The first chapter of Ivanhoe is technically not a chapter at all: it's a "dedicatory epistle."
An "epistle" is a letter, in this case a letter supposedly written to the guy Scott wants to offer the novel Ivanhoe to.
The letter addresses itself to "Dr. Jonas Dryasdust."
Get it? Scott is making a little joke: the fictional Dryasdust (dry as dust) must be pretty boring. (Maybe this joke was funnier in the 19th century?)
The letter is written by an equally fictional fellow: Laurence Templeton. Templeton is obviously standing in for Sir Walter Scott himself. (For more on Scott's refusal to publish his novels under his own name, check out "In a Nutshell" and our "Character Analysis" of Laurence Templeton.)
Templeton/Scott (TempScott? We'll go with Templeton for now) is worried that Dryasdust won't approve of Ivanhoe's historical setting.
Up until now, Templeton has been writing novels about the exciting recent history of Scotland. It's easy to describe Scottish history when there are people still alive in the 19th century who remember the traditional ways of the Scottish people.
Then why suddenly jump back to the 12th century in England? That's over six hundred years before the publication of Ivanhoe. How can the author possibly claim to know anything about the spirit of those times?
In fact, Templeton doesn't understand why there aren't more novels about this period. Those were the good old days in England, the age of Robin Hood and ancient English customs. Sure there aren't many historical sources available to give us a realistic sense of what life was like at the time. But who cares? Templeton is not looking for a hundred percent accuracy or realism. This is a novel, for crying out loud.
Templeton wants to use these old-timey settings to write a book in modern-day language for regular folks to enjoy.
Templeton reminds Dryasdust, the audience for this book is contemporary English people. Sure, today's British speak a different English from that spoken in the 12th century, and they behave differently, but there is still some common cultural core between the English folk alive now and those living hundreds of years ago. By using modern, accessible language, Templeton wants to make sure the story of Ivanhoe stays readable for a broad audience.
Still, he's not going to use obviously modern words or ideas – that would break the romantic illusion of the past that Templeton wants to build for his reader.
So Ivanhoe is a compromise. While Templeton avoids obviously modern things (like trains), he doesn't go out of his way to make Ivanhoe appear old when it isn't, since that would sound fake.
Templeton claims that his main source for Ivanhoe is an ancient document called the Wardour Manuscript. This is another of Scott's little jokes – it's fictional, just like Templeton and Dryasdust.
Templeton ends his letter with some personal notes to Dryasdust before signing off.
Templeton attaches a footnote about how the post office once considered a special rate for letters sent between historians. The coaches carrying the letters soon broke down from their weight.
In other words, this whole "dedicatory epistle" is a spoof of the serious and often dry letters exchanged among people overly obsessed with the details of history. Maybe all these heavy-handed historians should lighten up a little? Maybe try reading a little historical novel like Ivanhoe?
Not sure what's up with this whole Dedicatory Epistle? Check out our "Intro" to find out why Scott would write such a thing.