Reviews: Ivanhoe

Timeless Story; Shame About the Writing

This review only covers the original novel, as it is the only one I'm familiar with.

The underlying story here is wonderful. It's got revenge, romance, drama, melodrama, action (most of it offscreen, but action nonetheless), and even a little mystery if you're not 100% spoiled by every other work of medieval fiction that liberally borrowed from it. And, remarkably, for a pot-boiler, it even works in a basic theme of tolerance and integration, of Britain being forged out of all the different peoples coming together. Sure, it's not really historical in any real sense, but it's still a good message, particularly in the face of a divided Europe.

You've got a great cast of colorful characters, most of them very entertaining to see interact. Most of them aren't all that deep, but they aren't quite one-dimensional either. Rebecca and Rowena are both passive heroines, for instance, but they're still different enough to inspire 19th-century shipping wars. Isaac is a silly "greedy Jew" stereotype, but he's still a loving family man who eloquently protests the vicious persecution he labors under. Even the villains, despite being generally pretty crap people, are at least distinct in their villainy, with de Bois-Guilbert in particular as a sharper character than he has any right to be. The blandest character is probably Ivanhoe himself, and as he's mostly-passive character anyway, it's not that great a loss.

But, and here's the rub, while a great story, especially for a younger audience, it's not that great a book. The writing is lush to the point of being nearly unreadable in places, bringing the action to a grinding halt to painstakingly discuss every merlon and buttress on every castle, every particle of golden matter on every costume, all in the most archaic Purple Prose imaginable. And the pace for the first portion of the story is glacial. I barely got through in the eighth grade, and I had a college-level vocabulary at the time! I can't even imagine how the best audience for the book could generally read it without a condensed "for kids" version!

The story may be timeless, but the book was written in the style of the times, and that style has since fallen out of favor for good reason. That's not to say you shouldn't read it: you should! Just... be prepared to struggle for it.