What’s Up With the Ending?
In the final chapter of Ivanhoe, Scott wraps up the two major plot lines of the novel: the love triangle between Rowena, Rebecca, and Ivanhoe, and the political adventures of King Richard I. This is a lot to accomplish in one chapter, so it's no wonder that neither plot line gets very neatly tied up. There are loose ends left in both plots, and Ivanhoe remains a bit ambiguous through the end of the book.
The Love Triangle
First off, there is the Rebecca-Rowena-Ivanhoe drama. In the last chapter, Rebecca winds up saved from the Templars by Ivanhoe's bravery against Bois-Guilbert. But instead of going to thank Ivanhoe in person for this dramatic rescue, she slips away from the tournament grounds unnoticed. After Rowena and Ivanhoe get married, Rebecca appears to Rowena to say good-bye. Rebecca plans to leave England and head to Spain, which is less prejudiced against Jews than England during this period in history.
Rebecca wants to forget all about romance and dedicate her life to medicine. She is so committed to leaving love behind that she doesn't seek out Ivanhoe, her hero, but instead goes to find Rowena, her rival. While Scott never actually comes out and says why Rebecca is so reluctant to see Ivanhoe at the end, we think that it's probably because she knows she has no hope of marrying him. Seeing him would just cause her more pain.
This leaves us with a huge question: why does Ivanhoe pick Rowena over Rebecca? Ivanhoe has known Rowena since they were kids. They grew up together, and he has loved her for a long time. Still, we barely get to see Rowena throughout the novel. She is a relatively two-dimensional character: beautiful, sure, but a classic, almost stereotypical damsel-in-distress. Scott also specifies that she is a bit spoiled and used to getting her own way.
Meanwhile, Rebecca has a lot of depth as a character. She is well educated and skilled in medicine. She is generous to the poor of all faiths, even though she is often a victim of their prejudice. Most important, though, she is a Jewish woman in an largely Christian world. Scott constantly reminds us that medieval England was not a great place to be Jewish. Rebecca's beauty and wealth make her a particular target of violence and anti-Semitism (anti-Jewish hatred).
Not only is Rebecca way more interesting than Rowena (in our humble opinion), she is also more helpful to Ivanhoe. She gives him money to buy his armor and horse when he tries to repay her greedy father, and later she treats his wounds after the tournament at Ashby. Scott even confirms that after Ivanhoe marries Rowena, he continues to think about Rebecca "more frequently than [Rowena] might altogether have approved" (44.78). So why does Rowena get the wedding while Rebecca has to go to Spain to become a celibate medical professional?
Scott admits that this is a bit weird. In his 1830 introduction to Ivanhoe, he writes:
The character of the fair Jewess found so much favour in the eyes of some fair readers, that the writer was censured because, when assigning the fates of the characters of the drama, he had not assigned the hand of Wilfred to Rebecca rather than the less interesting Rowena.
In other words, a lot of his contemporary readers thought Ivanhoe should have married Rebecca instead of Rowena. But Scott explains his logic. First, he doesn't think it would have been possible for a Christian man to marry an unconverted Jewish woman in 12th century Britain, with the horrible prejudices of the times. (Why does Scott have to choose now to get all realistic on us?)
Second, Scott thinks it's more poetic for noble characters like Rebecca to have a tragic ending. Sad endings are more challenging and painful, so in a sense they are more appropriate to the strength and greatness of Rebecca's character. Scott is playing on a classic idea that tragedy is better, higher, and nobler than comedy.
If you think about it, this is still a common theme today – after all, when was the last time a comedy won Best Picture at the Oscars? Movies like The Hurt Locker, Titanic, and Precious always get more critical acclaim than lighthearted flicks like The Hangover, Horrible Bosses, or Bridesmaids. Many people continue to think tragedy is more important and lasting than comedy. So we may be sad that Rebecca doesn't get the happy ending she wants, but we here at Shmoop will always remember her more than her bland rival, Rowena.
Umm – King Richard Didn't Live that Long, Did He?
The last chapter of Ivanhoe stresses King Richard I's triumphs: he puts down his brother's revolt and punishes his rebellious subjects. He even manages to win over diehard anti-Norman Cedric of Rotherwood, Ivanhoe's father. Cedric slowly acknowledges that the Saxons are never going to have total power over England again, and he admits that King Richard is a pretty good king, even if he is a Norman. Cedric eventually forgives Ivanhoe for going on the Crusades without permission, Ivanhoe and Rowena get married, and Ivanhoe begins to prosper with the help of his beloved King Richard. It seems as though Ivanhoe is ending on a high note of Norman-Saxon cooperation.
But even in trying to engineer a happy ending for our heroes, Scott can't deny the actual march of history. The thing is, Prince John does eventually become king in 1199, when his brother is killed in France while laying siege to the "Castle of Chaluz" (44.79; also known as the Château de Châlus-Chabrol).
We know that King Richard's death negatively affects Ivanhoe because, in the very last paragraph, the narrator admits that, "[Ivanhoe] might have risen still higher but for the premature death of the heroic Coeur-de-Lion [Richard the Lionhearted]" (44.79). In other words, things were going well for Ivanhoe with the help of King Richard, and they probably would have gone better if Richard hadn't died young. Prince John is going to become King John, and then where will Ivanhoe be?
The novel conveniently concludes just before this complication arises. Still, we know what happens next according to the history books: King John will gain power, and England will know very little peace for the next five hundred years, give or take a few decades. There may be a nice conclusion in the final paragraphs of Ivanhoe, but the historical events surrounding the book make Scott's pat happy ending seem a bit fake.