I love to read and can get very attached to my opinions, but recently I've been learning not to completely lose my head when people disagree with me, so feel safe to argue with me whenever you wish ;)
You know what's weird? I spent three whole weeks getting through this 600-page novel, yet when I finished, I managed to reread half of it in the space of 12 hours. (That is, if going over all my favorite parts out of order counts as rereading.)
So yeah, this was a challenging novel, but it was mostly just me trying to get a grip on Scott's writing style. The beginning was especially difficult, but once the suspense starts to raise with the mysterious identities of the Disinherited and Black Knights at the tournament, the initial confusion gives way to a story of spectacular and imposing structure.
What I thought Scott captured brilliantly well was the conflict of worldviews. Saxons and Normans, Christians and Jews, ideological disagreements over chivalry and war. The power of moral principles fluctuate depending on physical circumstances, but individual integrity factors in too. I am, of course, thinking mainly of Rebecca and Bois-Guilbert at Torquilstone, but a moment when De Bracy, against his own interests, chooses to protect the wounded Ivanhoe presented a fascinating look to me about how mutually shared codes of honor influence personal decisions.
Although I may be injecting myself too much here, the story to me also seemed to be about preparedness, how people's expectations build up over their lives versus what they actually meet in reality. The most compelling sections were the reveals of the characters' backstories (not that there are a lot). Rowena's respected place within her social circle gives her a sheltered sense of dignity that quickly crumbles under outside pressure. The worldly Rebecca, on the other hand, has endured a lifetime of persecution and her extraordinary mental fortitude holds up against every threat of the most overwhelming violence. Bois-Guilbert was the most unexpected. "I am not naturally that which you have seen me, hard, selfish, and relentless. It was woman that taught me cruelty, and on woman therefore I have exercised it."
What did remain a stumbling block to me throughout was the subplot concerned with the outlaws. I struggled my way through those parts with the barest minimum of comprehension and avoided them on my disorganized reread, but I suspect it might go smoother the second time around if I apply myself more diligently.
Ultimately, Ivanhoe leaves me with two impressions:
1) Originality. "Never read anything quite like it" applies quite well here. It's a book I approached primarily from a position of curiosity. Although I know Scott's portrayal of the medieval world has exerted some influence, it seems the thematic ideas less so, particularly the ones of how cultural dominance works on a wide scale. Aside from Three Kingdoms (Moss Roberts's afterward of which mentions Ivanhoe) I've also never read a story where people's personalities have such atmosphere, and it only seems to get stronger with rereading.
2) Speculation. For all Scott's wordiness, the story is astonishingly tight in retrospect and the over-imaginative child in me wants to know more. How do Rebecca and her father live out the rest of their lives? De Bracy? Is there more to Ivanhoe's backstory that we aren't getting? (Probably.)