Monday, February 1, 2016

The Jews at the heart of Ivanhoe

When I started reading Ivanhoe for the Classics Club Challenge, my first impression was of a medieval fashion show. As a pioneering author of historical fiction, Sir Walter Scott lavishly described his characters' clothes and armor, shown off against a backdrop of old castles and other atmospheric settings - girdles, doublets, linked mail, kirtles, robes, coarse sandals, all sorts of medieval outfits and accoutrements.

I thought at first that the book would be a fairly straightforward tale full of what you'd expect from a medieval setting - jousts, feasting, banter by the campfire, song and drink, knights winning the favor of ladies.

And all of those elements are present. There's light-hearted action and humor, and knights who have to reclaim or retain their standing. But Ivanhoe also takes an unexpected turn when it introduces two prominent Jewish characters - Isaac and his daughter, Rebecca.

In classic literature, I'm not used to seeing Jews appear as anything other than a minor sideshow; and when they turn up, it's usually in a grotesque form. However, Scott's portrayal is largely sympathetic. Isaac might work as a merchant and money-lender, and display a stereotypical obsession with counting shekels, but he's not nearly as greedy or unprincipled as many of the barons and churchmen who would love to rob, torture and kill him. Scott also explains at various points how someone like Isaac would need to attend carefully to his money to ensure even the slightest chance of surviving in a society that regularly brutalized and placed restrictions on Jews.

As for his daughter, Rebecca, she came across to me as the novel's moral center, even more than the hero, Wilfred of Ivanhoe. In general, Rebecca and Isaac's involvement in the story is central to many events and throws light on the moral state of other characters and their culture.

For instance, pretty much all of the non-Jewish characters are realistically anti-semitic (including Robin Hood and Friar Tuck). But the heroic or relatively likable ones are more inclined to deal in a principled or gentler way with the Jews.

(Warning: Here be spoilers.)

The novel's climax doesn't involve Wilfred of Ivanhoe rescuing his long-time love, Rowena; instead, it's him rushing to fight on behalf of the beleaguered Rebecca. As for Rebecca's chief tormentor in the book, the Templar knight Brian de Bois-Guilbert, whatever's good in him manifests in the finer feelings he develops towards her; and his downfall comes less from Wilfred, and more from a powerful struggle of conscience regarding the position he's placed her in.

Rebecca's climactic rescue is an unqualified good, while the other major climactic development - King Richard's reassertion of power after returning from the Crusades - is more of a mixed bag. Although Richard is portrayed as preferable to his scheming brother, John, Scott takes pains to show that the king isn't a fit ruler; he's far more suited to playing knight errant. When Rebecca and Isaac leave England for Spain, the book ends on a melancholic, strangely hollow note; even though Wilfred and Rowena are reportedly quite happy, England feels more empty, and Scott mentions Richard's demise.

Finally, Rebecca - and to some extent, Isaac - openly question the values of the surrounding culture and the behavior of the other characters. In one memorable conversation with Wilfred, when she is nursing him back to health, Rebecca even cuts apart his life's purpose as a knight:
“Glory!… 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 inquiring pilgrim - are these sufficient rewards for the sacrifice of every kindly affection, for a life spent miserably that ye may make others miserable?”
For much of the novel, Ivanhoe is injured and incapable of fighting. The one fight from which he emerges unscathed is his attempt to defend Rebecca. And even then, it's not his physical prowess that wins the day.

Scott's treatment of his Jewish characters is in keeping with his approach to the novel. The characters have an operatic quality, but he still takes care to give them some complexity. He's not content with presenting superficial images of life in the Middle Ages; although he might play around with historic fact, he also digs into the culture and doesn't settle for entertaining readers with flashy jousts and swordplay.

Ideas of chivalry and battlefield glory fare weakly against the tangible outcomes of armed conflict. One example is Ulrica, the enslaved Saxon princess who welcomes Rebecca to her captor's castle with one of the most chilling lines in the book:
“Thou wilt have owls for thy neighbours, fair one; and their screams will be heard as far, and as much regarded, as thine own.”
The Jewish characters in particular ensure that the novel doesn't present the heroes complacently or overly romanticize the time period. Along with colorful pageantry, Scott also explores fanaticism, hypocrisy, corruption and people's ready tendency to rationalize evil. He regularly attacks the idea that war is glorious and feats of arm are evidence of honor. It's no accident that Rebecca is a healer, and that in the world she lives in, her medicinal crafts are regarded as dark magic.