Sorry for the long write-up, I just loved the book. Plot summary with many SPOILERS below.
Ivanhoe was first published in 1812, which would make it old and inaccessible to the internet generation even if its author, Sir Walter Scott, had not opted for an arcane style of prose and put archaic English into the mouths of his characters. It is a long book, by modern standards, over 500 pages. But those infected with a desire to read it and its ilk, and there remain a few of us, will not put it down for the duration.
Ivanhoe deals with many themes, classism and racism being the foremost. It does not shy from the former theme at all, depicting members of all classes fairly equally, even showing the nobility of serfs which ultimately wins at least one of them his freedom. On the subject of race, however, the book is somewhat less even-handed: though it shows us believable characters, it attributes their characteristics more to their races than is comfortable to our modern conscience.
The primary races the book concerns itself with are the Saxons (i.e., the Anglo-Saxons who conquered England in the 5th and 6th centuries), the Normans (the French invaders from Normandy who took over after the Battle of Hastings in 1066), and the Jews. At the time of the novel, the three were easily distinguishable by their languages and modes of dress, and constantly troubling one another. The Saxons, to a large degree, resented their Norman conquerors, even though the novel takes place during Richard I's reign, over a century since the conquest. The Normans, for their part, loathed the Saxons for their stubborn and rustic ways, and borrowed money from the wealthy Jews to fund their efforts to keep the Saxons down. The Jews are oppressed and loathed by everybody else, and generally depicted as money-grubbing usurers.
Into this environment, in a time of internal strife as Saxons asserted their rights as landholders and Normans asserted their rights as conquerors, the tale of Ivanhoe is sprung. The most powerful of Saxon lords, Cedric of Rotherwood--known as Cedric the Saxon due to his steadfast adherence to the old ways--wants to form a Saxon alliance that will someday challenge the Norman crown. His only son, Wilfred, has, like many young Saxons, taken to the Norman ways, adopting chivalric deeds of horsemanship and lance-work as the bedrocks of his manhood, and followed Richard the Lion-Hearted off to the Holy Land. Cedric's dearest hope is that the two leaders of the most ancient and privileged Saxon lines--his friend Athelstane and his ward Rowena--will wed, binding the remaining Saxon nobility in an effort to cast off their Norman lords. But Rowena, alas, pines only for Wilfred.
Meantime, Wilfred is off with Richard, who has given him a title and a fiefdom at Ivanhoe. Wilfred then becomes Ivanhoe, more Norman than his father could abide, and in any case, off on the crusade with Richard and not around to help.
Richard's absence is taken advantage of by his brother, Prince John. John is a fiery and inconsistent character, who aspires to the throne. He gathers strength about him, most notably, the wicked baron Reginald Front-de-Beouff (who, among other things, is granted title to the estate of Ivanhoe in Wilfred's absence), Brian de Bois-Guilbert (a Knight Templar), and Maurice De Bracy (a powerful mercenary). He is aided and abetted in his schemes by his counselor, Waldemar Fitzurse, who is actually the mastermind behind the plot to depose Richard and put John on the throne. None of his coconspirators have real faith in John, but each hopes to profit from his ascension.
At the outset of the book, all of the principals are en route to a great tournament at a place called Ashby. Richard and Ivanhoe, indeed, take part in the tournament, though they have returned to England from the Holy Land in disguise, Richard as the Black Knight and Ivanhoe as "Desdichado," the Disinherited.
On the way, many of the major characters feast at Cedric's hall, and Ivanhoe falls in with Isaac, the Jew of York, who is among the wayward. He is able to spare Isaac from a looting by Bois-Guilbert, et al., and is rewarded with the loan of arms and steed for the fight.
The Disinherited Knight wins the tourney, but not without aid from the Black Knight, and all remark on the prowess of both. Ivanhoe wins himself renown and the right to choose Rowena as the Queen of Beauty and of Love for the tournament; she in turn, crowns him the victor. But his wounds overcome him, and he is taken from the field by Isaac and his young daughter, Rebecca.
Following the feats of arms is an archery contest, won by an arrogant yeoman we later find out is Robin Hood, but since his street name is so renowned, he must go under his proper name, Locksley, to remain anonymous.
John suspects Richard is back in England, and plans to gather his and his allies' forces at York. Isaac and Rebecca head to York with the wounded Ivanhoe. Cedric and his train head for home, and they happen to pick up the Jews and Ivanhoe (though they don't know who he is, as he's hidden in a covered litter). Meanwhile, Richard heads for York as well, hoping to gather his supporters, and ends up spending a hilarious evening eating and drinking robustly with a "hermit" we later find out is Friar Tuck.
Cedric's party is then waylaid by John's allies, the wicked knights Front-de-Boef, Bois-Guilbert, and De Bracy. The whole thing is De Bracy's plan to seize the fair Rowena--the Saxons had next to no rights, so who, that mattered, was going to protest? Front-de-Beouf is happy with the captives and the chance to extort money out of the wealthy Isaac (capturing Jews and threatening or torturing them for cash was fair play among the Christian nobility, evidently). Bois-Guilbert doesn't really have any role in the ploy till he lays eyes on the fair Rebecca, Isaac's daughter, at which point he falls for her, hopelessly, it turns out.
From there, the book progresses pretty rapidly. De Bracy and Bois-Guilbert make overtures to their prospective ladies, denied vehemently. Front-de-Beouf threatens Isaac for ransom, and nearly roasts him horribly on a human-sized grill (gotta love the Middle Ages) when circumstances intervene. Richard, who's fallen in with Robin Hood's crowd, leads a storm of Front-de-Beouf's castle at Torquelestone, which is scantly defended as most of the knight's forces have already departed for York. After a day of horrible fighting, the bandits seize the castle, which is burned by a traitor within (an old Saxon lady whom Front-de-Beouf and his father had abused--deservedly, Front lies wounded by Richard on his bed and dies in the fire). De Bracy is bested in single combat by Richard and yields. Bois-Guilbert flees, taking Rebecca with him. Cedric's friend and his hope for the resurgence of the Saxon cause, Athelstane, is killed.
Where the book really breaks ground is the relationship between Rebecca and her abductor. Under the conventions of the time, there's no way Bois-Guilbert's intentions toward her can be honorable. Church and synagogue alike would condemn their union, and Rebecca's not about to convert. He, of course, has no intention of marrying her anyway: "Marry a Jewess? Not if she were the queen of Sheba!" But ultimately, he is so smitten, he becomes willing to sacrifice all rank and honor to have her. She remains steadfastly opposed to his very presence, as he drags her off to a Templar stronghold at Templestowe. Unfortunately for both, the Grand Master of the Templars is visiting on his righteous tour to quell what he perceives as corruption and overindulgence in temporal matters plaguing his order (things like harboring infidel women for illicit purposes). He decides that Rebecca is a witch who has spellbound the renowned Bois-Guilbert, whom all had accounted so accomplished that he was a no-brainer for the Grand Master position himself eventually.
We cannot countenance Bois-Guilbert's abduction of Rebecca, but Scott does a great job of making his desperate, unrequited love of her extremely vivid. It was probably just an overwhelming lust--one wonders if she consented, how long he would have remained interested--but still, it is extremely powerful. Similarly, her devotion to her own honor and faith is terribly moving; she meets her trial and conviction for witchcraft with admirable strength, even going so far as to forgive Bois-Guilbert "as freely as any victim ever forgave her executioner." She is sentenced to burn, but at the last moment (prompted by a secret message from the knight) demands a trial by combat. It had been Bois-Guilbert's intention to be her champion until the head of the Templar chapter accepts the challenge in his name. Rebecca sends to her father to explain her plight.
Meanwhile, the funeral of Athelstane is taking place, and Ivanhoe and Richard come to express their condolences. Richard reveals himself as king and forces a reconciliation between Cedric and his disinherited son Ivanhoe. Cedric grudgingly agrees to allow Rowena and Ivanhoe to marry after Rowena has completed two years' mourning for Athelstane...until Athelstane himself turns up. He was not killed after all, but merely stunned and left for dead. Feeling his is a wiser man for his trials, Athelstane renounces his rights to Rowena in favor of Ivanhoe.
Ivanhoe, however, is called off in a matter of honor, to champion Rebecca at the Templars' citadel. Not yet fully healed from his wounds, he is not expected to be able to defeat the mighty Bois-Guilbert, but in a single tilt, both are unhorsed. Ivanhoe rises to continue the combat on foot, but it is discovered that Bois-Guilbert is already dead, from his own internal struggle more than Ivanhoe's blow, Scott says. He loved Rebecca so much, that his inability to have her coupled with his fate of being the instrument of her execution overwhelmed him--nobody dies like that any more.
While Ivanhoe generally gets lumped in with the class of 18th- and 19th-century romances, it stands out for its honesty and humor. It is a brilliant tale, brilliantly told, and scarcely conceivable to many people's imagination as a work of pure invention. It's not romantic in the modern sense, and it does have certain historical roots (such as Richard's troubled return from the crusades). However, it does not put anything in black and white--the "bad guys" are generally not wholly bad, and Richard is (accurately, from everything else I've read) depicted as a strong warrior and man in general, but not all that dedicated to England and his duties there. To quote the man, "his reign was like the course of a brilliant and rapid meteor, which shoots along the face of heaven, shedding around an unnecessary and portentous light, which is instantly swallowed up by universal darkness...."
The only "simple" character, ironically, is Ivanhoe--he is actually not all that major a character in the work, having fewer lines and scenes than Wamba, Cedric's fool. He spends most of the book in unheralded recovery from his wounds at Ashby. He is simply the good guy, honorable and brave at every turn, and the catalyst by which Richard is able to begin the unification of Saxon and Norman. In the end, Ivanhoe saves Rebecca due to his chivalric duty, not for any great love of her or tolerance of Jews in general (though he helps them, he is as racist in principal as the other Christians in the book).
One of the many things that makes this book readable (to those, anyway, who like the antique language) is its humor. Scott was not above referring to his own era, some seven centuries after the events he narrates, often with satiristic effect. One example--and I can picture the disgruntled man at his writing desk--comes when he describes the contemporaneous Robin Hood stories:
"As for the rest of Robin Hood's career, as well as the tale of his treacherous death, they are to be found in those black-letter garlands, once sold at the low and easy rate of one halfpenny--
Now cheaply purchased at their weight in gold."
The centering and font differentiation are Scott's--a bitter highlight of what he seemed to perceive as a grave injustice, that is, the commercialization not just of high literature but of stories themselves. He would, I gather, have liked his fiction to be shared around the fire by a sincere narrator and attentive listeners.
I realize this has become more of a high school book report (all plot and little commentary) than a typical E2 write-up, especially for me. But I get worked up about great literature, and I count the novel Ivanhoe in that class. If you are interested enough to have read this far, please pick up the book if you haven't. If you have, I'd love to talk about it, drop me a /msg.