is a rather sharp-edged story of intolerance, both personal and social, in the Middle Ages. Although it is one of the earliest historical novels, written by Sir Walter Scott, the originator of the genre, history is but vaguely represented in the work, except in the personages of such authentic characters as Richard the Lion-Hearted and his brother, Prince John.
At the time portrayed in the novel, Crusaders are trickling back to England from Jerusalem. The England of the story is racked with dissension. The ruling nobility, including the crusading King Richard, are Norman conquerors. A small number of the defeated Saxon nobility remains to foment the overthrow of the Normans. Ivanhoe’s father, Cedric, is the leader of this faction. Cedric has disinherited Ivanhoe for being in love with Rowena, the last of the line of Saxon royalty and Cedric’s ward. In addition to the tension between the ruling and subservient classes and the familial strife between Cedric and Ivanhoe, the novel contains political intrigue between Richard and Prince John, who wants to usurp the throne, and racial and religious tension in the personages of Isaac of York and his daughter, Rebecca, who are Jewish and therefore despised by Saxon and Norman alike.
The several story lines of the novel play themselves out by only occasionally intersecting. The dominant tale is the account of racial prejudice against Rebecca. After Ivanhoe is kind to her father, she returns the favor by healing him of wounds received at a tournament and consequently falls in love with him. Although Ivanhoe is properly grateful, he is cold to her because she is Jewish.
When Rebecca is abducted by a Knight Templar, Brian de Bois-Guilbert, who has become infatuated with her, her father finds little help in obtaining her release, again because they are Jewish. Finally, she is tried as a witch because of her skill in healing and her religion.
Another major story is that of Richard the Lion-Hearted. He has just returned from the Crusades but is still thought to be imprisoned. His brother, Prince John, is plotting to take over the throne with the help of a following of greedy nobles. John is petty, childish, unthinking, and uncaring, and the nobles are ultimately disloyal. Richard is a happy knight more bent on doing random good deeds than on governing a country; he falls into company with the likes of Robin Hood (here called Locksley) and has adventures.
Finally, one finds the story of the lovers Ivanhoe and Rowena. The dissension between Norman and Saxon has kept them apart because of Cedric’s ambition to marry Rowena to the Saxon noble Athelstane, who could have some pretensions to a Saxon throne if the Normans were ever overthrown. His nostalgia for a pure Saxon country keeps him from realizing that the Norman and Saxon cultures have already merged too far to be ever separated again.