CRITICAL ESSAY

Amber Caron
Mingling Identities In Ivanhoe

Identity: The quality or condition of being the same in substance, composition, nature, properties, or in particular qualities under consideration; absolute or essential sameness; ones. (Oxford English Dictionary)

In Ivanhoe, the search for a single English national identity is complicated by the mingling identities of Scott’s characters in the novel. Characters attempt to identify themselves as purely Saxon or purely Norman, but by the end of the novel, it is obvious that there is no real pure form of either race. Instead, we see characters with corrupt morals, double identities, forced religious and racial conversions, violent chivalry and the persistent Jewish influence of Rebecca and her father upon the Christians. For these reasons, it is idealistic to read the marriage of Rowena and Ivanhoe as a “pledge of future peace and harmony betwixt two races” (515). However, the marriage should at least be seen as a beginning of the inclusion of outsiders which helps to further define what it means to be English.

First, it is important to look at the identity of Cedric the Saxon. At the beginning of the novel, he gives the Prior Aymer of Jorvaulx and Knight Brian de Bois-Guilbert a place to stay while they are making their way to the Ashby tournament. He does this not out of a kind gesture but of obligation to the ‘hospitality of Rotherwood’ (Scott 37). But when welcoming the two Normans, Cedric takes only three steps towards them and says, “my vow binds me to advance no farther upon this floor of my fathers, even to receive such guests as you and the valiant knight of the Holy Temple.” He continues, “Let me also pray that you will excuse my speaking to you in my native language, and that you will reply in the same if your knowledge of it permits; if not I sufficiently understand Norman to follow your meaning” (Scott 41). For Cedric, speaking his native language gives him a sense of authority over the French speaking Normans. However, it is interesting that his knowledge of the Norman customs is in fact what keeps him alive and able to escape the Norman castle after his capture. He adopts the dress of a Friar and is actually escorted out of the Norman castle by his enemy, Front-de-Boeuf.


During Cedric’s escape, he is confronted by Ulrica. She too, has a confusing and controversial identity. Originally she was the Saxon daughter of Torquil Wolfganger. However, when her father and the rest of her Saxon blood was killed by Front-de-Boeuf, Ulrica’s Saxon identity disappeared. She was raped by the Norman Front-de-Boeuf, and kept as his mistress. She was given the name Ulfried and kept in a dungeon like chamber, like a slave. She was forced to adopt the Norman language and customs which she despised, in a sense, making her a false convert (Ragussis 193).
The entire novel is filled with double identities such as the ones just presented. And to confuse the issue of identity even further, enter in the hero of the novel, Ivanhoe. Under his father, he was considered a Saxon but then adopted the Norman life of his King, which was why he was disowned. He has loved Rowena the Saxon since his childhood, but can’t deny his attraction and fascination with the mysterious Jewess Rebecca.

Judith Wilt questions how conclusive the marriage between Rowena and Wilfred really is, when it seems as though Wilfred is arguably hiding some feelings for Rebecca. She says, Wilfred “Retains both the ‘bonds of early affection’ for Rowena and the ‘deep impressions’ left by Rebecca, ‘it would be inquiring to ask’ says the narrator, how much of his national, social, religious, personal and sexual conflict is reconciled and how much is simply abandoned” (48). It seems as though his feelings for Rebecca are in fact abandoned for the sole reason that she is Jewish and in a sense, untouchable. Regardless, he is still more sympathetic to both Rebecca and her father than any other person in the novel. But he also seems to have a strange connection to the outlaws, especially Locksley. They serve as each others doubles throughout the novel, each winning unexpectedly at the tournament of Ashby and Locksley adopting the role of the leader when Ivanhoe is recovering from his injuries. It seems that the integration and mingling in the novel begins and ends with Ivanhoe.


If any person in this novel has a set identity based on her morals and her religion it would be Rebecca. However, throughout the novel she is constantly being demanded to convert her Jewish religion to Christianity, through bribes of returning to her homeland or the threat of death. Each time, however, Rebecca refuses in order to stay true to her religion. Rebecca’s destiny serves as a political allegory about Jewish history in England. While the rest of England attempts to identify themselves and their race as purely Saxon or purely Norman, Rebecca and her Jewish father, Isaac, try to hold on to their Jewish beliefs and heritage, refusing to give into the offers of conversion. Even at the end of the novel when Rowena offers Rebecca protection if she remains in England, Rebecca responds by saying, “the people of England are a fierce race, quarrelling ever with their neighbours or among themselves, and ready to plunge the sword into the bowels of each other” (516). Notice that Rebecca does not distinguish between Normans and Saxons here. She includes everyone by naming them precisely as “the people of England.” This seems quite appropriate since it was all of England that seemed to exclude the Jews. However, they did include the Jews in their business when it was beneficial to them. This almost always occurred when dealing with money.


Isaac suffered as a Jewish man and as Rebecca’s father. He is victim of all of the stereotypes, constantly being referred to as “dog Jew,” “infidel dog,” and “Hound of a Jew.” These names do not come from just one race, but from both the Saxons and the Normans. However, Isaac’s priorities are clear throughout the entire novel. His most import priority is his family, that being his only daughter. This is a priority that we do not see any other characters possessing. In fact, like John and Richard, the families seem to be at battle with each other. Isaac’s second priority is his religion. He believes strongly in his religion and even when the friar tries to convert Isaac, Isaac confesses he had no idea what the friar was talking about. The friar responds by saying “the leopard will not change his spots, and a Jew he will continue to be” (361).


As Michael Raggusis argues, the conversion of the Jews is actually genocide. With Rebecca, Bois-Guilbert offers her restoration to her homeland if she converts and chooses to “embrace our religion,” that of Christianity. However, he also orders her to ‘yield to his desire,” implying the threat of rape if she does not agree. She refuses and instead, retaliates with the threat of suicide. At the same time and in the same speech, Rebecca in fact questions the religion that Bois-Guilbert refers to. “Embrace thy religion! And what religion can it be that harbours such a villain?” (Scott 251). Rebecca is implying that not only is Bois-Guilbert not a true Christian because of his violent actions, but that he truly has no understanding of the religion he claims to be a part of because he chooses to perform the actions he has just displayed.


The second attempt at converting Rebecca takes place at the trial which she is being changed with witchcraft. The Grand Master says to Rebecca, “Repent. My daughter, confess they witchrafts, turn thee from thine evil faith, embrace this holy emblem, and all shall yet be well with thee here and hereafter” (Scott 425). Of course Rebecca refuses and, again, her fate is death. The third and final attempt at converting Rebecca happens when she intrudes on Rowena in her private chambers. This is perhaps a representation of the “power of the return of the repressed,” as Ragussis argues. Jewish history is imposed on the Norman Saxon marriage representing the racial and religious question England still could not answer by the end of the novel. Where do the Jews fit into the English national identity?


With the mingling between races, it is hard to give any character a firm racial identification. And even harder is trying to prove that the marriage of Rowena and Ivanhoe will bring all of the characters together, each forgetting the past that they have morally or immorally defended. As Gary Kelly points out, there are many factors working against the visionary ideal that is presented (160). First, the ending lacks the voice of the “common people.” Revolutionaries argued however that the nation was actually “the people.” Perhaps this is Scott’s way of suggesting the people are actually remaining outsiders while a new nation is being formed. Secondly, Rebecca and her father still remain outside and seemingly unassimilated regardless of how worthy and useful they are to the society. Each character played an important and vital role in defeating the aristocratic evil, and yet their departure from England seems to be their only choice. Edgar Johnson thinks this could represent England’s inability to “behave with Christianity to its Jew” (745). Thirdly, there is a disturbing and unresolved acceptance of brutality against women in the novel. Each woman is threatened with rape, and Ulrica, is in fact raped and made prisoner to Front de Beouf. Lastly, if King Richard is intended to act as the figure whom will complete social redemption, we can assume that redemption never happens because we are told that he goes on yet another crusade and is killed.


Even though Ivanhoe should not be seen as a fairy tale in which everyone lives happily ever after, it does offer some sense of hope for the future. Throughout the novel, it seems as though Scott offers an account of the progress that the English are making. Concerning the leadership of the English people, Gary Kelly points out that Scott shows that his version of “social leadership and authority is represented by King Richard’s presiding over this representative national purification, reconciliation of Norman/Saxon values and the reintegration of the outlaw (Locksley)” (160). Richard makes the integration of others easier considering he seems to be in favor of it, therefore his people can favor integration and not be shunned for it. When the yeoman questions his loyalty to England, Richard replies, “You can speak to no one, to whom England, and the life of every Englishman, can be dearer than to me” (212). Also, the character of Ivanhoe acts as a bridge between the Norman and the Saxon differences. “He is one of Scott’s mediatorial figures, bridging the gulf between Saxon and Norman, adopting the chivalric code in its highest form, aiding the oppressed, becoming the devoted follower of Richard, fighting for the cross in Palestine, humbling the pride of cynical and overbearing Bois-Guilbert, and in the end, by wedding Rowena, symbolically uniting Norman knighthood and the Saxon heritage” (Johnson 742). So while there is no guarantee at the end of this novel that the Normans and the Saxons will set aside their differences to form one English identity, there does seem to be hope and at least more tolerance between the Normans and the Saxons.

Johnson, Edgar. Sir Walter Scott: The Great Unknown, Volume 1, Hanish Hamilton 1970.
Kelly, Gary. English Fiction of the Romantic Period, 1789-1830. Longman, 1989.
Ragussis, Michael. “Writing Nationalist History: England, the Conversion of the Jews, and
Ivanhoe,” ELH 60 (1993).
Scott, Sir Walter. Ivanhoe. Penguin Popular Classics, 1994.
Wilt, Judith. Secret Leaves: The Novels of Sir Walter Scott. Chicago UP, 1985.