Ivanhoe is most immediately notable within the expansive canon of Sir Walter Scott by virtue of its being his very first attempt at writing a tale exclusively devoted to a British subject. In fact, one is hard-pressed to get much more intensely British than a novel in which no less a legendary figure of Brittannia than Robin Hood plays a vital role. Toss in Richard the Lion-Hearted, Black Knights, jousting tournaments and Knights Templars and witch hunting and there is almost nothing about Ivanhoe that cannot be considered distinctly English in subject.
A testament is made to Scott’s prodigious output as well as his willingness to test the loyalty of his fan base with his admission that he set to work on Ivanhoe specifically because he worried that his focus on distinctly Scottish subjects was verging out of the realm of recurring motif and into the sphere of monotonous repetition. Even before the rise of Wikipedia and Twitter, nitpicking readers were quick and eager to pounce on those aspects of British history and legend that Ivanhoe gets wrong, but the devotees of minutiae have never quite been able to knock Scott’s novel off is perch atop the pedestal of stories that have done more to define perceptions about what life in the Middle Ages might have been like than all the unerring historical record combined.
That romantic vision of medieval England as the 12th century is drawing to a close takes center stage in Ivanhoe. Those noble royals and noble outlaw heroes are pitted against ignoble royals and knightly villains during a period of great tumult. The established Saxon rule is in very great danger of losing everything to the Normans and, to make matters worse, the great white hope for returning Saxon rule is thousands of miles away in Holy Land fighting in the Crusades. This political instability provides the backdrop for the much more intimately constructed human dramas that Scott delineates with thrilling prose as he takes the reader from castles to forests to manors to temples and introduces not just Robin Hood, but a young Jewish girl accused of witchcraft and undermines much of that very same romantic view toward chivalry that his own novel ironically helps to establish.
The visceral visuals that Scott composes his big action set pieces has made Ivanhoe easily adapted for film and since its first three cinematic adaptations within 1911-1913, it can easily lay claim to being one of the most filmed novels of all time outside the horror genre. The most memorable screen version of Ivanhoe to date was a lushly produced 1952 Academy Award nominee for Best Picture starring Elizabeth Taylor as Rebecca, the Jewish girl accused of being a witch. In one of those bizarre coincidences that make history so interesting, screenwriter Marguerite Roberts would shortly thereafter be blacklisted as part of the Communist Witch Hunt in Hollywood of the 1950s.