The Inevitable Euhemerism of Sir Walter Scott
Somewhere along the normally parallel lines of reality and fiction, the two opposing entities meet in what has proven to be a breeding ground of entertainment. Its own kind of uncanny valley, there is something infinitely fascinating about that which mimics reality, but remains fiction – that which crosses the boarder into reality bearing an ethereal resemblance to the real only to vanish back into the realm of the fictitious. This flirtation between the real and represented worlds – this simultaneously uneasy yet transcendent dance across its boundaries – is both art and artifice, and the products it yields are seldom received without a corresponding ambivalence. Before reality television took the stage as the latest installment of this series of almost grotesque mock reality, the novel made its own popular but far from erudite appearance. Though the novel has since risen through the ranks and perhaps even surpassed the heights of literary nobility enjoyed by verse, it too once occupied the bottom feeding, soulless rank of reality television. Accused of the capital crime of falsehood masquerading as truth, the novel was decried as sinful, deceitful, and fake. If the inherently deceitful nature of verisimilitude offends, however, it also entertains.
Based perhaps most fundamentally on this premise of verisimilitude – an uncanny self-contained paradox of that which is like reality – the novel presents an interesting tension between fact and fiction, blurring what was once presumed an insoluble division between two absolute concepts. In Ivanhoe, Sir Walter Scott further obfuscates this perceived distinction between the real and represented worlds, offering the historical romance as an even more complex appendage to an already philosophically dense genre. The child of Scott’s experimentation with fact and falsehood, historical fiction in itself is inherently paradoxical. Even more than the novel form in general, the historical fiction genre incites tension between the dichotomy of true and false, fact and fiction. This kind of novel blends what should ostensibly be irreconcilable opposites: history – that which is presumed objectively true – and fiction, that which is presumed objectively false. In Ivanhoe, Scott seeks to resolve the tension that plagues the novel with accusations of deceit by ultimately discrediting the notion of objective truth – in history or narrative. While Scott’s tale illustrates the blending of the Saxon and Norman cultures, narratologically his work blends history and romance. However, neither act of communion is flawless. Just as the union of the Saxon and Norman realms results in the birth of a new national identity, but not without vanquishing the old order, Scott’s blending of history and romance simultaneously yields a new genre as well as the death of objective truth.
While even the earliest critics of Scott’s work – including, significantly, Scott himself – have noted and analyzed his complex relationship with history and fiction, the relationship is usually presented as a binary, one end of which Scott is ultimately said to champion over the other (Morillo and Newhouse, 270). In their analysis of Ivanhoe, John Morillo and Wade Newhouse attempt to “diverge from this dominant binary division in Scott criticism,” instead offering a reading that seeks to register the relationship, rather than the division, between fiction and history in Scott. Invoking James Kerr and his claim that “Scott challenges the validity of literary forms for representing the past by appealing to a reality beyond the boundaries of fiction,” Morillo and Newhouse make a case for seeing neither romance nor history as the vehicle by which Scott conveys truth (qtd. in Morillo and Newhouse 270). While ultimately we diverge in our conclusions – Morillo and Newhouse present a theory offering sound as the medium of Scott’s truth – our analyses both focus on Scott’s “suspicion about the falsifying power of all narratives” – historical or fictitious (Morillo and Newhouse 272).
If Scott’s novel as a whole is a narratological illustration of “the descent of history into romance” at work in the world, it is not a theme that functions entirely outside the characters’ realm of consciousness (Morillo and Newhouse 274). At various points in the novel, Scott depicts the characters themselves either directly witnessing or influencing the dissolution of fact into fiction. Once experience is filtered through narrative, it is inevitably and irrevocably colored with fiction.
Morillo and Newhouse point to the rapid spread and adulteration of the news of Athelstane’s apparent resuscitation as evidence of this theme at work in Scott’s represented world. When Athelstane himself offers the explanation, he defends it against the King’s skeptical remark that “such a tale is as well worth listening to as a romance,” claiming that in fact “there was no romance in the matter,” defending his first-hand account as truth corroborated by the facts of personal experience (Scott 473). Here, Scott addresses the opposing the nature of history and romance, implying a lesser dignity of the latter in Athelstane’s defense of his story against accusations of romance. Although Scott has no qualms about referring to Athelstane’s own account of the “history of his escape” as such, from there, Scott traces the transformation and ultimate corruption of the story into romance as it passes to various audiences (Scott 474). The path of Athelstane’s tale follows a large-scale version of the game telephone, transformed with each retelling until it reaches the height of romance as the dramatization sung by the “opportunistic minstrel, Alan-a-Dale” (Morillo and Newhouse 273). Here, Scott illustrates the rapidity with which history mingles with myth, and the impossibility of ever fully unraveling them once mixed. While Scott can at least defend Athelstane’s first-hand version of the story as the truth – being, as the author, the sole authority on what is and is not true within the world of his novel – real history is not afforded the luxury of guaranteed truth even in first-hand accounts. Once removed from the very moment of experience, truth becomes history, and thus begins its inevitable descent into romance.
A similar commentary on the impossibility of pure history surfaces earlier in the novel with Rebecca’s narration of the siege of Torquilstone. Unable to see the battle from the position from which his weakened state prevents movement, the bed-ridden – or rather floor-ridden – Ivanhoe has Rebecca narrate the events to him. As with all forms of narration Rebecca’s is, if not inaccurate, at least decidedly impure. Colored both by Rebecca’s perception – and misperception – as well as by Ivanhoe’s own altered reception of it, Scott depicts the inevitable sullying of history even from the moment of action itself. Even though Rebecca is a first-hand witness to the events she seeks to narrate in as close as physically possible to real time, even removed just one perspective and one moment from the instant of occurrence, history is lost irrevocably to the influence of narrative.
From this, Morillo and Newhouse make a case for seeing the roles of Rebecca and Ivanhoe as parallel to the roles of the author and reader, respectively. Completely at the mercy of Rebecca’s inexperienced and incomplete narrative, Ivanhoe must fill in the gaps left by her fragmentary knowledge of warfare with his own interpretations. He does so, naturally, by drawing on his own expectations of the reality which escapes him, informed and shaped by his “romantic visions of glory and heroism” (Morillo and Newhouse 278). Morillo and Newhouse liken Ivanhoe’s approach to interpretation to that of Scott’s reader. The “romantic predispositions” which shape Ivanhoe’s perceptions of the battle are not unlike those which shape the expectations of a reader of a romance novel (Morillo & Newhouse 279). However, Scott – like Rebecca – ultimately presents a divergence from these expectations.
In an obviously dated reading of Ivanhoe from 1955, Joseph E. Duncan challenges an allegedly widespread notion of the day that considered the novel “essentially a romantic book of adventure – preferably for boys” (293). If Duncan’s opening statements are troubling – particularly to the right of the em dash – he manages to recover with the closing argument that Ivanhoe, “far from being mainly juvenile and romantic, is essentially anti-romantic” (300). Although the view of Ivanhoe as an inversion of – or at least departure from – the expected paradigm of the romantic tradition seems almost inseparable from even the most basic reading of the novel, it was – at least according to Duncan himself – a largely unprecedented claim at the time (293). If Duncan is to be believed then, his argument – if relatively simplistic and uncomfortably peppered with an overly confident usage of the term “anti-chauvinistic” – set an important precedent that continues to form the basis of much modern criticism of Ivanhoe.
While criticism varies in its understanding of the implications of the “anti-romantic” trend in Ivanhoe, I present it as a response to Newhouse and Morillo’s aforementioned Rebecca-Ivanhoe and Scott-reader parallel. Just as Rebecca’s narrative subverts Ivanhoe’s expectations of romance and heroism, Scott, likewise, seeks to subvert the reader’s expectations of the traditional romance. In inverting conventional romantic traditions, Scott prevents the reader from being rewarded for shaping their perceptions of the world according to their expectations. Scott refuses to let the reader accept their own expectations for either romance or history as truth.
Meanwhile, the plot developments that result from Scott’s divergence from the expected romance operate on a level outside the world of the novel as well, with Ivanhoe’s imperfect union of the Saxon and Norman cultures mirroring Scott’s at times uncanny marriage of history and romance as a genre.
In his reading of Ivanhoe, Kenneth M. Sroka gives Duncan’s argument a much-needed update. Like Duncan, Sroka notes the tendency to mistake Ivanhoe, initially, for a “straightforward chivalric romance exemplifying the conventions of that form,” before pointing out that closer readings “reveal that Scott’s fidelity to the conventional romance form is tempered by altered conventions and deflations of idealistic imaginative elements” (Sroka 645).
While Sroka argues that Scott’s departure from the traditions of the romance signal Scott’s attempt to “create a more realistic romance,” I propose, rather, that Scott’s mingling of romance and history seeks to challenge the notion of reality altogether. While Sroka sees Ivanhoe as a tale of romance accredited and enhanced by historical truth, my reading sees the novel as historical truth adulterated, stained, and ultimately erased by romance.
Both Sroka and Duncan trace the ways in which Scott both follows and diverts from the traditional romance, with Sroka’s reading tracing Ivanhoe’s progression through Northrop Frye’s “three stages of the successful quest,” the conquest, the death struggle, and the recognition (Sroka 646). While Scott’s renditions of each of these stages show marked variations from the romantic convention, it is perhaps his treatment of the “recognition” stage that carries the greatest significance for the relationship between the social and philosophical implications of Scott’s treatment of the genre that I propose.
Not unlike the novel as a whole, Ivanhoe’s conclusion initially appears to be in keeping with the traditional conventions of the romance genre. The dawn of a new era of national unity is symbolized both by the fall of Torquilstone as well as the long-awaited union of Ivanhoe and Rowena, and the apparently stale conclusion almost renders Scott’s earlier inversions of the romantic convention entirely in vain. The novel is saved, however, by the inversion within each of these dramatizations.
While the fall of Torquilstone signals the promise of a new “future of peace and harmony,” it does not do so without simultaneously necessitating the death of the old order (Scott 499). Dramatized both in the literal fall of the castle as well as in the elegy to the tune of which Ulrica perishes, Scott makes it clear that the old order does not die a peaceful death. In fact, it is asserted that for this proposed harmony to reign, first “all must perish” (Scott 341). If Scott allows a world in which peace and unity are possible, he does not permit it unless preceded by extreme violence. Thus, just as Scott’s union of romance and history gives birth to a new genre at the price of objective truth, the union of the Saxon and Norman kingdoms gives birth to a new era, but at the price of the violent death of the old.
If the fall of Torquilstone signals the death of the old order, Scott ostensibly presents the union of Ivanhoe and Rowena as the promise of the new. Clearly equating the marriage to “a pledge of future peace and harmony betwixt two races,” Scott makes no attempt to veil the allegorical significance of his characters, paralleling the Ivanhoe-Rowena, Norman-Saxon “marriages” so closely they overlap in what threatens to become a hackneyed, fairy tale conclusion to an otherwise complex inversion of the traditional romance (Scott 499). Assuring us that “the hostile distinction of Norman and Saxon seems entirely to have disappeared,” Scott makes good on Ulrica’s promise that “strong hate itself shall expire,” and seems content to lay his narrative to rest with a comfortable, happy ending (Scott 498, 341). However, once again, Scott’s resolution is saved by a hidden inversion. While the union between Ivanhoe and Rowena is significant in its dramatization of the union between the Norman and Saxon realms, it is perhaps more significant in what it is not. That is to say, while Ivanhoe’s marriage to Rowena is consistent with the conventions of the romance genre, in Scott’s novel, the union is most notable in that it is not one between Ivanhoe and Rebecca. Neither Norman nor Saxon, Rebecca has no place in the “future of peace and harmony” promised by the Ivanhoe-Rowena marriage. Instead, Rebecca remains an outsider, to whom the supposedly harmonious people of England remain “a fierce race, ready to plunge the sword into the bowels of each other” (Scott 499).
Sroka likewise sees something “ominous” in Rebecca’s exclusion from the new order (654). This is perhaps because, aligning once again with Morillo and Newhouse’s analogy that proposes Rebecca as a stand in for Scott himself, Rebecca is the novel’s closest representation of objective truth. In “adopt[ing] Scott’s own more sober tone and role as novelist,” Rebecca, in theory, ultimately determines, knows, and establishes the truth in the world of the novel (Morillow and Newhouse 279). Just as Scott, as creator, has the authority and omnipresence within the world of the novel to assert that Athelstane’s original explanation is truth worthy of the term “history,” Rebecca should, in her adopted role, also figure as the novel’s ultimate authority on absolute truth. Thus, in excluding Rebecca from the harmonious new order, Scott simultaneously excludes truth. Just as there is no room for Rebecca’s people in the new blend of Norman and Saxon culture, there is no room for objective truth in Scott’s blend of history and romance.
If Scott excludes his appointed stand-in from the final union of history and romance, he does not make any attempts to reclaim the crown of omnipresence for himself. In fact, Scott rejects the notion of objective truth so absolutely that he refuses to claim any kind of objective knowledge even over the world of his own creation. Rather, in the novel’s “Dedicatory Epistle,” Scott abandons the role of novelist to the fictional Lawrence Templeton, thus refusing to let even the truth of his own authorship avoid permanent obfuscation by fiction. Appointing a fictional character to the position of the otherwise presumably objective third person narrator, as well as citing the obviously fictional “Waldour Manuscript” as the novel’s basis, Scott seemingly resigns his novel entirely to the realm of fiction, eliminating even the tenuous link between the real and represented worlds offered by the possibility of an author-narrator relationship.
And yet, Ivanhoe does not belong entirely to the world of fiction. While Scott’s appointed author and narrator is fictional, some of his characters are not. Real historical figures walk the pages of Ivanhoe beneath the narration of a “fictional” author in yet another inversion of literary convention. Scott’s amalgam of history and romance, fact and fiction, reality and representation is so complex, convoluted, and even arcane that any semblance of objective truth is rendered absolutely unsalvageable from the wreckage.
Morillo and Newhouse see Scott’s refusal to separate fact and fiction as evidence that Scott “is at heart a euhemerist” (Morillo and Newhouse 274). If Scott is a euhemerist, it is only because he can be nothing else. Scott is aware, above all, of the impossibility of “history as unvarnished truth,” and seeks not to present myth as fact, but rather to suggest that all fact inevitably descends into myth (Morillo and Newhouse 275). Ultimately, Scott is aware that truth fades irrevocably the moment it is passed through narrative. By denouncing the possibility of truth in Ivanhoe, Scott saves himself the guaranteed failure of trying to represent historical truth in fiction. In Ivanhoe Scott illustrates that history, no less than romance, is a form of narration – fact filtered irrevocably through perception – and thus can only ever present a distorted version of the truth.
Duncan, Joseph E. “The Anti-Romantic in ‘Ivanhoe.’” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, vol. 9, no. 4, (1955): pp. 293–300. Web. 27 Nov. 2016.
Morillo, John, and Wade Newhouse. “History, Romance, and the Sublime Sound of Truth in ‘Ivanhoe.’” Studies in the Novel, vol. 32, no. 3, 2000, pp. 267–295. Web. 27 Nov. 2016.
Scott, Walter. Ivanhoe. New York: Oxford UP, 2008. Print
Sroka, Kenneth M. “The Function of Form: Ivanhoe as Romance.” Studies in English Literature,1500-1900, vol. 19, no. 4, (1979): pp. 645–660. Web. 26 Nov. 2016.
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