Ivanhoe, Israel, Virtue, and Vanity

It’s been several years since I’ve read clear through Sir Walter Scott’s subversive little ode to Medieval fantasy, Ivanhoe. I seem to recall as I worked my way through the glad-of-met hail-fair-warrior celebration of Armored Manliness that it had much more of a Dungeons and Dragons flavor to it than the libra verite sensation I suspect it engendered. Bold knights were bold, delicate damsels were delicate.

Cunning Jews were cunning.

What I didn’t do was think about how the novel fit in against its natural backdrop of Enlightenment virtues. By the time 1820 rolls around, the civilizing effects of doux commerce have tamed the savage English countryside, and the Glorious Revolution have long since made the British Parliament one of the most powerful organizations in Europe, if not on Earth. By 1820, Bentham had made his mark—prudence was ascendant, and though it’s hard to gauge from here, I’ve a suspicion that readers may have felt a twang of nostalgia for (relatively) ignored courage, or for self-satisfying myths of martial honor. 

I think I read it wrong. I think the characters were meant to be allegorical. And the character of Isaac of York was meant to represent the ascendant bourgeois affection towards commerce. 

There are a couple of ways to go with this interpretation, depending on how generous you want to be towards Scott. The portrayal of Isaac isn’t entirely unsympathetic. He has his moments of courage and honor, just like the Saxon characters have their moments of disrepute and cowardice. But the question of what Scott intended is less interesting to me than what his contemporary audience might have interpreted. Is it plausible that a typical reader might have gotten through the tale and said “hey! I have Saxon blood, and these dudes are pretty cool” while at the same time thinking, “golly, that Isaac sure is a calculating mercenary, what with hiring help to get his daughter back instead of strapping on a sword and doing it himself—what a coward.”

Tropes feed prejudices feed tropes. More viciously (or virtuously if we’re lucky enough, I guess) if the trope ends up embedded in a popular work. And Ivanhoe was (and is) popular, make no mistake. I’m comfortable claiming without citation that Soctt’s work probably bears the lion’s share of credit for propagating the myth of the noble knight and for the dreary longevity of the weird, sanitized version of the chivalric code that still plagues ordinary folks’ misunderstanding of Medieval society even unto this very day. Dragged along with that, digging its heels in the mud is the transplanted, fish-out-of-water, Merchant-of-Venice (and yes, the trope, like so many others, is hardly original to The Bard) depiction of the Craven Jew. Even though it was probably just for literary purposes, consider the possibility that real flesh-and-blood Jews suffered for it.

Tragically, this was at a time when the historically Jewish virtues of thrift, euvoluntary exchange, merchant honor, and prudence were now becoming commonplace. It’s understandable (if still unforgivable) that pre-Enlightenment folks could have heaped scorn upon the virtues displayed by career merchants (read: Jews), but for folks that have already begun to adopt those very virtues? That’s savage tragedy right there, people. Life exceeds art.

And we’re still paying the price. It has come to my attention recently that here and now, in 20-frigging-14 there are still people out there citing shit from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and making blood libel claims and spewing other bewilderingly benighted anti-Semitic rubbish. Surely Scott isn’t all to blame for this, not by a long shot, but this is strong—nay—very strong evidence in support of the claim that rhetoric matters… a whole lot.

2 thoughts on “Ivanhoe, Israel, Virtue, and Vanity

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