Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Thursday, May 22, 2014


Last night--May 21--I finished (finally!) Sir Walter Scott's 1820 novel Ivanhoe, a book I'd never read before--though I had seen the film (released in midsummer, 1952) with Robert Taylor, Elizabeth Taylor (not related), and Joan Fontaine; I was just about to turn eight years old at the time. I recently saw the film again (Netflix) and wrote about it last October in this space (link to that post).

Anyway, I acquired the book on Kindle and gradually (very gradually, obviously) began reading it--along with the six or seven other books I keep going simultaneously in the evening. I think I wrote about the book another time (too lazy to look--TLTL), and I think I remember saying at the time that I could not believe that that book had, for a while, been fairly standard in the junior high school curriculum. I use italics because I taught in a middle school for about thirty years, and I cannot imagine selecting and using that title with my students.

My mother taught it, though, at (Ralph Waldo) Emerson Junior High School in Enid, Oklahoma, in the early 1950s. I'm sure it was a tie-in with the popular film--what better way to get kids to read a hard book, eh?  And it is a hard book to read: difficult, unfamiliar vocabulary; long sentences; stiff dialogue; unfamiliar topics--like jousting, Saxon v. Norman, Christian v. Jew (okay, that's not so unfamiliar); castles and horses and medieval weaponry; English history (the Crusades, Prince John and Richard the Lionheart); and on and on.

Here's a fairly typical passage ...

But, moreover, it could not escape even Cedric's reluctant observation, that his project for an absolute union among the Saxons, by the marriage of Rowena and Athelstane, was now completely at an end, by the mutual dissent of both parties concerned. This was, indeed, an event which, in his ardour for the Saxon cause, he could not have anticipated, and even when the disinclination of both was broadly and plainly manifested, he could scarce bring himself to believe that two Saxons of royal descent should scruple, on personal grounds, at an alliance so necessary for the public weal of the nation. But it was not the less certain: Rowena had always expressed her repugnance to Athelstane, and now Athelstane was no less plain and positive in proclaiming his resolution never to pursue his addresses to the Lady Rowena. Even the natural obstinacy of Cedric sunk beneath these obstacles, where he, remaining on the point of junction, had the task of dragging a reluctant pair up to it, one with each hand. He made, however, a last vigorous attack on Athelstane, and he found that resuscitated sprout of Saxon royalty engaged, like country squires of our own day, in a furious war with the clergy.

And this, my friends, is from the final chapter--when things are supposed to be getting exciting!

And yet ... and yet ...  I'm glad I read Ivanhoe, for all kinds of reasons, from the silly and self-centered to the less so. I can now truthfully say that I've read Ivanhoe (I've been lying for about a half-century). I like knowing the changes the filmmakers made in the story. (In the film, Robin Hood and his men communicate by a sequence of arrows fired through the woods--but not in the novel.) The attraction between Rebecca and Ivanhoe is very subdued in the novel--more patent in the film.

But most of all? I like understanding what my mother had to deal with in 1953 in a broiling junior high school classroom in north-central Oklahoma. Imagine yourself at 13, reading that red paragraph above when it's 103 outside and 104 inside ... and imagine a teacher like my mother, a bright, determined teacher who could help you understand it, maybe even like it. That's magic--a magic far more meaningful than Merlin's.

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