Study Guide

Ivanhoe Duty

By Sir Walter Scott

Duty

"Aymer – the Prior Aymer! Brian de Bois-Guilbert!" muttered Cedric – "Normans both; but Norman or Saxon, the hospitality of Rotherwood must not be impeached: they are welcome, since they have chosen to halt; more welcome would they have been to have ridden further on their way. But it were unworthy to murmur for a night's lodgings and a night's food; in the quality of guests, at least, even Normans must suppress their insolence. [...] Say to them, Hundebert, that Cedric would himself bid them welcome, but he is under a vow never to step more than three steps from the dais of his own hall to meet any who shares not the blood of Saxon royalty." (3.20)

As the lord of a hall, Cedric is duty-bound to welcome any guests who arrive asking for a place to stay. If he refuses to host Prior Aymer and Brian de Bois-Guilbert, he'll lose face – even if they are Normans. While Cedric insists on obeying the letter of these rules of hospitality, he definitely doesn't obey their spirit. He makes it clear that he doesn't want them there. He refuses to greet them personally because they aren't Saxon royalty. Clearly Cedric puts a lot of emphasis on the idea of honor, but would you say that his behavior is actually honorable in this scene?

Rowena remained silent, and Cedric answered for her in his native Saxon.

"The Lady Rowena," he said, "possesses not the language in which to reply to your courtesy, or to sustain her part in your festival. I also, and the noble Athelstane of Coningsburgh, speak only the language, and practise only the manners, of our fathers. We therefore decline with thanks your Highness's courteous invitation to the banquet. To-morrow, the Lady Rowena will take upon her the state to which she has been called by the free election of the victor Knight, confirmed by the acclamations of the people."

So saying, he lifted the coronet, and placed it upon Rowena's head, in token of her acceptance of the temporary authority assigned to her.

"What says he?" said Prince John, affecting not to understand the Saxon language, in which, however, he was well skilled. (9.37-40)

Once more the Norman and Saxon characters are using language as a power play to emphasize the differences between them. Notice the pettiness this conversation brings out in Prince John. His refusal to speak Saxon, despite the fact that his subjects are Saxon and he knows the language well, indicates his own unfitness to rule England. Prince John's clear preference for the Normans over the Saxons shows that he doesn't respect the responsibility of a king to be fair to all of his subjects. Norman King Richard's willingness to cooperate with the Saxons is a sign of his superiority as a ruler.

"Like a true knight?" repeated Fitzurse, looking after [Prince John]; "like a fool, I should say, or like a child, who will leave the most serious and needful occupation, to chase the down of the thistle that drives past him. – But it is with such tools that I must work; – and for whose advantage? – For that of a Prince as unwise as he is profligate, and as likely to be an ungrateful master as he has already proved a rebellious son and an unnatural brother. – But he – he, too, is but one of the tools with which I labour; and, proud as he is, should he presume to separate his interest from mine, this is a secret which he shall soon learn." (15.25)

Of course, the problem with Prince John's rebellion against his brother is that all of his followers are also rebels. The same lack of respect for the throne that led Fitzurse to work against King Richard might be turned against Prince John if he doesn't keep following Fitzurse's advice. Fitzurse has no innate loyalty; he's a manipulator, which means he'll keep supporting Prince John as long as it's useful to him to do so. Ultimately Prince John's reward for his revolt is to worry constantly that the people around him will revolt against him in turn.

"Good brother," replied the inhabitant of the hermitage [the Friar], "it has pleased Our Lady and St Dunstan to destine me for the object of those virtues, instead of the exercise thereof. I have no provisions here which even a dog would share with me, and a horse of any tenderness of nurture would despise my couch – pass therefore on thy way, and God speed thee."

"But how," replied the [Black Knight], "is it possible for me to find my way through such a wood as this, when darkness is coming on? I pray you, reverend father as you are a Christian, to undo your door, and at least point out to me my road."

"And I pray you, good Christian brother," replied the anchorite, "to disturb me no more. You have already interrupted one pater, two aves, and a credo, which I, miserable sinner that I am, should, according to my vow, have said before moonrise." (16.14-16)

When the Black Knight (also known as King Richard) stops by the Friar's broken-down chapel in the middle of the forest, the Friar is initially reluctant to talk to him or give him directions. The Friar claims this is because he is so caught up in his prayers that he can't spare the time to chat with a stranger. The real reason is because he wants to hide his stolen wine and poached deer meat. Characters like Friar Tuck don't seem too concerned with their religious duties. Do we have any counterexamples of true religious faith in the novel? Which characters appear to have real faith?

"What! is it Front-de-Boeuf," said the Black Knight, "who has stopt on the king's highway the king's liege subjects? – Is he turned thief and oppressor?"

"Oppressor he ever was," said Locksley.

"And for thief," said the priest, "I doubt if ever he were even half so honest a man as many a thief of my acquaintance." (20.67-69)

Traveling around his country in disguise gives King Richard information about the true behavior of his lords. Here, for example, he finds out that Reginald Front-de-Boeuf has been stealing from his subjects. This is news to Richard, even if everyone else seems well aware of Front-de-Boeuf's bad nature. And by the way, who is running the country while he's prancing around as the Black Knight? While Richard is clearly one of the heroes of Ivanhoe, it still seems irresponsible of him to spend so little of his time as king actually governing the country. No wonder Prince John was successful in his rebellion.

If, thought [De Bracy], I should be moved by the tears and sorrow of this disconsolate damsel, what should I reap but the loss of these fair hopes for which I have encountered so much risk, and the ridicule of Prince John and his jovial comrades? "And yet," he said to himself, "I feel myself ill framed for the part which I am playing. I cannot look on so fair a face while it is disturbed with agony, or on those eyes when they are drowned in tears. I would she had retained her original haughtiness of disposition, or that I had a larger share of Front-de-Boeuf's thrice-tempered hardness of heart!" (23.31)

As De Bracy watches Rowena cry at the idea of marrying him, he starts to feel guilty. It's difficult for him to turn back on his plan now that he's gotten all of Prince John's knights to help him kidnap her, Cedric, and Athelstane, but he doesn't actually want to harm Rowena or force her to marry him against her will. De Bracy reflects that he is "ill framed" for the part that he's playing; in other words, he's just not cut out to be the tough guy required to carry out this whole scenario.

What's interesting about this reflection is how complex De Bracy's feelings are. Yes, he's a shallow and greedy guy, but he's not a horrible person. He doesn't want to hurt Rowena. De Bracy's second thoughts about the whole kidnapping scheme demonstrate that he's a complex human being. He makes terrible mistakes (which have dire consequences) but he's not simply a villain. While at first the novel seems to set up this Saxon-good / Norman-bad split, it soon becomes clear that it's not as simple as that. There are plenty of vain, stupid Saxons (hi, Athelstane!), and the Normans have morals and regrets just like the rest of us. While Ivanhoe paints a really romanticized picture of medieval England, it's not as black-and-white in its depiction of heroes and villains as it could have been.

"And I must lie here like a bedridden monk," exclaimed Ivanhoe, "while the game that gives me freedom or death is played out by the hand of others! – Look from the window once again, kind maiden, but beware that you are not marked by the archers beneath – Look out once more, and tell me if they yet advance to the storm." (29.29)

With this quote, the "duty" we're talking about is Scott's responsibility as an author to keep his readers entertained. (Okay, maybe we're stretching the theme a bit, but we still think this quote is intriguing.) Scott has to find interesting ways of presenting these grand battle scenes. After all, straightforward description gets old after a while, even if the narrator is telling us about something as exciting as a bunch of knights fighting. So we get at least part of the siege of Torquilstone as a dialogue between Rebecca and the bedridden Ivanhoe. Ivanhoe's excitement and Rebecca's horror at the spectacle of battle both add to the reader's suspense and interest in the fight. By presenting this battle scene through a conversation between characters rather than through straightforward narration, Scott can also include more personal emotions from the characters' individual points of view. These emotions add flavor and substance to Scott's portrayal.

"Hold thy belief," replied Ulrica, "till the proof reach thee – But, no!" she said, interrupting herself, "thou shalt know, even now, the doom, which all thy power, strength, and courage, is unable to avoid, though it is prepared for thee by this feeble band. Markest thou the smouldering and suffocating vapour which already eddies in sable folds through the chamber? – Didst thou think it was but the darkening of thy bursting eyes – the difficulty of thy cumbered breathing? – No! Front-de-Boeuf, there is another cause – Rememberest thou the magazine of fuel that is stored beneath these apartments?"

"Woman!" he exclaimed with fury, "thou hast not set fire to it? – By heaven, thou hast, and the castle is in flames!" (30.36-38)

Ulrica finally gets her revenge on Front-de-Boeuf. She waits until he's lying on his deathbed before she reminds him of his many sins and informs him that she has set his castle on fire. What do you think of Ulrica's chosen method of vengeance? She manages to humiliate, frighten, and ultimately murder her archenemy. But she also promises him that she'll be joining him in "the same dark coast" (in other words, hell) because she is "companion to [his] guilt" (30.39). Ulrica feels terrible about what she's done, even if she also experiences bitter triumph at Front-de-Boeuf's downfall. Is Ulrica's vengeance worth the price she pays in guilt? How does her quest for vengeance affect the tone of these Torquilstone chapters? How does the narrator seem to regard Ulrica's violence and guilt? Does the novel claim that she's justified in her actions? Do you think she's justified?

"Thou art mad, De Bracy – what is it we propose to thee, a hired and retained captain of Free Companions, whose swords are purchased for Prince John's service? Thou art apprized of our enemy, and then thou scruplest, though thy patron's fortunes, those of thy comrades, thine own, and the life and honour of every one amongst us, be at stake!"

"I tell you," said De Bracy, sullenly, "that he gave me my life. True, he sent me from his presence, and refused my homage – so far I owe him neither favour nor allegiance – but I will not lift hand against him." (34.50-51)

After King Richard I, disguised as the Black Knight, saves De Bracy's life from the outlaws at Torquilstone, De Bracy owes him a big favor. But De Bracy has also sworn his loyalty to Prince John in exchange for money. Now that Richard is back in England and ready to confront his brother, what is De Bracy to do? He can't attack the man who saved his life, but it's also disloyal and cowardly to turn his back on his supporter and boss, Prince John. How does De Bracy's deep concern for his honor in this scene relate to his earlier decision to kidnap and marry Rowena? Does De Bracy seem to have a consistent understanding of what honor means? Which do you think should be more important, De Bracy's gratitude to King Richard or his loyalty to Prince John?

"But your kingdom, my Liege," said Ivanhoe, "your kingdom is threatened with dissolution and civil war – your subjects menaced with every species of evil, if deprived of their sovereign in some of those dangers which it is your daily pleasure to incur, and from which you have but this moment narrowly escaped."

"Ho! ho! my kingdom and my subjects?" answered Richard, impatiently; "I tell thee, Sir Wilfred, the best of them are most willing to repay my follies in kind – For example, my very faithful servant, Wilfred of Ivanhoe, will not obey my positive commands, and yet reads his king a homily, because he does not walk exactly by his advice. Which of us has most reason to upbraid the other? – Yet forgive me, my faithful Wilfred. The time I have spent, and am yet to spend in concealment, is, as I explained to thee at Saint Botolph's, necessary to give my friends and faithful nobles time to assemble their forces, that when Richard's return is announced, he should be at the head of such a force as enemies shall tremble to face, and thus subdue the meditated treason, without even unsheathing a sword." (41.8-9)

When King Richard is hanging out with Robin Hood and his men in the forest of Sherwood, he doesn't seem at all eager to leave, even though his brother is even now plotting rebellion against him. This moment in Ivanhoe is one of the only times in the novel when the characters actually acknowledge King Richard's irresponsibleness. The historical King Richard I spent only about six months out of his ten years as king actually in England (source). The rest of the time he was off fighting expensive wars in France and the Palestine. The love of warfare that made him so famous as a king also meant that he spent next to no time worrying about how things were going back in the country he was supposed to be ruling.

In this scene, Richard has an explanation for why he has spent so long in disguise: he wanted to give his allies a chance to prepare a show of strength to scare Prince John into submission. But Ivanhoe quickly realizes that Richard just likes hanging around quaffing alcohol and joking with the Friar. He's a brave man, but he's not a dutiful king at all. If Richard had a strong sense of duty, he would be more eager to help correct the wrongs that the Norman lords have been committing in his absence.

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