in his abilities" - would this be the same Ivanhoe who is King Richard's favourite and the all-comers winner at Ashby? Plot synopses may be the lowest form of criticism; they are, nevertheless, surprisingly difficult to get right. Some of the Ivanhoe plot summary may be borrowed from nineteenth-century public domain sources (as is the case with most of the other Wikipedia entries on the Waverley novels), but they can't be responsible for abbreviating Isaac of York's name to "York".

It's presumably Wikipedia, too, whom we have to thank for the peculiar arrangement of Scott's novels into three mutually exclusive categories. By this arrangement the "Waverley novels" no longer means Scott's novels as a whole, but only the leftovers when you have extracted the "Tales of My Landlord" and the two novels sub-titled "Tales from Benedictine Sources". Unfortunately this scheme has been widely copied across the Internet and lies behind such surprising assertions as that Ivanhoe is the fifth Waverley novel.

And what else do we find in the Wikipedia entry? The history of Ivanhoe criticism is: "Critics of the novel have treated it as a romance intended mainly to entertain boys": the reference is to the opening lines of an essay in Nineteenth-Century Fiction by Joseph E. Duncan (evidently the Wikipedia-author was not signed up to JStor, so could only see the preview page); this essay was published in 1955, and is not worthwhile evidence of the state of Ivanhoe criticism. But the Wikipedia-author knows no better.

There is no evidence that the author has any information about:- biographical circumstances of composition; context in Scott's oeuvre as a whole; critical reception; technical innovations; cultural and historical influence. All of these are suitably objective matters and they would be much more worth recording in an encyclopaedia entry than a bungled plot synopsis and some trivia. But this is wholly characteristic of Wikipedia's entries about literary works.

Perhaps you think the novels of Scott, the great unread, don't represent a fair sample of what Wikipedia can do. How about, well, Shakespeare? I've just looked up the entry for Henry IV, Part II and, believe me, it's just as useless as the entry for Ivanhoe. This farrago of misinformation and blank ignorance is the result of universities and the scholarly community sealing off open access to scholarship. Fellows, I hope you're proud of it.

[Addendum (2015): The Wikipedia entry for Henry IV Part II is still as bad as I said, but this isn't true of all Shakespeare plays. The Wikipedia Titus Andronicus is absolutely excellent.]

Shmoop student notes to Ivanhoe. These are really good; they make you want to read the book, and the character and scene analyses are generally terrific.

Not perfect, though. "Then what are the odds that Isaac bumps into Beaumanoir with the incriminating letter in his hand?" (Um.. Quite high - he had the letter written specifically in order to show it at Templestowe).

And what about this, of Rebecca: "When her beloved Ivanhoe implies that she can't understand the glory of battle because the Jews are not fighters, she gets right up in his face and tells him that the Old Testament is full of tales of heroic Jews. Just because she thinks warfare is stupid does not mean she is a coward. So Ivanhoe should just keep his mouth shut about what he does not understand. Even though Rebecca loves Ivanhoe and wants his admiration, she isn't willing to let him talk smack about her or her people." That sounds like a great scene, but it's a pretty free account of the actual conversation in Ch XXIX; it's what we'd like Rebecca to do; a sort of translation, not of the language but of the action, into the kind of scene Scott might have written if he was alive today and writing screenplays of Pirates of the Caribbean.

Being written for school students, the Shmoop notes are naturally very right-minded. Anti-Semitism is dealt with well: our guide even reproving Scott for making Rebecca so amazing that in the end he blurs the message about religious prejudice being wrong in all circumstances: "If Rebecca were ugly, stupid, and greedy, it would still be equally as wrong to discriminate against her for her religion."

Yes it would, but not equally as visibly wrong in the eyes of a sceptical and prejudiced readership. Compared at least with the high standards of his daughter, Isaac is moderately ugly and stupid and greedy (the last in particular); and what is the upshot? The anti-Semitism that rains down on him in the novel feels like it's being to a certain extent endorsed by the author, in spite of all the admirable authorial commentary. I think Scott's glamorizing of the oppressed (in Rebecca, Flora MacIvor, Catherine Seyton, etc) was a really great thing. Glamorizing is never entirely falsifying; it can also be an insight. In this case it set in motion profound changes in our understanding of the world, changes inadvertently testified to, two centuries later, by Shmoop's own high-mindedness.

Another thing that's great about Scott's presentation is that he shows anti-Semitism as present even in such otherwise admirable persons as Ivanhoe and Locksley.

Isaac does embody anti-Semitic stereotype; he is confessedly sourced from one aspect of Shylock (the aspect that cries "My ducats! My daughter!").

That's bad, but Scott uses this bad stereotype to a better end. First, he entirely eliminates Shylock's vindictiveness; instead, he introduces the more sentimental comedy of Isaac continually presenting himself as penniless when no-one is likely to believe him - the sort of lovable crotchet that was a staple of comedy in his Scottish novels. Then, Isaac's attachment to his wealth provides the starting-point for an exploration of the conditions in which his people were compelled to subsist and their likely expression in psychology. Isaac's embodiment of stereotype became a way of leading Scott's prejudiced readers to see that there might be something to admire and like in other cultures even when they are manifested in people who are not so perfectly lovable as Rebecca. And arguably Rebecca would not have had the impact she did, in that climate of prejudice, without Isaac to balance her.

This remark about Friar Tuck, I must admit, took me aback:

"It's a really old-fashioned kind of humor, since comedy based on the hypocrisy of a priest who is drunk all the time might seem less amusing or acceptable to modern audiences."

I'm suddenly feeling very unreconstructed. It hadn't occurred to me that it might be necessary to apologize for the possibly unacceptable comedy of Scott's merry friar. I'm still not sure which audiences are being placated here, but schools are ahead of the game in these things.

[Generally the Shmoop author is comparatively unenthusiastic about the greenwood, Wamba, Locksley and all that yeomanry stuff. Compared, I mean, to my own views or those of Scott's time: I definitely see these elements as among Ivanhoe's best things. Perhaps the Shmoop view might reflect the tastes, actual or anticipated, of college students. There's something of a parallel in Shmoop's treatment of Shakespeare's 2 Henry IV; the commentator takes hardly any interest in the Gloucestershire scenes with Shallow and Silence, not too much in Eastcheap, but much more in the rebellion and in the various nobles on either side. I sense that Shmoop's own vein of shrewd jocularity works best when analyzing straight characters.]

"Ivanhoe" Blueberry bush

[Image source: . The commentary says: "Vigorous and very upright, good disease resistance. Ripening in mid August with heavy crops of high quality fruit that are darker in colour than other varieties." ]

Labels: , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home

Powered by Blogger