The story opens in the 12th century with Gurth, a swine-herder, and his friend Wamba, the court fool. Both are slaves of Cedric the Saxon, one of the few noblemen in England who are not Norman. The two meet a Knight Templar traveling with a very worldly Prior, who inquire the way to Cedric’s manor. Wamba, who is more astute than his title would suggest, gives appropriately vague directions calculated to mislead them, but without success. At Cedric’s very rough, Saxon manor we are introduced to almost all the characters during the dinner. Cedric lives within the Norman political framework, but is defiantly Saxon. He is the guardian of the beautiful Rowen, as the death of her parents left her in his care. The Templar, Bois-Guilbert, is recently arrived from the Crusades in Palestine, where he distinguished himself as the best in battle, only having been unhorsed by one man. There is a Jew as well, Isaac of York. Like all of his people, he is despised by the Christians, yet funds the political system with his wealth through loans. Finally, there is an unknown man, who seems to have knowledge of the fights in Palestine.
The unknown man rises early the next morning, and advises the Isaac to ride with him, for his own safety. After a short word from the man, Gurth opens the gate of the manor to them, against the custom of the manor. Isaac is so thankful for the warning and the company that he gives the man a letter of credit for a horse an armor, as he perceived the man to be a knight in disguise.
The next day there is a jousting tournament. As the spectators are seated, we are introduced to Isaac’s stunningly beautiful daughter, Rebecca. Rowena is seated with the Ladies in the nobles’ seats. The five champion knights, including Bois-Guilbert unseat all challengers, gaining their challenger’s horse and armor. After no further challengers can be found, an unknown knight arrives in the lists, challenges Bois-Guilbert to combat, and easily unseats Bois-Guilbert and the other four champions, winning a noble steed from Prince John, but refusing to give his name. He is also given the choice of Lady to crown as Queen of the tournament; he chooses Rowena.
That evening he ransoms the four champion’s horse and armor for a low price, but keeps his winnings from Bois-Guilbert. He sends Gurth, who has surreptitiously accompanied him as a squire, to repay Isaac. On his way out, Rebekah shows great character by giving the amount back as Gurth leaves, as she is aware of her father’s greed. Gurth is apprehended by outlaws, but his skill with the quarterstaff in a duel persuades the leader of the outlaws to let him leave with the money untouched.
The next day is a melee fight, led by the unknown knight on one side and Bois-Guilbert on the other. Knights are unhorsed, hand-to-hand combat ensues, knights are vanquished (but mostly not killed). At one point the unknown knight is in danger of being defeated as three of the champions attacked him at once, but a rather lazy black knight suddenly animates himself to the rescue, striking down two of the knights with fierce strokes before resuming his sluggishness. The unknown knight’s side claims the day. He lays a wreath on Lady Rowena, but again refuses to tell his name. However, the rules of the tournament require him to be known to claim the prize, so two men-at-arms remove his helmet, revealing him to be Ivanhoe, the estranged son of Cedric. Cedric had practically disowned his son, due to his son’s acceptance of the Norman hierarchy as well as his (reciprocated) love for Rowena, who Cedric had betrothed to fellow Saxon noble Athelstane. He is also revealed to be seriously injured, as he slumps unconscious at Rowena’s feet. Prince John promises that his medical team will look after him.
That evening Prince John holds a banquet, inviting Cedric and Athelstane, where they are politely insulted, and they leave. The party breaks up, and we discover that Prince John is scheming among the nobles to usurp the throne from his brother, Richard the Lionheart. John learned that Richard had escaped from his captivity and returned to England, and John is in mortal fear of what his brother will do. The alliance holds, but is somewhat unsteady. The threat of attack from Richard means that John must have all his, and his vassals’ forces at York for defense, leaving few knights for internal matters.
The next day, the party of Cedric, Rowena, Athelstane, Isaac, Rebekah, and a sick person they are transported are captured by armed men as they travel through the forest. They are taken to the castle of Front-de-Boeuf, the noble of the fief next to Cedric (and the fief rightfully belong to Ivanhoe). The plan was concocted by the Templar, to enable him to acquire the Jewess. Rowena was to be despoiled by Front-de-Boeuf, money extracted from the Jew, and ransom from Cedric and Athelstane. Rebecca spoiled the Templar’s plans by jumping to the window and threatening to leap to her death, then the Templar was called away to attend to an challenge given to the occupants of the castle. The same challenge saved Rowena, and the Jew from torture. Wamba, disguised as a priest to give last rites to the prisoners before the attack, switches garments with Cedric, who escapes the castle.
The black knight had taken up with a rather free friar, whom we later learn is Friar Tuck. This led the knight to make the acquaintance of the Locksley who impressively won the archery tournament the day before. The outlaws dislike Front-de-Boeuf and want to rescue Cedric, as he is both native English, Front-de-Boeuf is a hated normal, and Cedric looks the other way as the outlaws poach from the forest. The knight, having decided skill in arms, leads the outlaws in attacking the castle. Thanks to the knights skills and the lack of defenders, the first attack succeeds. An old woman, who had an unwilling partner with Front-de-Boeuf until her beauty faded, exacts her revenge on the seriously wounded Front-de-Boeuf by setting the keep on fire and burning him alive (and killing herself by standing on the ramparts until they fell). The fire causes the defenders to attempt to flee. Bois-Guilbert takes Rebecca on his horse and carries her off in his flight. The attackers rescue Cedric, Athelstane, Isaac, and Wamba shortly before the flames render it impossible. After the rescue, the black knight reveals himself as King John to the head of the outlaws,
At this point we learn that King-aspirant John’s physicians did not attend to Ivanhoe, as he had been taken by Isaac (under persuasive arguments by the quite intelligent Rebekah). Rebekah has quite some skill as a physician, thanks to inherited Jewish medical knowledge, and her arts are be able to heal Ivanhoe much more quickly than normal. She also appears to take a liking to him, although rather restrained, since Ivanhoe is a good Catholic, and while he is courteous to Jews, he does not fraternize with them and marriage would be out of the question, even notwithstanding his (mutual) love for Rowena. He is the sick person that Isaac and Rebekah were escorting, but he escapes before the fire reaches his room.
Bois-Guilbert has the misfortune of a (rare) visit by the Grand Master of the Templars to the Preceptory. The Grand Master is rather a stickler for the rules, unlike Bois-Guilbert, with the result that Rebekah is accused of being a witch; how else would an honorable Templar be induced to disobey his vows? Rebekah postpones the sentence by requesting verdict by combat, on the suggestion of Bois-Guilbert, who continually suggests plans whereby if she agrees to love him, he can extricate her from this mess; she bluntly refuses. On the day of the combat, she has no one to fight for her, despite the efforts of her father. However, at the last moment Ivanhoe rides in. He is exhausted from riding with an injury, and his horse is exhausted from the ride, and he is easily unhorsed by Bois-Guilbert. However, Bois-Guilbert dies at the same time Ivanhoe’s lance gently touches him—his body was over-exerted from his desire for Rebekah, her rebuffs, and the difficulty of achieving his desire given the unexpected circumstances. The Grand Master gives the verdict that Rebekah is not a witch due to the fact that her purported victim of her bewitching lost the combat.
Cedric frees Wamba because of the loved showed in exchanging places with him. Athelstane leaves for his castle, but is killed on the way. The black knight and Ivanhoe join Cedric and Rowena in the funeral preparations. After getting Cedric to agree to an unspecified promise, the black knight reveals himself to Cedric as King Richard, and asks that he take back Ivanhoe as a son. Cedric agrees because of his promise, but he obeys rather than give allegiance to the King. At this point Athelstane returns from the dead, or rather, the captivity that the nearby monks had kept him in, in order to gain some of his lands through bequest. Upon learning that the black knight is the King, he promptly gives pledges allegiance, destroying Cedric’s hope for a Saxon revival. He also gives up his betrothal to Rowena, seeing that she and Ivanhoe love each other. The two are married, and the book closes with Rebekah giving a costly gift to Rowena, wistfully congratulating her on her marriage, and expressing her desire to become the equivalent of a Jewish nun.
Ivanhoe is a skillfully written Romance. It is set in the same time-period as Romances were popular, and weaves in a number of cultural elements into the story. There is the victorious Norman / vanquished Saxon-English theme, and a oppressor / oppressed them. The Church, via monks and Templars, is portrayed as being part of the oppressive class, either being allied with the Norman oppressors, or simply the hypocrisy of living luxuriously in contradiction to their vows of poverty, while their flock is impoverished despite no vow. King Richard is glorified as loving the people of England, although in reality he was only there for six months his entire reign. Scott does portray a riskiness and love of battle as his downfall, as well as an injudicious laxity in not punishing his brother’s attempt at usurping the throne.
Scott writes with very detailed descriptions, both of the surroundings and the characters. The nature of the characters and inconsistencies of the base behavior of some characters compared to noble expectations is done with a wry humor. Most of the characters are relatively static. Cedric grows in acceptance of the situation with Norman rule, and Isaac learns a little of the failings of money versus relationships. The characters’ personalities, however, are very effectively painted. The most vivid personality is the tragic character of Rebekah. Despite being a despised Jew, and daughter of a man who values money above almost all else—he even had to be told that his daughter was worth more than money—she is the most noble, intelligent, and attractive character. Unfortunately for her, a gulf separates her from Ivanhoe, whom she would long to love, and notwithstanding his love and commitment to Rowena, was not insensitive to her qualities.
Scott has written a classic Romance. It takes the elements from the medieval genre, but makes it palatable for the modern reader, while still retaining much of the feel of the original romance through the use of archaic language. He weaves in many historic and cultural themes from English culture and history in a way that feels natural. The only unnatural thing is how the many threads resolve into a tidy whole, but that is a small price for a well-written, well-designed, and masterfully told story.