Critical Essays Scott's Sense of History


Scott's formula for the historical novel was an unmistakable innovation which became a pattern for those who followed him. His story is pure fiction, his hero is imaginary. For example, it is Ivanhoe who is the hero, not Richard Coeur de Lion; the setting is as authentic as possible, and the events of history are quite accurate. As Henry Beers says, "He possessed the true enchanter's wand, the historic imagination. With this in his hand he raised the dead past to life, made it once more conceivable, made it even actual."

Furthermore, he made history romantic, and to those who feel history to be dull, he makes it exciting. Many authors have written histories more accurate in detail and with more attention to chronology; some have written romances more tender and ethereal, but no one combines history and romance and makes them both more lovely and believable.

Scott read history with an avidity probably unequaled by any novelist so that, although he was sometimes careless, his work is authentic in spite of it. He loved scenery only when it had a castle or a battle site which related it to history. Where this happy combination resulted he fashioned a story. His friend Mr. Morritt of Rokesbury said of him, "He was but half-satisfied with the most beautiful scenery when he could not connect it with some local legend."

In his historical romances in general, and in Ivanhoe in particular, Scott captured the spirit of the age; he imitated the speech, the rude humor, the customs, and reconstructed a past age until it became a living present. He did not go deep into the cause of a historical event, just as he did not go deep into spiritualities, or men's thoughts, but he described in vivid detail and told a whopping good story. More particularly in Ivanhoe he was not always accurate, but he did more for the medieval era historically than almost anyone else to make it a part of the body of knowledge.

It is with the description of battles and the external aspects of knighthood, the outlaws bands, and the Norman-Saxon conflict that Scott is especially interesting. He is never satirical and only mildly ironic, but he has a verve for color and action that is his specialty. Only at times, when he interrupts his story to add extraneous material, is the reader led away from the action.

One writer sees historical value in the treatment of the smoldering hatred by the Saxon for the Normans which was brought into harmony and finally dissolved under King Richard. He also believes that the account of the brothers Richard and John is quite accurate, except that King Richard was probably less gallant than he appears here. He allows the bigotry of the Grand Master of the Templars and discredits the love of Bois-Guilbert for the Jewess as highly improbable.

Another point of historical interest is the resemblance of Shakespeare's King John to the Prince John of Ivanhoe. That Scott was indeed a student of Shakespeare is evident from the many quotes from Shakespeare's plays.

Scott drew heavily on Shakespeare as well as Chaucer. Isaac and Rebecca hark back to Shylock and Jessica of the Merchant of Venice. Wamba resembles the fools of King Lear, Twelfth Night, and As You Like It. Richard I has the qualities of a national leader found in Henry V. Even the device of a funeral for one not dead can be traced to Cymbeline and Romeo and Juliet; Athelstane echoes Cloten.

Ivanhoe marks a departure from the Scottish themes employed by Scott prior to the year 1819. He felt that he was exhausting his material and that he needed a change of scene. As a result he produced a masterpiece that has influenced most tales of derring-do written since.

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