We're not exaggerating when we say that author Sir Walter Scott was the J.K. Rowling or Suzanne Collins of his day. Everybody read and commented on his books, including Victor Hugo (author of Les Misérables) and Mark Twain. He basically invented the genre of the historical novel. His influence on fiction of the 19th century is impossible to overestimate.
Scott's star has waned a little in our day. But while he may not be the instant bestseller that he was in 1819, he's still a great writer and well-established literary figure. His books are considered classics.
What made Scott so popular back in the day were his Scottish novels, books like Waverley and Rob Roy. In fact, these novels were so successful that they didn't even need an author's name attached to them. After Scott published the first one, Waverley, anonymously in 1814, the book sold so well that all of his later novels were also published anonymously, with "By the author of Waverley" on the title page.
Scott only came out as the author of his own novels in 1827, when he was 56 (source). We don't know about you guys, but if we were the authors of a phenomenally successful line of books, we don't think we could keep it a secret for thirteen years. Didn't he ever want to brag?
Anyway, Scott's early books were historical novels looking back at 18th century Scotland. Imagine Braveheart and you'll get a sense of what these books are like – lots of plaid and lots of legitimate rage against the English for their domination of Scotland. People liked these books because they included tons of colorful detail and exciting, exotic characters. Even though Waverley and Rob Roy were clearly fictional and romanticized, the careful scene setting and the realistic descriptions made them seem authentic.
Then along came Ivanhoe in 1819. It was also a big commercial success – seriously, readers at the time loved this guy. But Scott also got a lot of flak from critics for this book. Why? Because Ivanhoe is not a Scottish novel like Scott's previous bestsellers.
See, Scott was worried that he was falling into a rut with these Scottish Highland dramas. He didn't want to be boring or repetitive. That's why he set Ivanhoe in 12th century England. Ivanhoe portrays the legendary thieves Robin Hood and Friar Tuck, who (unlike Scottish outlaw Rob Roy) do not have documented historical proof of their existence. In general, Scott's readers thought Ivanhoe seemed less realistic than Scott's earlier novels, since Scott was not a historian of British medieval history. This criticism continued into the 20th century, when commentator David Daiches wrote, "Scott did not, in fact, know the Middle Ages well and he had little understanding of its social or religious life" (source).
These complaints don't seem that serious to us, though. After all, as Scott points out in his own, intentionally funny "Dedicatory Epistle" to the novel, Ivanhoe is not supposed to be a historical document. It's a novel – entertaining fiction. Ivanhoe teaches us more about love, resentment, pride, and prejudice than it does about the actual lives and times of lords and peasants during the rule of King Richard I. But why should that be a bad thing?
While critics may not have been wild about Ivanhoe and its imaginary spaces of Greene Olde Englande, the public has decided in Ivanhoe's favor. Today Ivanhoe is one of Scott's most enduring novels. Scott brings the glamorous world of jousting, tournaments, knights, and damsels in distress colorfully to life. And against this backdrop of sword fighting and courtly love, Scott still finds the time to consider real issues like prejudice and bigotry. While Scott may not have been a serious medieval historian, he was serious about his observations of human nature and emotion. In that respect at least, we think Ivanhoe is deeply true to life.
Why Should I Care?
Don't get us wrong, we love Ivanhoe to death. Still, as a piece of historical fiction set in the 1190s, it's not exactly making an effort to represent the contemporary, everyday realities of life. This isn't a book you read and think, "Hey! I totally know what that's like! Reading about these characters – it's like looking in a mirror!" Unless you moonlight as a medieval knight, a jolly friar, or a forest-dwelling outlaw (wait, do you?), this book probably isn't going to speak to your personal experience.
That said, underneath all the jousting, disguises, daring rescues, rebellions, and lost kings, Ivanhoe does tell a pretty basic tale of a guy trying to find his own way against family and political pressures. He joins the army without his dad's permission, goes to war, and then comes back unsure of what's waiting for him. Has his girl found another guy? Has his father learned to compromise at all? And will his loyalty to his commander-in-chief endure in the face of upheaval on the home front?
When described this way Ivanhoe sounds like a clichéd war movie – Born on the Fourth of July or something equally serious. Of course, Ivanhoe isn't anything like that. Instead of gritty tales of wartime agony, we get tournaments and knights in heavy armor hitting each other with lances. The historical setting is supposed to entertain you, not freak you out with images of suffering.
The novel's medieval wartime backdrop gives Scott a pretext for his hero's dad and girl troubles. War keeps Ivanhoe moving and brings together all of its varied and diverse characters. But the whole concept of a confused young guy fighting with his father and trying to do what's right for his country – that's pretty universal, in peacetime and wartime, in the 12th century and the 21st century. There may be more banners and castles in Ivanhoe than in your average modern story of generational misunderstanding and messed-up romance, but the feelings of family frustration, resentment, and isolation still hit us where we live.