Wilfred of Ivanhoe is our hero (obviously, since his name is the title of the book). He's a knight from a Saxon family recently returned from the Crusades in the Middle East. He's also estranged from his father, Cedric, who refuses to forgive Ivanhoe for leaving behind his family in England to follow the Norman King Richard I to war. Not only is Ivanhoe a brave warrior and a stubborn cuss (since he's willing to disobey his father to go off and fight in foreign lands), he is also a great lover of the ladies. Saxon noblewoman Rowena is head over heels for Ivanhoe, and Rebecca also falls for him at first sight.
As a strong warrior and lady-killer, Ivanhoe is perfectly set up to be the center of a plot-driven novel like Ivanhoe. Honestly, there's not very much to Ivanhoe as a character (that we can see at least). He's clearly a good guy, but he's not a deep thinker with a complex personality.
Instead, Ivanhoe exists to make things happen in the book. He keeps the machinery of the plot moving. Ivanhoe arrives in the novel with a bunch of problems to be solved. Now that he is back from the Crusades…
The answers to these questions basically form the plot of Ivanhoe.
Psst. Here's a cheat sheet with the answers to the above questions:
Ivanhoe is at the center of the book, but he sometimes feels a bit empty as a character. To get a sense of what we mean, check out a line he delivers to Rowena near the beginning of the book. In this scene Ivanhoe has come to his father's hall wearing a giant hat as a disguise (which, honestly, is kind of funny to picture). Rowena learns that this "stranger" is recently returned from the Middle East, and she asks for news of a knight named Wilfred of Ivanhoe. He replies:
"I know little of the Knight of Ivanhoe," answered the Palmer [Ivanhoe in disguise], with a troubled voice. "I would I knew him better, since you, lady, are interested in his fate. He hath, I believe, surmounted the persecution of his enemies in Palestine, and is on the eve of returning to England, where you, lady, must know better than I what is his chance of happiness." (6.12)
Scott is trying to build up suspense at this early stage in the book. Who is this mysterious "Palmer" (religious man) who is so full of news from the Holy Land? Who is this Wilfred of Ivanhoe who Rowena wants to hear about so much?
If you think about this dialogue in terms of Ivanhoe's character, though, it actually gets really weird. It's Ivanhoe himself, not some strange Palmer, who is speaking this line. So why doesn't Ivanhoe just show his face to Rowena now, instead without going through the whole dramatic reveal at the tournament? They are alone in her rooms except for some serving ladies, who probably wouldn't blab. Ivanhoe could calm Rowena's anxiety and gain an ally in his father's hall by revealing his identity. What's more, the so-called Palmer refers indirectly to Ivanhoe's feelings for Rowena, implying that she is his chance at happiness. How would a stranger know this much about deeper Ivanhoe's feelings? It makes no sense once you start thinking about it. (Hmm. So maybe we should stop thinking about it.)
We have to admit, we think Scott sometimes sacrifices believability for the sake of building plot momentum. (Think if it this way: if Ivanhoe were a movie, it would be a summer blockbuster, not an Academy award winner.) Scott's real focus is on keeping things fast-paced and entertaining rather than on deep psychological analysis of why the characters do what they do. Ivanhoe is no exception: Scott keeps him in disguise for so long because it's more fun that way. It doesn't really seem necessary as a piece of character development to shroud him in so much mystery.
Ivanhoe is a great guy in many ways. He helps Isaac travel through the forest safely when Bois-Guilbert plans to rob him early on in the book. He confronts the bullying Normans at the tournament at Ashby and wins the honors of the contest for the English. He stands by King Richard I and encourages him to hurry up and take back his throne from Prince John. And he rides to Rebecca's rescue at the end, even though he's injured, because Ivanhoe owes her big time.
Still, Ivanhoe is not all good. As a villain, Scott makes Bois-Guilbert an interesting character by giving him a few good traits mixed in with his general badness. He does the same with heroic Ivanhoe by giving him some bad points among the good. By far Ivanhoe's worst character trait is his anti-Semitism. Even though Rebecca is very good to Ivanhoe, he cannot overcome his negative prejudices about Jewish people when he talks to her.
The cruelest example of this comes after the tournament at Ashby, when the wounded Ivanhoe is lying unconscious in bed at Rebecca's house. He wakes up without knowing where he is and spots this beautiful woman (Rebecca) dressed in vaguely Eastern clothing and treating his wounds. He addresses her in one of the languages he learned in the Middle East. (We know this is a lot of background, but just bear with us for a second.) Ivanhoe has no idea what's going on, but he knows a pretty girl when he sees one. And Rebecca is, let's face it, stunning. Ivanhoe starts to sweet-talk her.
But before he can get too far with his moves, Rebecca speaks to him in English. She tells Ivanhoe that she's not from the Middle East; she is the daughter of Isaac of York, and a Jew. As soon as Ivanhoe realizes that Rebecca is Jewish, his whole attitude toward her changes:
But Ivanhoe was too good a Catholic to retain the same class of feelings towards a Jewess. This Rebecca had foreseen, and for this very purpose she had hastened to mention her father's name and lineage; yet – for the fair and wise daughter of Isaac was not without a touch of female weakness – she could not but sigh internally when the glance of respectful admiration, not altogether unmixed with tenderness, with which Ivanhoe had hitherto regarded his unknown benefactress, was exchanged at once for a manner cold, composed, and collected, and fraught with no deeper feeling than that which expressed a grateful sense of courtesy received from an unexpected quarter, and from one of an inferior race. (28.24)
Scott emphasizes that Ivanhoe is a man of his time; he shares the same anti-Jewish prejudices as many of the other characters in the book – prejudices that were widespread during the Middle Ages. But that doesn't excuse the way Ivanhoe hurts Rebecca with his sudden change of manner when he realizes that she is Jewish.
Scott describes Rebecca's pain thoroughly: she expects this kind of cold response from Ivanhoe, she braces herself for it, but once Ivanhoe's rejection comes it still really hurts her feelings. She likes him, and she can't stop liking him even though he is prejudiced against her people.
The fact that Scott portrays Rebecca's disappointment in Ivanhoe shows us how seriously he wants us to take Ivanhoe's prejudices. Scott doesn't gloss over Ivanhoe's flaws as an individual. Ivanhoe's prejudices may make him more rounded and three-dimensional as a character, but they also truly make us think less of him as a person. Scott is honest enough to acknowledge that a 12th century Christian Englishman would be very likely to be prejudiced against Jews. He's being historically accurate, even if it's painful for us to see such overt prejudice in the hero of our novel.