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Late nights spent with banished knights

"Ivanhoe" is a book about knights and damsels of the Middle Ages.

That's about all I can tell you of the tome written by Sir Walter Scott for the express purpose of torturing English students assigned to read it.

It's a story about Wilfred of Ivanhoe of 12th century England, who is estranged from his father, Cedric, because of his support of Normand King Richard I and for his love of Lady Rowena, who Cedric had other plans for in the continuing battle to regain the throne for Saxony.

A wounded Ivanhoe is captured by enemies only to be rescued by none other than Robin Hood, aka, Locksley. In the end, Ivanhoe and Rowena are married and live a long and happy life together.

I know that only because I looked it up on Wikipedia.

Despite the fact that I read "Ivanhoe" in high school — picked from a suggested list of classics — not much of the story line stuck. I was too bogged down in the early 1800s verbiage to get a handle on the narrative.

Here's a sample from the first chapter:

"This state of things I have thought it necessary to premise for the information of the general reader, who might be apt to forget, that, although no great historical events, such as war or insurrection, mark the existence of the Anglo-Saxons as a separate people subsequent to the reign of William the Second; yet the great national distinctions betwixt them and their conquerors, the recollection of what they had formerly been, and to what they were now reduced, continued down to the reign of Edward the Third, to keep open the wounds which the Conquest had inflicted, and to maintain a line of separation betwixt the descendants of the victor Normans and the vanquished Saxons."

That, my friend, is one sentence. Imagine an energy-infused high school junior, with hormones flowing at peak levels, attempting to sit still and wade through more than 1,000 pages of such ramblings.

It took me more than a month — thanks to a certain student librarian who bent the rules and allowed me to check it out longer than the prescribed three-week limit — to read through to the last page.

During this time period, I did something which still summons a certain amount of self reproach. I was among a half dozen juniors nominated by our principal for the first-ever session of the North Carolina Governor's School.

We nominees had to present ourselves, along with those from other high schools, before a selection committee. I was amongst the English contingent.

As I recall, we were questioned as to our current projects, literarily speaking. Since I had nothing else to fall back on, I reported that I was reading "Ivanhoe." I may have mumbled something about it being about knights and damsels of the Middle Ages.

Naturally, I said nothing about the gist of the story, historical significance or character profiles, simply because I had no clue. Perhaps that's why I wasn't chosen to attend that first Governor's School.

Now, every spring when I see lists of local students going to Governor's School, I'm reminded once again that I was among the first nominees.

But more than that, it unearths from my memory graveyard a month-long period when I struggled, stubbornly, to read that dreadfully long book from cover to cover.

Looking back, I would have been better off reading Mark Twain’s “Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” I read Connecticut Yankee later and found it to be really cool. Twain had a knack for putting Old English into a form that even a modern hip teenager could dig.

Now that I think about it, Ivanhoe could have learned a lot from the Connecticut Yankee. 

But, on the other hand, he did have Robin Hood on his side.


Larry Penkava is a writer for Randolph Hub. Contact: 336-302-2189, larrypenkava@gmail.com.