Wilfred of Ivanhoe is a young Saxon knight of England whose father, Cedrick of Rotherwood, wishes his ward Rowena, of royal Saxon blood, to marry his distant relative, Athelstane of Coningsburgh, also of royal Saxon blood, in an attempt to overthrow the Normans and return the Saxons to the throne of England. Unfortunately, Wilfred falls in love with Rowena, so he is banished by Cedric and follows King Richard to the Crusades. As the book opens, Richard has been held for ransom in Austria, while Wilfred, returning home in disguise as a palmer on a pilgrimage, leads the Norman knight Brian de Bois-Guilbert to his father’s house for refuge in a storm. At a tournament, Wilfred defeats Bois-Guilbert. Isaac the Jew and his daughter Rebecca are also there, and Bois-Guilbert is smitten with her. Another Norman, Maurice de Bracy, also wants Rowena. The next day, in the tournament, Wilfred is wounded and is saved by a mysterious Black Knight who then disappears. Rebecca is a healer and tends to Wilfred’s wounds. As Isaac and Rebecca, with Wilfred secretly in their litter, meet up with Cedric and his party and start traveling together for safety, the whole group is captured by De Bracy and Bois-Guilbert and taken to the nearby castle, Torquilstone, of Reginald Front-de-Boeuf, still another Norman. Wamba and Gurth, Cedric’s servants who escaped capture, join forces with a large gang of outlaws led by Locksley (Robin Hood) and the Black Knight to besiege the castle. Front-de-Boeuf is killed and De Bracy surrenders to the Black Knight, who is revealed as King Richard, but Bois-Guilbert escapes with Rebecca to the Templar Preceptory of Templestowe. Ivanhoe comes to be Rebecca’s champion. In a joust, Ivanhoe is unhorsed, but Bois-Guilbert falls down dead. Richard arrives. Robin Hood follows and becomes a true follower of Richard. And Rowena marries Ivanhoe.
Scott is called the father of the historical novel, and there is a great deal of good historical background about medieval England presented in the book. Ivanhoe is sometimes given credit for helping to increase popular interest in the Middle Ages in nineteenth century Europe and America. Also, the character that Scott gave to Robin Hood in Ivanhoe helped shape the modern notion of this figure as a cheery noble outlaw. There is hardly anything objectionable in the book from a moral standpoint–very few instances of what might be considered cursing or taking the Lord’s name in vain, and several references to drinking alcoholic beverages. It is generally said that most readers are disappointed that Ivanhoe does not marry the noble Rebecca, but Rowena is no slouch herself. Both women are true heroines who refuse to compromise their principles even in some very tough circumstances. From a literary standpoint, the book is long, but not as complex as later Victorian novels and the story is interestingly told, although there are places where some might wish that things moved along a little more quickly. All in all, I enjoyed it.