The Universal History of Conflict
October 6, 2012 § 3 Comments
If there is any book that can be defined by a single word, it is Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, and that word is Conflict. This is a novel about nothing but conflicts. The action is relentless and the pace never slackens – there are ambushes, jousting tournaments, besieged castles, fierce battles, and trials by combat from start to finish. Errant knights and arrant knaves, martial priests and holy hooligans, sanguinary swineherds and puissant princes put life and limb at peril on every page, armed with swords, lances, arrows, poniards and staffs – but other, more momentous, conflicts of identity rage in the background, and it is these, rather than the physical ones, that give the story both its dramatic tension, and its status as a literary classic.
These conflicts of identity pit Norman against Saxon, Christian against Jew, the Knight Templar against the English variety, Christianity against earlier pagan beliefs, the language of the English against that of the French, the clergy against the laity, the king against the barons, noblemen against commoners and both against the merchants, and the outlaws against everyone else. Each character is at the intersection of two or more of the categories above, and each interaction between characters is governed largely by the frictions between the groups they belong to. Each identity group operates consistently within its own system of moral values, which it refuses to apply on Outsiders. Thus, the Saxon chief is generous and courteous, except to non-Saxons; the knights – including the most villainous ones – have an elaborate honour code that they would cheerfully die for, while having no twinges of conscience about the murder, abduction, robbery and rape of Others; the outlaws obey their own intricate laws and rules of conduct, but no one else’s; even the annoyingly noble Ivanhoe finds it difficult to accept Jews as equals, even while he saves their lives and allows them to save his.
Behind even these lurks an overarching argument, one that was still not fully-formed at the time in which the novel is set (1190’s England): that between a system of values defined by a feudal nobility and defined by personal courage, honour and loyalty to a spiritual cause, and the one that has eventually replaced it, more material, more middle-class, less lofty, yet more compassionate and inclusive, less superstitious, more grounded in logic.
Within the next half a millennium, this conflict was over, and the bourgeois values of Isaac and Rebecca, held in such contempt by the rest of the characters in Richard I’s time, had won the day. By 1605, courtly chivalry was completely wiped out, and anyone attempting to live by that code looked utterly ridiculous and out of place, as we know from the adventures of a certain Spanish gentleman that were published in that year. In fact, all the conflicts in Scott’s book were amicably resolved by his day (Ivanhoe was published in 1820) – except perhaps for attitudes towards Jews, which have been resolved so recently that the frequent anti-Jewish vituperations made by the characters will sound very nasty and disagreeable to a 21st century reader, while those against Saxons or Frenchmen won’t.
Lest anyone should denounce Ivanhoe as anti-Semitic, let me hasten to add that Scott makes his own opinions, as distinct from those of his characters, very clear: all positive characters are largely liberal and humane, and good things come to them; every negative character is a bigot and gets his comeuppance at the end. Scott reserves his best lines for the Jewish damsel Rebecca; she is Scott’s tragic heroine (in that she doesn’t get the man at the end); more significantly, she is Scott’s mouthpiece.
Why does Scott need a mouthpiece? For the same reason that Scott found it necessary, in 1820, to write this strange book about 12th century issues that were no longer relevant to his readers. He has a message for them about the very nature of human conflict, and the best way of resolving one. Perhaps the tale of reconciliation between Saxons and Normans, and their unification into a single English identity under a strong leader like Richard, was not that irrelevant to those of his Scottish compatriots who had been reluctantly and resentfully putting up with the rule of the Hanoverians after the deposition of the Scottish Stuarts. Perhaps such a tale of reconciliation between cultures that need to learn to live together is not irrelevant to Scott’s readers today, either.
“Classics,” said Italo Calvino in his ‘Why Read the Classics?‘, “are books which, the more we think we know them through hearsay, the more original, unexpected and innovative we find them when we actually read them.” I did not expect Ivanhoe to be relevant to the 21st century, and I was wrong. Outside the United States and Western Europe, the world is still badly divided by religions, sects, languages and community. The attitudes of these Others and the West towards each other is fraught with discord. I briefly tried to imagine an adaptation of Ivanhoe to an Indian context, with Saxons and Normans replaced with Hindus and Muslims, and instantly shuddered: it is a bad idea only because the subject is a little too real, a little too sensitive, and there could literally be riots on the streets even today, if someone were to make such an attempt.
Ivanhoe is not without flaws. In order to set his tale 600 years in the past, Scott puts heart and soul into the research necessary to make the setting realistic and the descriptions dead-on accurate . At times, the effort is visible; at least in one place, the effort fails entirely – where he refers the contemporaneous ruler of Granada as Sultan Boabdil, whose famous last sigh didn’t take place until a few centuries later. The reference is insignificant to the story, but to strain so hard for historical accuracy throws minor errors into sharp relief. But never mind that. The quality of universal relevance of theme – across geography and time – overrides these petty nitpicking considerations, and proclaims Ivanhoe a literary classic, and I am happy to concur with this assessment.