Walter Scott is a much neglected writer who has fallen out of fashion, and I read this novel with little knowledge of Scott and no preconceptions about his writing. I found Ivanhoe surprisingly refreshing. Ivanhoe is an epic tale of adventure set in a highly romanticised twelfth century England, in which a loose alliance of renegade knights, Saxon underlings, outlaws and persecuted Jews come together to oppose an attempt by Prince John to usurp the English crown from his brother King Richard, who is being held prisoner of the Duke of Austria.
Scott is a fantastically entertaining writer. He is a man who would have no difficulty writing modern thrillers. He understands that to keep the reader's interest, the plot must develop steadily and something must always be happening. Scott maintains the readers excitement with skilful changes perspective. His prose is sophisticated yet accessible, and he switches effortlessly between drama, romance, action and comedy. It is a very modern approach to entertainment literature, and it is difficult to believe that this book was written 190 years ago. The credibility of the plot is sometimes stretched by an over-reliance on coincide, but the narrative was too exciting for me to care much about such flaws.
Scott seems heavily influenced by Shakespearean drama, and he intelligently employs the difference between appearance and reality for dramatic effect. Scott's England is full of people hiding their true identity, travelling in disguise and misleading those around them, including the reader. The characters are somewhat Shakespearian, such as the jester who emerges as less of a fool than he pretends to be, the Jewish moneylender, and the villainous barons. At some points, characters even speak in monologue, as if they were actors on an empty stage.
Historical fiction is `in vogue`, having become a major genre in its own right, and I suppose Ivanhoe must be one the earliest `historical novels', although Scott's depiction of Medieval England is fantastically inaccurate.
Yet the novel Ivanhoe reminds me of most is The Lord of the Rings, another epic adventure with a boldly drawn cast, set in a vividly imagined world . I don't know whether John Tolkien was influenced by Scott to any extent, but if you like The Lord of the Rings, Ivanhoe is worth trying.