Ivanhoe and Wilfred
by Sir Walter Scott
Review by Bill Kirton
How much greater a writer Sir Walter Scott would have been if he’d read Elmore Leonard’s ‘rules’ we shall never know. There’s little doubt, though, that Ivanhoe would have been a lot shorter if its author had ‘avoid[ed] detailed descriptions of characters’ and refrained from ‘go[ing] into great detail describing places and things’.
Why choose to read Ivanhoe? Because there are too many classic novels (and novelists) about which (or whom) I pontificate confidently without having read a word of them and my shame at last forced me to start redressing the balance. So I heaved the book off the library shelf, staggered home with it and settled down. Immediately, I was dragged back to 12th century Yorkshire and given a detailed history lesson (apparently of dubious authenticity) on relations between the Saxon and Norman aristocracies. The sentences rolled out – all balanced and rhythmical and clearly written by someone in total control of his material – but many of them so long that I had to pause and reassemble them in my mind to make sure I had all the clauses lined up and relating to one another in an appropriate and meaningful way. The detail was overwhelming and very reminiscent of the glitter and profusion of movies of the Fifties. But then, so were the characters. Apart from Richard the Lionheart and Ivanhoe, whose identity is concealed (at least for readers with an imagination bypass) for nearly all the book, there were jousting knights, chaste damsels, Isaac the Jew and his beautiful daughter Rebecca (who’s so different from her father that Scott should have thought of organising a paternity test at some point in the narrative – it might have saved the trial for witchcraft and the resultant traumas). There’s also a jester, plenty of stout yeomen and, of course, Robin Hood and his Merry Men.
And it’s a terrific story.
So, before I indulge myself in apparently light-hearted, trivial digs at Sir Wally, let me get my disclaimer in. I know Scott opened up the Middle Ages for the Romantic generation and many generations since. I know he’s a truly great writer of impeccable stature in English (and especially Scottish) literature. And I know he was writing for an audience other than that of our contemporaries, which didn’t need its entertainments packaged for instant gratification. But he does try your patience now and then. Look, for example, at the way he heaps his clauses together:
‘… such and so multiplied were the means of vexation and oppression possessed by the great Barons, that they never wanted the pretext, and seldom the will, to harass and pursue, even to the very edge of destruction, any of their less powerful neighbours, who attempted to separate themselves from their authority, and to trust for their protection, during the dangers of the times, to their own inoffensive conduct, and to the laws of the land.’
On the other hand, his preference for the dependable, honourable Saxons over the effete, untrustworthy Normans (damn, I’ve been infected by his two-adjectives-for-each-noun tendency) is blatant but often displays a sardonic edge that undermines his own verbosity. Look at how this single, long sentence moves relentlessly to the satirical bite of its climax.
Yet, in the eye of sober judgment, the short close tunic and long mantle of the Saxons was a more graceful, as well as a more convenient dress, than the garb of the Normans, whose under garment was a long doublet, so loose as to resemble a shirt or waggoner's frock, covered by a cloak of scanty dimensions, neither fit to defend the wearer from cold or from rain, and the only purpose of which appeared to be to display as much fur, embroidery, and jewellery work, as the ingenuity of the tailor could contrive to lay upon it.’ (I wonder if he really did scatter so many commas about the text or whether some of them are the remains of swatted early 19th century flies or midges.)
Reading paragraph after dense paragraph can get frustrating. The plots and sub-plots are strong and, while you know more or less how they’ll turn out, it’s good to see how he does it. You read through (and then begin skipping) the l-o-o-o-o-n-g passages of description or moral asides about the treatment of Jews in 12th century England. But if you stop and dwell on an extract, the tightness of the composition and, perhaps most of all, the rhythms of the sentences impose themselves and Scott’s stature is confirmed.
But part of my remit is to produce a smile and, despite my genuine admiration for the scope of the work, it’s still easy to get cheap (unworthy) laughs out of it. We’re impressed, for example, by the resonance of names such as de Bois-Guilbert, Front-de-Boeuf and Ivanhoe, but their actual given names were Brian, Reginald and Wilfred. And as for obeying the ‘Show, don’t tell’ imperative that’s intoned by so many learned teachers of creative writing, well … his characters have the most expressive faces and demeanours you’ll ever encounter. One of them ‘fixed upon the Palmer his keen black eyes, expressive of wild surprise and of bodily apprehension’. I think I can make my eyes do wild surprise but it would need a Dustin Hoffman to do bodily apprehension. And even he might struggle to portray a person whose ‘features might have been called good, had there not lurked under the pent-house of his eye, that sly epicurean twinkle which indicates the cautious voluptuary’. I love this stuff – totally incredible but read the last nine words aloud and feel and taste them. These aren’t criticisms on my part – I like the fact that he makes his people’s faces so impossibly expressive, condensing entire personalities as well as the fleeting expressions of the moment in just one glance. Consider the fair Rowena, for example:
‘Her clear blue eye, which sate enshrined beneath a graceful eyebrow of brown sufficiently marked to give expression to the forehead, seemed capable to kindle as well as melt, to command as well as to beseech. If mildness were the more natural expression of such a combination of features, it was plain, that in the present instance, the exercise of habitual superiority, and the reception of general homage, had given to the Saxon lady a loftier character, which mingled with and qualified that bestowed by nature.’
This is writing; it’s self-indulgence for the sheer pleasure the tumbling words bring. There’s passion, love, hate, pride, all the vices and most of the virtues here, and the local colour, however dubiously based, is very attractive. Ivanhoe has provided us with some of the enduring basics of myth and romance. It’s at times heavy going but in the end it’s a very satisfying journey.