Tuesday, October 8, 2013
I don't know what's got me thinking about Ivanhoe these days--the 1820 novel by Sir Walter Scott, a novel now resting in its electronic bath inside my Kindle. I've read a few pages of it and will soon gobble it down--insofar as a Scott novel can be gobbled. It's the story--for those very few of you who don't remember--of the 12th century when Prince John, brother of King Richard I (Richard the Lionheart), took over the kingdom until his bro got back from the Crusades. Which took awhile. Richard was captured, held for ransom. And Prince John ... bad, bad, bad!
So ... published in 1820. Two years after Frankenstein. Mary Shelley liked Scott's novels, by the way--read lots of them. And he reviewed Frankenstein, very favorably, though he credited her husband with its authorship (it was originally published anonymously). She also corresponded with him when she was working on her historical novel The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1830).
Anyway, I remember that my mother taught Ivanhoe to her 9th graders at Emerson Junior High School in Enid, Okla., back in the mid-1950s. I can't imagine (since I've read some of it myself) that many of those kids could have read it without help--and "help" was severely limited in those days to good teachers and to Masterplots, a series of publications that provided summaries of major (and minor) literary works. No Internet sites to visit; no Internet summaries to read. Bummer.
Actually, as a boy I had "read" Ivanhoe--in Classics Illustrated form. The comic book version. We had lots of classic literature around the house--actual books and comic books. (Guess which I preferred?)
I, of course, saw the film that summer and remember loving it. And why not? Lots of sword fighting and jousting; Robin Hood was in it, too. Arrows flying ...
But, not having seen the film since 1952, I ordered it recently on Netflix. The DVD has been sitting on my bedroom dresser for a couple of weeks (just couldn't get in the mood to watch it). But last night, stricken by guilt (we are paying for that DVD), I popped it in the DVD player and watched. Joyce wandered in and out throughout; let me say that she was a "less than enthusiastic" viewer of it.
I, meanwhile, found myself zooming back to 1952, remembering the scenes of excitement--and none of the scenes of "drama." I remembered, for example, that Robin Hood's men sent messages by shooting arrows off into the woods (arrows with messages tied to them), where another Merry Man would be waiting to collect the message-arrow and fire it along its way. Seemed very well organized, though probably too dangerous for today's postal deliveries.
I remembered the jousting, too. Still fun to watch. And the assault on the castle of the Bad Guys (the Normans) at the end by the Good Guys (the Saxons). I never saw so many arrows in the air in my life. I confess to some laughter last night when dozens of them would seem to arrive at the same place at the same time.
And I remember running around our Enid neighborhood as a noble Saxon, looking for evil Normans to dispatch. There weren't many. No one wanted to be a Norman--though some kids had lived in Norman--as I had when my dad was working on his Ph.D. at the University of Oklahoma. Anyway, my friends and I formed a vast Saxon force (of a half-dozen or so) and fought imaginary Normans, killing every last one of them. That's why you won't find any in Enid, not to this day.
What I did not remember about the film (or comic): the religious conflicts. Elizabeth Taylor played Rebecca, the (beautiful) Jewish daughter of Isaac of York, who becomes a major supporter of Ivanhoe and King Richard I when Ivanhoe guarantees that if the Jews help raise the ransom to free the captured Richard, he will, in gratitude, treat everyone--Jews included--equally. (The Normans, by contrast, are vilely anti-Semitic.) Rebecca falls in love with Ivanhoe, already pledged to Rowena (Joan Fontaine), and there are some jealousy issues, some ambivalence in Ivanhoe's eyes, but it all works out. Rebecca realizes it can never be--and she and Rowena, in today's parlance, "bond."
When the film ended, I was a little sad--sad that I know I'll never see it again, sad when I think of my eager mother carrying that novel into a prairie classroom in 1954, sad when I think that all the principals in that film are gone now. The film had a kind of innocence in its heart. It preached the virtues of fidelity, honor, courage, determination--all those things I hoped, in 1952, that I'd one day have.
But boyhood hopes don't always work out. I am not Ivanhoe, nor was meant to be. But there have been times--many times--when I could have used a little more Ivanhoe in my blood, and there will be times when I'll hope for more Ivanhoe in my heart.