Featured Post


In essays on the subject of centricity, I've most often used the image of a geometrical circle, which, as I explained here,  owes someth...

Friday, January 19, 2018


Though it's possible that I'll encounter some exceptions, there seems no way to demonstrate the persistence of the narrative combative value [in a given work] unless there is some sort of spectacle-oriented struggle at or very near the climax.-- PASSION FOR THE CLIMAX.

"Centricity" with respect to the Walter Scott novel IVANHOE, was addressed in Part 1, and in this section I'll be addressed the other subject in the post-title: combat-- or, more specifically, the way combat is handled at the climax of IVANHOE.

I wrote PASSION FOR THE CLIMAX in 2013, about a year after I settled on a definition of the combative mode in this essay. For the most part, I've been satisfied with the broad applicability of the statement seen above, but now that I've read Scott's most famous work, I'm glad that I hedged my bets somewhat with the statement about "exceptions." In this case, the exceptions don't "prove the rule," but they do make it necessary to expand the rule somewhat, to account for special cases.

For most of the novel, Scott arranges events that lead the reader to expect a major fight-scene at the novel's climax, between the title character and the principal villain, the Templar Knight Bois-Guilbert. It's established that the two of them previously clashed, with Ivanhoe coming out the victor. Their quarrel is not specified, but given that much of the story concerns the cultural tensions between English Saxons like Ivanhoe, and their Norman, French-speaking overlords, like Bois-Guilbert, it stands to reason that the knights probably quarreled for cultural reasons. Scott knows that by novel's end the truculent Saxons will be relatively placated when the righteous Norman Richard the Lion-Hearted ousts his bad Norman brother John. But even with that foreknowledge, Scott gives the reader every reason to want to see another "bad Norman," Bois-Guilbert, bested in direct combat.

Further, the two men are indirectly romantic rivals. Bois-Guilbert falls in love with the lovely Jewess Rebecca, and after taking her and her father prisoner for purposes of ransom, Bois-Guilbert is even willing to sacrifice his position with the Templars if Rebecca becomes his willing consort. However, Rebecca has conceived a "forbidden love" for Ivanhoe, though he is engaged to another woman, one of Christian upbringing. Ivanhoe's first encounter with Rebecca is marked by attraction on his part as well, but unlike Bois-Guilbert, Ivanhoe represses that attraction, obedient to the cultural laws forbidding intermarriage between Jews and Christians. (This is probably one reason a lot of readers don't like Ivanhoe, for not flouting those laws, though admittedly he's already defied his father earlier, by opposing that noble's intention to make a political marriage for Rowena.)

But later events oblige Ivanhoe to play the knightly rescuer to this "forbidden fruit." A group of Templars, having seen the extent of Bois-Guilbert's affection for the Jewess, accuse Rebecca of literal witchcraft, and plan to execute her. She can save herself only if a champion fights on her behalf, and Bois-Guilbert is assigned to oppose any champion she may summon. At this point Rebecca has once again rejected him, but he's still in love with her, and he tells himself that as long as he doesn't actually have to fight an opponent, her murder will be the fault of the Grand Templar. Then, Ivanhoe appears, and the two square off for a joust. The reader expects that Ivanhoe, even though he's taken wounds in a previous battle, will call upon inner reserves of strength and best his formidable enemy anyway. But that's not how Scott handles things.

The trumpets sounded, and the knights charged each other in full career. The wearied horse of Ivanhoe, and its no less exhausted rider, went down, as all had expected, before the well-aimed lance and vigorous steed of the Templar. This issue of the combat all had foreseen; but although the spear of Ivanhoe did but, in comparison, touch the shield of Bois-Guilbert, that champion, to the astonishment of all who beheld it reeled in his saddle, lost his stirrups, and fell in the lists.
Ivanhoe, extricating himself from his fallen horse, was soon on foot, hastening to mend his fortune with his sword; but his antagonist arose not. Wilfred, placing his foot on his breast, and the sword’s point to his throat, commanded him to yield him, or die on the spot. Bois-Guilbert returned no answer.
“Slay him not, Sir Knight,” cried the Grand Master, “unshriven and unabsolved—kill not body and soul! We allow him vanquished.”
He descended into the lists, and commanded them to unhelm the conquered champion. His eyes were closed—the dark red flush was still on his brow. As they looked on him in astonishment, the eyes opened—but they were fixed and glazed. The flush passed from his brow, and gave way to the pallid hue of death. Unscathed by the lance of his enemy, he had died a victim to the violence of his own contending passions.
“This is indeed the judgment of God,” said the Grand Master, looking upwards—“‘Fiat voluntas tua!’”

Scott does not enlarge upon the "contending passions" that cause Bois-Guilbert to expire without taking any real injury, though the author devotes a great deal of space before the death to showing that the Templar's desire for Rebecca torments him. He has the power to kill Ivanhoe, but if he does so, Rebecca also perishes-- and since he cannot simply surrender to Ivanhoe, his only alternative is apparently to "will himself to death." The mythopoeically inclined reader may choose to view Bois-Guilbert as the "negative image" of Ivanhoe, given that he can act on the desire that Ivanhoe will not countenance.

But what does the Templar's death mean, within the structure of the novel? There's no shortage of fight-scenes throughout the story, for IVANHOE is a novel aimed primarily at male readers. True, there are a number of scenes that take issue with the 13th-century code of honor, not only with respect to the treatment of Jews but also regarding the noblemen's nasty habit of raising money by ransoming people. Rebecca is every bit a spokesperson for the feminine penchant for peace as Ivanhoe and Bois-Guilbert are proponents of the masculine penchant for conflict.

And yet the central appeal of the novel is not really a critique of the knightly codes of honor and combat; it's more of a side-comment. In the past I've shown how certain works proved subcombative precisely because the author led readers to expect a major conflict, and then undermined that expectation. In MYTHOS AND MODE 2 I wrote this of Shakespeare's CORIOLANUS:

Despite the suggestions that [longtime enemies Coriolanus and Aufidius] may finally sort out the question of superiority by play’s end, CORIOLANUS is, unlike MACBETH, not centered around a combat.  Instead, Coriolanus’ arrogance brings about his disaffection from his fellow Romans, leading to a temporary alliance with Aufidius and the Volscians, and finally to an ignomious demise rather than a heroic confrontation.

Shakespeare goes after the "warrior code" in TROILUS AND CRESSISA with even greater vigor, as I suggested in THE TOILS OF TROILUS.

So, in essence, Shakespeare undercuts all the glory and honor associated with the great duel [between Achilles and Hector]-- though, to be sure, Homer seems quite aware of the innate brutality of the war itself-- and makes Achilles into a honorless dog who orders his personal guards, the Myrmidons, to chop down Hector when the latter has partly doffed his armor. 

Clearly, in a narrative sense, Scott undercuts reader-expectations for a rousing final fight-scene in IVANHOE just as Shakespeare does in the cited plays. But-- does Scott do it for the same reasons that Shakespeare does it?

The answer is obviously no. The fact that Ivanhoe, even though he's not yet recovered from his wounds, is willing to risk his life for the gentle Rebecca clearly validates the better values of the knightly code; values which are entirely negative within both CORIOLANUS and TROILUS AND CRESSIDA. So how should my statement from PASSION FOR THE CLIMAX be amended?

Technically, I've already implied a solution in earlier essays. In KNIGHTS PART 1 I made a loose comparison between Scott's Ivanhoe and Will Eisner's Spirit only in terms of the relative simplicity of both starring characters. For the most part, it would be awkward to draw more extended comparisons, particularly because Ivanhoe was intended to be the star of one stand-alone work, while the Spirit was devised as a serial hero, intended to last over the course of potentially endless adventures.

However, it's often occurred to me that the Spirit himself might not be a combative hero, were I going purely by the 51 percent rule. Yet over the years I've refined this theory to take in the possibility that a series, such as that of the Spirit, may participate in the combative mode even if the majority of the character's individual adventures are not combat-oriented. In my final post on the LOST IN SPACE series, I mentioned that the series, despite various spectacle-oriented episodes, had a "dominant ethos" that was "directed away from combative resolutions." This is pretty much the same as saying that the dominant "significant value" of a series can overrule any disparate elements in the series. I have not yet applied this principle to stand-alone works like IVANHOE, but I have already implied that the subcombative significant value of TROILUS overrules the effect of any battle-scenes in the play. Thus IVANHOE would seem to be an exception of a combative work that does not have the traditional climactic fight-scene, even though it's still thematically important that the hero be willing to undertake such a conflict. These formulations may also call for a modification of my positions on the narrative-significant schism as it related to the combative mode.

No comments: