Ivanhoe: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Patricia Vineski
In this lesson you will learn about the adventures of Ivanhoe, a Saxon knight, and the historical context in which his adventures take place. Take a look at the summary and analysis and then test your knowledge with a quiz.

Summary

The story begins four generations after the Norman conquest of England. Tensions between the two peoples who inhabit England, the Saxons and the Normans, are at a peak. They refuse to speak each other's languages and squabble constantly. To make matters worse, the Norman king, King Richard, has been captured on his way home from the Crusades, and is imprisoned in Austria.

Ruling in his absence, his brother, Prince John, is allowing the Norman nobles to steal the land of the Saxon nobility and turn them into serfs. This further enrages the Saxons, particularly Cedric of Rotherwood, who has disinherited his son Ivanhoe for following King Richard to war.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to his father, Ivanhoe has recently returned to England disguised as a religious pilgrim. He is in love with his father's ward, Rowena, whom Cedric intends to marry to Athelstane, a descendant of a long-dead Saxon king, hoping to re-establish the Saxon royal line.

Ivanhoe hears of his father's plans, and disguises himself as the Disinherited Knight in order to win the hand of Rowena in the great jousting tournament at Ashby-de-la-Zouche.

With the help of a mysterious Black Knight, Ivanhoe defeats his mortal enemy, the Templar Brian de Bois-Guilbert, and wins the tournament. But he is badly wounded, and even as he claims Rowena, and reveals his identity to the crowd, he collapses on the field.

In the meantime, the wicked Prince John hears a rumor that Richard is free from his imprisonment, and schemes, with his advisors, Fitzurse, de Bracy, and Front-de-Boeuf, to keep Richard from returning to power in England. He begins plotting to marry Rowena to de Bracy, thereby cementing his own power by virtue of an imposed Saxon/Norman alliance.

But unable to wait for John's scheme to bear fruit, de Bracy kidnaps Cedric and his party on the way home from the tournament, and imprisons them in Front-de-Boeuf's castle of Torquilstone. In the party are Rowena and Athelstane, as well as Isaac and Rebecca, a Jewish father and daughter who have been tending to Ivanhoe after his injury, and Ivanhoe himself.

At Torquilstone, de Bracy tries to convince Rowena to marry him, while de Bois-Guilbert tries to seduce Rebecca, who has fallen in love with Ivanhoe. Both men fail, and the castle is attacked by the legendary outlaws of the forest, Robin Hood and his merry men, led by the Black Knight who helped Ivanhoe at the tournament.

De Bracy, de Bois-Guilbert, and Front-de-Bouef are defeated and the prisoners are freed, but de Bois-Guilbert succeeds in kidnapping Rebecca and fleeing with her to Templestow, the stronghold of the Knights-Templar. Ivanhoe follows them.

At Templestowe, de Bois-Guilbert is under fire for bringing a Jew into their sacred fortress. The Knights fear that Rebecca is a Jewish sorceress who has bewitched de Bois-Guilbert against his will, and so the Grand Master of the Templars orders a trial.

Rebecca is given a choice, and on the advice of de Bois-Guilbert, who has fallen in love with her, she demands a trial-by-combat. Much to his dismay, de Bois-Guilbert is appointed to fight for the Templars; if he wins, Rebecca dies, and if he loses, he himself will die. Rebecca's fate is now in the hands of a hero who will step up to defend her. But no one does, and Rebecca fears she will be executed as a sorceress, after all. Then, at the last moment, Ivanhoe appears from the shadows where he has been hiding to defend Rebecca.

But even as de Bois-Guilbert and Ivanhoe charge towards each other, lances raised, de Bois-Guilbert falls dead from his horse, killed by his own conflicting emotions. Ivanhoe has won a strange victory, and Rebecca is freed.

In the meantime, the Black Knight defeats Fitzurse in an ambush, and reveals himself as King Richard, returned to England at last. Now restored to his kingdom, Richard banishes his brother, along with Fitzurse, de Bracy, and Front-de-Boeuf, pardons the Knights-Templar, and blesses the marriage of Ivanhoe and Rowena.

The story ends as Rebecca visits Rowena to thank her for Ivanhoe's role in saving her life, and then sails off, with her father, Isaac, to their new home in Granada. Peace now reigns between the Normans and the Saxons, and Ivanhoe will go on to serve heroically under King Richard for many years.

Analysis

'Ivanhoe' is a historical romance, an adventure story, whose main goal is to entertain readers with a tale of heroism set in the Middle Ages. It is meant to please, not to instruct, and is more an act of imagination than one of historical research.

Despite its fiction, however, the story of 'Ivanhoe' takes place in an important time in English history: the year 1194, when King Richard the Lion-Hearted returned from the Third Crusade to reclaim his kingdom from his brother John, who had usurped much of Richard's power during his long absence in the Holy Land.

The story of 'Ivanhoe' is divided into three parts, each of them centering on a particular adventure. Each adventure focuses on the tensions between the Saxons and the Normans, the two peoples who inhabited England. In each adventure, the potential resolution to these tensions is proposed by virtue of the trust and loyalty between Ivanhoe, a Saxon knight, and King Richard, a Norman king.

The first adventure involves Ivanhoe's return to England in disguise and highlights the great jousting tournament held at Ashby-de-la-Zouche, in which Ivanhoe is able to defeat his arch enemy with the help of the Black Knight, who is really King Richard in disguise. Here, the implication is that Saxons and Normans can cooperate with each other to win a common victory; putting an end to the fighting and establishing peace between them once and for all.

The second adventure involves Sir Maurice de Bracy's kidnapping of Cedric's Saxon party out of lust for Rowena and focuses on the efforts of King Richard (disguised as the Black Knight) and Robin Hood's merry men to free the prisoners. In this adventure, Ivanhoe is not an active participant. He has been injured in the previous adventure and is recovering under the care of Rebecca and her father. In this case, it is King Richard, Robin Hood and his outlaws that save the day. Here, a Norman is the hero and achieves victory through the help of those cast out of the society imposed by the unscrupulous Prince John, once again implying that cooperation leads to common victory.

The third adventure involves Rebecca's captivity at the hands of the Templars and Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert, and features the trial-by-combat, which is arranged to determine whether she will live or die. Ivanhoe is recovered in this adventure and, when no one stands up to fight for Rebecca, Ivanhoe volunteers at the last minute. Although he wins by default when de Bois-Guilbert falls dead from his horse, he is our victorious hero, once again. Here, cooperation is implied by the cooperation between Ivanhoe and Providence, a force to be reckoned with in the Middle Ages.

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