Monday, September 5, 2011


I finally finished “Ivanhoe,” an epic adventure that spanned roughly eight hundred miles and fifteen hours of listening as I drove, raptly absorbing the audio version of a book about the Middle Ages that was written in 1819.

For this, I blame Hollywood.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

I first read Sir Walter Scott’s medieval saga some time in my teens. I may have read it again in my early twenties. Given my proclivity for “speed reading,” there was little I remembered of the plot other than the ironic conclusion to the mortal combat between the wounded and reeling Ivanhoe—coming to rescue the fair Jewess Rebecca who is about to be burned at the stake by the evil Knights Templar—and Brian de Bois Guilbert, the Templar besotted to near insanity with Rebecca but doomed by the Order to defend with his sword and lance their trumped up charges of witchcraft. ***Spoiler alert here…if you don’t know how the book ends two hundred years after it was written, that’s just too bad!! The image of Bois Guilbert being felled by a fatal stroke or heart attack, taken as proof by the Templars of divine intervention in the contest, was just one of those things that stayed with me.

I don’t know what possessed me to turn to Netflix and rent the 1952 movie “Ivanhoe” recently. But I did—I’d already run through everything I wanted to see at Redbox—and so I settled in for an evening’s entertainment in lavish Technicolor. With matinee idol Robert Taylor as Ivanhoe, Elizabeth Taylor as Rebecca, and the always exquisitely cavalier George Sands as Brian de Bois Guilbert, what could possibly go wrong? I had no idea (although I thought the castle siege went on for far too long)…until Ivanhoe and Bois Guilbert went at it in the lists at the end, and a robust and middle-aged Ivanhoe dispatched his rival with an axe to the chest.

WHAT!!! shrieked my memory, aghast at this literary treason. This cannot stand, I thought. And so I fixed the notion of re-reading the novel just to cleanse my palate and restore order to the universe.

Of course, I have little enough time these days while juggling two absolutely splendid part-time jobs to read a newspaper much less a historical novel of several hundred pages. And so it seemed that the time to finally make the switch to audio books was upon me. I grabbed my laptop computer and my keychain library card, and started to peruse the library online catalog spanning libraries in a great many surrounding counties. The audio versions of Ivanhoe and Moby Dick were the first things to arrive. Dear God, Moby Dick came with even more CDs, and so I popped Ivanhoe in and settled in for the fifty-mile drive to work the next morning.

One thing I’d like to make clear right off the bat—what a marvelous story!!! You’ve got all the bad blood still brewing between the defeated Saxons and the victorious Normans after the battle of Hastings distilled to the estrangement between the young blond Saxon knight Ivanhoe (played in the movie version by swarthy forty-year-old Robert Taylor) returned from the Crusades,and his father Cedric who has disinherited him and still hopes for a Saxon revival. There’s the strict code of chivalry (derived from “chevalier,” in turn referring to a horse-riding warrior), jousting and swordplay, the ludicrous excesses and moral lapses of the clergy, the lovely Saxon princess Rowena, the equally stunning Jewess Rebecca who tends Ivanhoe’s wounds and falls in love with him despite the unbridgeable gulfs of religion and social station, Robin Hood and his band of outlaws, Richard the Lion Hearted careening around the countryside incognito as “the Knight of the Fetterlock,” treachery and treason and Prince John scheming to assassinate his brother, avarice, Knights Templar engaging in most un-monklike licentiousness, and a castle to be stormed.

And another thing here—what amazingly stuffy writing!!! I did not remember that from the days of yore. These days my tastes run mostly to suspense novels like Lee Child’s “Jack Reacher” series, books that are swift and colorful and full of violence and near misses and daring rescues. My eyes probably register about one word out of every ten as I race to the ending, devouring chapters like a wave jumper anticipating the next big one and surging toward it in the backwash. And still, as the narrator’s voice took me from drafty Saxon halls to sylvan glades, from the colorful lists of Ashby-de-la-Zouch to the turrets of a Norman stronghold, I was enthralled.

There was so much I had missed before this. The contempt and cruelty that could be shown by knights toward any who were not of their own station or above them. Richard the Lion Hearted’s careless ineptitude for actually governing a country. The antipathy shown toward Jews in England at that time, and their precarious existence amidst the Christian fervor that spawned the Crusades.

The narrator voiced the many different characters, ably imparting gruffness and earnestness and fear and obsequiousness as required … but it was still a bit of a stretch when he voiced the female parts in falsetto. Still, there was a lengthy sequence which Hollywood had overlooked and I had remembered not at all, and which held me spellbound for miles. While the Norman castle of the murderous Reginald Front de Boeuf was under siege, the lord himself lay mortally wounded. And to the side of his deathbed came the hag Ulrica, to taunt him after setting fire to the castle’s fuel magazine in order to aid the Saxon attackers. Ulrica, we have learned, was once the beautiful Saxon lady of the castle, until Front de Boeuf’s father and his men at arms took it years before, slaying her father and her seven brothers as they defended their home to the death, the halls and stairways slippery with their blood. Ulrica then became the prize of the victor, but instead of killing herself, she took her vengeance by fomenting quarrels between father and son until her vanquisher was slain by his own son … who then took her for his mistress until he tired of her. Prematurely aged, a prisoner in the castle she once ruled, Ulrica has her fiery revenge on the Normans who slaughtered her family. And I was left wondering, how on earth had I forgotten so tragic and moving a part of the tale? I guess speed reading isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

My mind has been thus cleansed of most of the Hollywood bastardization of this multi-layered and eloquent tale. although the image of Elizabeth Taylor in tights climbing through a stable window in a completely manufactured scene has been a bit hard to erase. And I’ve become aware of how listening to a book read aloud is an entirely different sensory experience than reading it, one that slows down the brain so that each and every word can be measured and images jump from it.

I’m still not sure I’m up to tackling Moby Dick on CD. That would likely require about a thousand miles of driving to get to the last chapter. That’s a lot of time to spend at sea with a nutcase of a ship’s captain.

But as long as I’m still in the mood for jousts and knights errant, “Don Quixote” may not be very far behind.

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