Scott begins the novel by setting out the historical background, describing the Crusades, King Richards capture by the Duke of Austria, and the newly found power of Prince John. Scott then describes the subjugation of the Saxons under the Norman regime. Richard had outlawed the practice of noblemen overpowering their weaker Saxon neighbours and enslaving them. With his capture, this practice is reintroduced. We are shown Wamba and Gurth as examples of how the state of the nation affects individuals. We are shown the power of language as the two discuss the origins of various words in the language: how Norman French has asserted a linguistic imperialism over Saxon. This is Scotts early play on linguistic theory:
"The whole race of Saxon princes and nobles had been extirpated or disinherited, with few or no exceptions; nor were the numbers great who possessed land in the country of their fathers, even as proprietors of the second, or of yet inferior classes. The royal policy had long been to weaken, by every means, legal or illegal, the strength of a part of the population which was justly considered as nourishing the most inveterate antipathy to their victor. All the monarchs of the Norman race had shown the most marked predilection for their Norman subjects; the laws of the chase, and many others equally unknown to the milder and more free spirit of the Saxon constitution, had been fixed upon the necks of the subjugated inhabitants, to add weight, as it were, to the feudal chains with which they were loaded. At court, and in the castles of the great nobles, where the pomp and state of a court was emulated, Norman-French was the only language employed; in courts of law, the pleadings and judgments were delivered in the same tongue. In short, French was the language of honour, of chivalry, and even of justice, while the far more manly and expressive Anglo-Saxon was abandoned to the use of rustics and hinds, who knew no other. Still, however, the necessary intercourse between the lords of the soil, and those oppressed inferior beings by whom that soil was cultivated, occasioned the gradual formation of a dialect, compounded betwixt the French and the Anglo-Saxon, in which they could render themselves mutually intelligible to each other; and from this necessity arose by degrees the structure of our present English language, in which the speech of the victors and the vanquished have been so happily blended together; and which has since been so richly improved by importations from the classical languages, and from those spoken by the southern nations of Europe."
We are introduced to two of the villains of the novel: Brian de Bois-Guilbert and Prior Aymer, who have come to see Cedric. We are then introduced indirectly to Rowena, when the two discuss her beauty, and to Ivanhoe, whose father is angry with him for going on Crusade. Cedrics home is described in all its sparse majesty, showing us the similarity between the house solid and simple, and its inhabitant. We are more and more aware of the antipathy between the Normans and the Saxons, with Cedric trying to be civil to his Norman guests, but occasionally showing his anger at the repression of the Saxons.
We are then introduced to Isaac of York, the Jew, who fits the Semitic stereotype. He trades with the Palmer (representative of the good which still remains in the Church) who had given directions to Cedrics home earlier in the novel. The Palmer is Ivanhoe in disguise. Cedric learns that Ivanhoe has acquitted himself well in the Crusades. Brian de Bois-Guilbert tries to rob Isaac and the Palmer saves him. In exchange the Jew lends him a horse and arms for the jousting tournament at Ashby-de-la-Zouche. The tournament is described, with crowds of heroes and beautiful ladies come to participate in and watch the sports. We are shown Isaacs stunning daughter, Rebecca. Ivanhoe, in the guise of Desdichado (the Disinherited Knight), is greatly successful in the jousts, beating Brian de Bois-Guilbert and crowning Rowena Queen of Beauty and Love. The tournament is notable for its gaiety in the face of the destitute state of the English nation. On the second day of the tournament, Ivanhoe finds an ally in the Black Knight, and is again victorious, although badly wounded. Finally, bleeding, he receives the victory crown, and his identity is revealed as he passes out at the severity of his wounds.
Front-de-Boeuf has taken over the castle which Richard had originally assigned to Ivanhoe and the crowds at the tournament discuss whether Ivanhoe will reclaim it. Prince John is deeply perturbed by a message he receives: "The devil is unchained", indicating to him that Richard has escaped from the Duke of Austria. We are reintroduced to the Black Knight, who befriends and gets drunk with Friar Tuck. We then see Cedrics dream of re-establishing the primacy of the Saxons through the union of his daughter and Aethelstane,
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