Thursday, October 22, 2009

Ivanhoe by Walter Scott

Ivanhoe is a rollicking tale of the deeds of metal-clad heroes and their fragrant paramours in the wilds of medieval Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire. It was massively popular on publication in 1819 and was an important spur to the Victorian Middle-Ages craze: one of its characters was Robin Hood, whose mythos Scott did much to develop. The name Ivanhoe, however, was taken from a rather more sedate source — a town in Buckinghamshire called Ivinghoe, whose name appears in a traditional rhyme (‘Tring, Wing and Ivinghoe/Three dirty villages all in a row/And never without a rogue or two/ And would you know the reason why?/Leighton Buzzard is hard by.’) Scott quoted the rhyme from memory in his introduction, but misspelled Ivinghoe as ‘Ivanhoe’. Scott also accidentally invented the name ‘Cedric’ in Ivanhoe, by misspelling the Anglo-Saxon name ‘Cerdic’. Ivanhoe, Ivinghoe; Cedric, Cerdic: was Scott dyslexic?

As a footnote, Mark Twain had a very strange take on Ivanhoe. He considered that it was responsible for the American Civil War. In Life on the Mississippi he says:

Sir Walter Scott [...] sets the world in love with dreams and phantoms; with decayed and swinish forms of religion; with decayed and degraded systems of government; with the sillinesses and emptinesses, sham grandeurs, sham gauds, and sham chivalries of a brainless and worthless long-vanished society. He did measureless harm; more real and lasting harm, perhaps, than any other individual that ever wrote. Most of the world has now outlived good part of these harms, though by no means all of them; but in our South they flourish pretty forcefully still. Not so forcefully as half a generation ago, perhaps, but still forcefully. There, the genuine and wholesome civilization of the nineteenth century is curiously confused and commingled with the Walter Scott Middle-Age sham civilization; and so you have practical, common-sense, progressive ideas, and progressive works; mixed up with the duel, the inflated speech, and the jejune romanticism of an absurd past that is dead, and out of charity ought to be buried. But for the Sir Walter disease, the character of the Southerner — or Southron, according to Sir Walter's starchier way of phrasing it — would be wholly modern, in place of modern and mediaeval mixed, and the South would be fully a generation further advanced than it is. It was Sir Walter that made every gentleman in the South a Major or a Colonel, or a General or a Judge, before the war; and it was he, also, that made these gentlemen value these bogus decorations. For it was he that created rank and caste down there, and also reverence for rank and caste, and pride and pleasure in them. Enough is laid on slavery, without fathering upon it these creations and contributions of Sir Walter.

Sir Walter had so large a hand in making Southern character, as it existed before the war, that he is in great measure responsible for the war. It seems a little harsh toward a dead man to say that we never should have had any war but for Sir Walter; and yet something of a plausible argument might, perhaps, be made in support of that wild proposition. The Southerner of the American Revolution owned slaves; so did the Southerner of the Civil War: but the former resembles the latter as an Englishman resembles a Frenchman. The change of character can be traced rather more easily to Sir Walter's influence than to that of any other thing or person.

Scott, Walter: Ivanhoe‎ (Oxford World’s Classics, notes by Ian Duncan, 1998)
Twain, Mark: Life on the Mississippi (1883)

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