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Best Historical Novel, 1819 - 5-Star Masterpiece

Best Family Film, 1952 - 5-Stars

Perhaps the Greatest Novel About Knights and Knighthood Ever

Sir Walter Scott was the first, and is still considered one of the best, historical novelists of all time. His first novel, Waverly, which concerns itself with the Jacobite rebellion in Scotland in 1745, was published in 1814 and was an overwhelming success. He followed that with two dozen other Waverly novels, including Rob Roy in 1818. In 1819, he began a new series of novels based on Medieval England and Europe, beginning with Ivanhoe. Ivanhoe is regarded as one of his best and most endearing works.

One of the things about Scott that makes him so significant is his mastery of the English language. He is a type of bridge between Shakespeare's Elizabethan English and the English of the modern world. In Ivanhoe, he captures the flavor of the language of the age of chivalry without overwhelming us. We have a touch of "thees" and "thous," but the meanings of passages are still quite clear. His writing is rich and multifaceted, but it always has purpose. He uses words with precision, but he does not try to impress us with what he knows.

A second thing about Scott that is significant is his knowledge of history. His research is impeccable, and it bears fruit in the lavishness of his details. Yet, we don't get bogged down in detail. There is just enough to paint the scenes of the period and make them come alive. A perfect example is his handling of the tournament in Ivanhoe. Never has there been a clearer, more perfect description of a Medieval tournament. It is breathtaking, and we feel we are a part of the action.

I wish that Scott had written about King Arthur. If he had, he would have been the greatest of the Arthurian authors. Unfortunately, Ivanhoe is as close as he came. Yet, we get so much from that one book concerning chivalry and knighthood, that it could almost be used as a handbook on the subject. It is also quite critical of the faults of the period, such as the mistreatment of Jews and the excesses of the nobility. It is a most honest handling of a most romantic period, and yet he does not tarnish it or disturb the blush on the rose.

A third thing about Scott is his incredible story-telling and his ability to develop so many interesting characters. Every chapter in Ivanhoe is a complete scene that ends in such a way so as to draw us into the next. Scott could easily have been a screenwriter. The personalities that fill those scenes are unforgettable and endearing, such as Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe, King Richard the Lionhearted, Locksley (Robin Hood), Lady Rowena, Rebecca, Isaac of York and Wamba. There are also a host of detestable villains, such as Prince John, Maurice de Bracy and Brian de Bois-Guilbert. No wonder Hollywood wanted to make this into a major motion picture. The 1952 version with Robert Taylor as Ivanhoe, Elizabeth Taylor as Rebecca, Joan Fontaine as Lady Rowena and George Sanders as Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert is unusually good. Robert Taylor is a bit stiff; but then he never felt as comfortable or looked as natural wearing tights and armor as Errol Flynn. There is also a 1982 TV version, as well as an A&E version, with which I am not familiar.

A comparison of Scott's handling of the tournament scene I mentioned earlier and Hollywood's take on it is enlightening. In Scott, the scene is panaramic and sweeping. He brings in the viewpoints of people miles away in a nearby town, a birds-eye-view of the field and its layout, the views of people watching the tournament from trees, views of people in the gallery, views from the royal box, the perspectives of the knights themselves, etc. You get so many viewspoints, and all of them interesting, that you actually feel you are there. Hollywood's production, on the other hand, while quite good for the time, feels small and confined in comparison. You know you are on a studio set. But it is still probably the best production of a Medieval tournament we have on film to date.

When you compare current novels, even historical ones, with Ivanhoe and other Scott works, there is no comparison. What you gain in readability in the modern works, you lose in pure beauty of the language. Scott is an education, not only in language, but history, culture and human relations. But he is also one of the most entertaining authors who ever put pen to paper. I highly recommend him, and especially Ivanhoe.


Waitsel Smith, November 19, 2007

Text © 2007 Waitsel Smith. Image © 1952 Warner Home Video. All Rights Reserved.

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