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Sunday 23 April 2017

My book choice for WBN

Last post I pondered on the book I would give a friend on World Book Night and I had a title in mind. The story is Sir Walter Scott’s “Ivanhoe.”


The local connection, the first line places it geographically around me. The characters and events occupy that "pleasant district of merry England which is watered by the River Don," specifically the valley between Rotherham and Conisbrough. Familiar territory, albeit with the names changed, but with a little detective work the clues can be followed and the true identities revealed. Scott’s mediaeval romance has inspired numerous film adaptations, both live action and animated.

The tale unfolds in an England that is far from merry, Saxon pitted against Norman, suspicious of each other and of other races. A stark conflicted land, where even fathers and sons are at odds with each other for their choice of allegiance. Ivanhoe is disowned by his father for following Richard on his crusade.

I've had the book on my reader for a while, it tends to be a story I load whenever I change a device and although infrequently read it is familiar. I downloaded the text of Ivanhoe from Project Gutenberg.

If you're not familiar with Project Gutenberg, the site hosts digital versions of thousands of books now out of copyright. Imagine wandering among the shelves of a bookshop of over a century ago, when some we call classics were new releases.

Why Ivanhoe, and why now? A couple of weeks ago when I picked up the book it was a half-remembered thing, an echo of the turbulent times that form the backdrop to the story and as I plunged into Scott’s image of thirteenth Century England, drinking in the words and savouring the flavour of the times the news was full of Article 50.

Scott's imagination conjured a country at odds with itself, turmoil stalked the tracks and byways of the forests and the hills. The masses and the elites wrangled with each other, each trying to come out on top. The order was established. The Normans were top of the heap, but that didn't mean the Saxons were going to lie down and take it. Passive resistance and the polite slight, defiance in the simplest action.

Sir Walter was not intimately familiar with the area, not in the way he knew the landscape behind the Waverley novels and his other Scottish works. Through the dedicatory epistle at the front of the Gutenberg text he explains his desire to reveal an English hero to match Rob Roy and Wallace. The need to reach further back in time for the tensions and a wildness of life and landscape took him to the land of the Lionheart and Robin, the hooded man, his erstwhile ally against the wicked usurper, John.

It is believed that Scott spent less than a week in the area. Travelling from Sheffield he stayed overnight at the village of Sprotborough, near Doncaster. The Ship, the public house by the canal had for many years a chair beside the fireplace known as Sir Walter's chair. The very seat where the literary knight rested from his journey.

The story revolves less around the physical location than the landscape of the characters and how they reflect their times. Actions and reactions, choices and the consequences of those choices.

The valley described by Sir Walter lies east of the M1 at Sheffield, where the River Don winds towards and around the hill of Moorgate. The ancient centre of Rotherham stands at the Northern end of the hill; slightly to the South and perched on the edge overlooking the valley stands the hunting tower of the Earl of Effingham. Testimony to a familiarity with political tension. Boston Castle has been a notable landmark for over two hundred years, named to commemorate the Revolutionary Tea Party and a choice made by the Earl to support the colonists in their desire for representation. An advocacy that had him ejected from the House of Lords for standing against Parliament.

In a cabinet in the Minster Church at Rotherham stands a copy of the King James Bible. On the cover is stamped a date; 1774. The King James Bible was a gift, along with a Book of Common Prayer from the Earl to the church where he was Lay Rector.

In October 1774 people who felt they were being ignored by a distant overbearing government sent a letter outlining their grievances. That situation was not addressed to their satisfaction and two years later in 1776, they declared their independence. I can appreciate the sense of grievance inscribed in that document.

It has been said they were never more English than the moment they chose to go their own way. After years of conflict Congress ratified the preliminary articles bringing the war to an end on the 15th April, 1783. The peace was finally delivered by the King’s acceptance of the Colonies’ independence on the 3rd September 1783 with the Treaty of Paris.

Two hundred and thirty-four years later the Prime Minster of England delivered a letter to the leaders of the European Union and triggered Article 50 of the Treaty for European Union, more familiar as the Lisbon Treaty. Now with a snap general election on the cards, the next date to watch will be the 9th of June, the day after the vote when the results come in. 

All this from picking up Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott?

I shall have to be careful who receives the gift!

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