Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe opens in an idyllic England of old, when towns might still be called pleasant, forests were still extensive, and the land was peopled with dashing knights and amiable yeoman. King Richard (the Lionheart) is off fighting the crusades, and Prince John is taking advantage of his brother's absence to plot his own way to the throne.
An unknown palmer leads a band of Normans out of a stormy night and into the home of a Saxon nobleman, Cedric, and aids the early morning escape of unfortunate Jew, Isaac of York. Later a disinherited knight will prevail at a jousting tournament, and choose the beautiful Lady Rowena to be the tournament's Queen of Love and Beauty; his life will be saved during a melee by the mysterious knight clad in black: the Black Sluggard. The bewitching Jewess Rebecca, the archer Locksley, a fool, a swineherd, and a handful of proud Norman nobles make up a cast of memorable, and socially diverse characters that inhabit this romanticised land in the 12th Century.
A work of roughly "historical" fiction it may be, but Scott rarely lets a schoolmasterly lecture get in the way of a good story. Valour and chivalry are satiated as bouts of jousting, feasting, kidnap, rescue and sieges maintain pace and action, whilst elements of disguise and secrecy offer intrigue. Meanwhile, Rebecca champions female strength and dignity in her refusal of the advances of Brian de Bois-Gilbert, even as her fate hangs in the balance. Sure, there are places where the tale slows, and the characters are revealed more fully, usually in the course of grand conversations, but the reader will soon be rewarded for any patience these few chapters might humbly request.
I can't think of a single reason to deduct a star from Ivanhoe; it's a pre-cinematic action-adventure classic that moves swiftly from one tale of derring-do to the next; it's humorous, moving and exciting. It's a perfectly balanced tale, told by a master storyteller, in gently flowing prose. Scott is often credited with bringing about a revival of interest in the Middle Ages, and I challenge anyone to read* Ivanhoe and not be swept up in the drama, conflicts and heroism of a bygone world.