Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe: Did they take out the “J” word, too?

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Liz Taylor and Joan Fontaine: 'scuse me, who's the heroine here?

Some time ago, we launched a firestorm about the controversial new edition of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn that eliminates the “n” word altogether.

Now Sir Walter Scott‘s Ivanhoe is taking a thumping.  Apparently, modern readers find the 1819 novel, set in 12th century England, too ponderous and verbose.

According to an article in the Telegraph, a Scottish professor, David Purdie, has solved the problem with a pair of scissors:  he spent 18 months snipping it from 179,000 words to a mere 80,000:

While Prof. Purdie has retained the antiquated writing style used by Sir Walter, he has taken out the swathes of punctuation which extend the novel.

He said: “Very few people read Scott these days because he’s long and wordy and difficult for the modern ear and modern attention span.

“In the early 19th century, a comma was placed after every phrase, which makes it tedious reading.

Eliminating commas, however, does not account for cutting it down to less than half.  Last time I checked, commas didn’t count as words.

Some have questioned whether the book is so close to death that it needed this kind of life-saving surgery. Said, Professor David Hewit of Aberdeen University,  “The idea that Scott is neglected, no, it’s not neglected at all,” he said. “Ivanhoe is being well read.” He said that Penguin editions for the book had sold around 100,000 copies in the last decade, with worldwide sales of around 200,000 copies.

Moreover famous fans of Ivanhoe include Tony Blair, who said it he would take it to a desert island with him, and Ho Chi Minh, who praised medieval gallantry shown in the novel, as channeled by the Victorians.

Purdie appeared to have found an unexpected champion over at Billevesées. Blogger William V. Madison wrote about the novel earlier this month:

The plot that thrilled generations of readers is in constant struggle with Scott’s prose, which is verbose in the extreme. A character may typically take a long paragraph just to tell another to make haste, and my second-hand paperback edition provided very few notes (mostly Scott’s own, along with a thin glossary) to explain obscure terminology. (No attempt was made to explain the constant misuse of participles for past tense: “He sprung forth,” e.g.) Scott lards the story with “poetic” descriptions and song lyrics, and toward the end of the book, when poor Rebecca awaits her doom, Scott meanders off for several scarcely relevant chapters, sabotaging his own suspense. The resolution of the plot, hitherto relatively plausible, depends on one improbable death and an even more outlandish resurrection.

However – surprise! – Madison changes his tune:

In short, modern readers will find the odds stacked against them. And yet the damned thing does work. Almost against my will, I found myself caught up in the story, and this is largely due to Scott’s characterization, which in a couple of cases — notably the Jews, Isaac of York and his daughter — proves quite compelling. We feel so strongly the injustices they suffer that we care about what happens to them.

So much so that Scott complained after the novel was published why Ivanhoe didn’t elope with the Jewish Rebecca, rather than the boring shiksa Rowena.  That was even before the MGM movie that put a luscious Elizabeth Taylor in the supporting role.

It’s a fun read – Madison, I mean, not Ivanhoe (which I managed to read and enjoy as a teenager without too much trouble) – check out the whole thing here.  Madison even answers the eternal question why the evil Templar Brian de Bois-Guilbert doesn’t ravish Rebecca, as he had originally planned. It’s included in a long-lost fragment of the novel here.

Postscript on 1/31:  A belated hat tip to Kevin Rossiter for the Telegraph article.  He put his own p.o.v. succinctly:  “I just object to the idea of making any work of literature ‘more accessible.’  Peter Brown gave a lecture at Stanford a couple of years ago and addressed the question, ‘Why would anyone want want to study late antiquity?’  He used a phrase I like a lot – he said late antiquity had a ‘salutary strangeness.’  I think that’s what great literary works often have, too.  A healthy departure from the unexamined and comfortable.”  See more on Peter Brown of Princeton’s lecture here.


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5 Responses to “Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe: Did they take out the “J” word, too?”

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  3. Janet Smith Says:

    Hello,

    Glad to see this article on Scott’s novel. It’s the first of his I’ve taken up, and, one-third of the way through, I’m amazed by how cinematic it is. It often reads like a genre adventure story, and perhaps that is part of the appeal. The descriptions of Issac are anti-Semitic, but I love Trollope and I’ve tried not to hold 19th century writers up to our current standards regarding bigotry (or sexism for that matter.) Again, thank you for the post.

  4. Cynthia Haven Says:

    You’re welcome, Janet!

  5. Marie Says:

    Interesting article.

    I read this to my kids for school, it was quite a slog for awhile, but after we got into it the drama of the plot really hooked them. I was pretty surprised at how dense the reading was since I understood it as a kind of pulp fiction for its time. It really is interesting how many popular novels are considered too difficult for young people today to tackle.

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