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The poem that comes just before the main text (also known as an epigraph) of Chapter 1 is from Homer's ancient Greek epic The Odyssey. Specifically, it's from Book XIV, in which the hero of the Odyssey, Odysseus, chats with his old pig-herder pal, Eumaeus.
Based on the epigraph, it sounds like we're about to meet a pig-herder in this chapter.
Scott starts out Ivanhoe by setting the scene: the county of South Yorkshire, in the north of England.
Here is where Yorkshire is in England, and here is a close-up map of Doncaster, Rotherham, Sheffield, and all the other places Scott name-drops at the start of the novel.
Ivanhoe takes place in the 12th century, during the reign of King Richard I (1189-1199). On his way back to England from a Crusade in the Middle East, King Richard gets taken captive in Austria.
While he's abroad, things grow rough back home in England. In the king's absence, the nobility, and especially the landed barons, are getting uppity and abusing their power.
The lesser nobles – a.k.a. the franklins – are really suffering from exploitation by the barons.
What's making this struggle between barons and franklins even worse is the long-standing hatred between Normans and Saxons.
The Normans invaded England in 1066 from the northern coast of France. Since then they've been the head honchos of the kingdom.
The Saxons were a group of Germanic peoples who held power in England before the arrival of the Normans in the 11th century.
There are still plenty of Saxon landowners hanging out in England during the reign of Richard I, but the Normans have all the authority. The court language is Norman French, the barons have been imposing Norman feudal law, and things are just generally going the Normans' way.
Saxon resentment of the Norman invaders makes the current tensions in the kingdom even more dire.
And now enough background! Let's get to the main story.
The sun is setting over an ancient circle of Druidic rocks (like Stonehenge).
There are two men standing by. The older of the two is a stern-looking man with a metal collar around his neck.
The collar has a tag with Saxon words that read: "Gurth, the son of Beowulph, is the born thrall of Cedric of Rotherwood" (1.7).
"The born thrall" means that Gurth was born into being Cedric's servant.
Gurth is a pig-herder, like Eumaeus in the chapter's opening lines.
The younger of the two, Wamba, is wearing nicer clothes than Gurth, but he looks more ridiculous: he's a jester.
Gurth is annoyed because he's having trouble gathering his pigs. He asks Wamba for a joke to cheer him up.
Wamba tells a bunch of complicated jokes that are not at all cheerful. He's angry because the Saxons work so hard and the Normans steal the best of what they produce.
The Saxons have been reduced to little more than slaves.
Their boss, the Saxon lord Cedric of Rotherwood, does his best to maintain Saxon power.
But Reginald Front-de-Boeuf, a Norman lord, is coming to England in person.
Gurth thinks Reginald will soon force Cedric to give up his rebellious ways.
The two of them hush up their anti-Norman talk when they hear horses approaching. They leave the grove with Gurth's herd of pigs.
The narrator calls Gurth "this second Eumaeus" (1.27) – a reference to the chapter's opening poem and the whole pig-herder thing.