Ivanhoe is not the star of the story that bears his name. Neither is Robin Hood, Friar Tuck, or Richard the Lionheart, who all have significant parts to play in the tale. The star is Rebecca, the “jewess.” That term, like “negress,” sounds not only old-fashioned to our 21st Century ears but racist, and there is plenty of anti-semitism in Ivanhoe, so much that I felt a little queasy in the early pages, afraid I had unwittingly begun reading a racist tract, until I remembered that it was recommended to me by a Jewish woman.
The character called Ivanhoe is injured in an early scene and spends most of the novel bed-ridden and weak. So the heavy lifting of the story is left up to the character of Rebecca whose beauty, strength, humility, and grace form the backbone of the book.
Written in the 19th Century but set in the 12th, Ivanhoe is considered the world’s first historical novel. Sir Walter Scott’s devotion to accurate portrayal of the language, costumes, and customs of the age extends to the bigotries of the time.
In this scene, Ivanhoe wakes from the injuries of battle to find himself being tended by a beautiful doctor. Scott uses this scene to lay bare the ignorance of 12th Century prejudices which he must have seen reflected in his own time, and we can recognize in ours:
“Gentle maiden,” he began in the Arabian tongue, with which his Eastern travels had rendered him familiar, and which he thought most likely to be understood by the turbaned and caftaned damsel who stood before him – “I pray you, gentle maiden, of your courtesy – ”
But here he was interrupted by his fair physician, a smile which she could scarce suppress dimpling for an instant a face whose general expression was that of contemplative melancholy. “I am of England, sir Knight, and speak the English tongue, although my dress and my lineage belong to another climate.”
“Noble damsel – “ again the Knight of Ivanhoe began, and again Rebecca hastened to interrupt him.
“Bestow not on me, Sir Knight,” she said, “ the epithet of nobles. It is well you should speedily know that your handmaiden is a poor Jewess.”
I know not whether the fair Rowena would have been altogether satisfied with the species of emotion with which her devoted knight had hitherto gazed on the beautiful features, and fair form, and lustrous eyes of the lovely Rebecca – eyes whose brilliancy was shaded and, as it were, mellowed, by the fringe of her long silken eyelashes, and which a minstrel would have compared to the evening star darting its rays through a bower of jessamine. But Ivanhoe was too good a Catholic to retain the same class of feelings for a Jewess. This Rebecca had foreseen, and for this very purpose she had hastened to mention her father’s name and lineage; yet – for the fair and wise daughter of Isaac was not without a touch of female weakness – she could not but sigh internally when the glace of respectful admiration, not altogether unmixed with tenderness, with which Ivanhoe had hitherto regarded his unknown benefactress, was exchanged at once for a manner cold, composed, and collected, and fraught with no deeper feeling than that which expressed a grateful sense of courtesy received from and unexpected quarter, and from one of an inferior race. It was not devotional homage which youth always pays to beauty; yet it was mortifying that one word should operate as a spell to remove poor Rebecca, who could not be supposed altogether ignorant of her title to such homage, into a degraded class, to whom it could not be honourably rendered.
I don’t know why Sir Walter Scott devoted his masterpiece to an exposé of anti-semitism disguised as a swashbuckling adventure. Perhaps he fell in love with a jewess.