Skip to main content

The Trade with Heaven in Ivanhoe

One strong theme running through the narrative of Walter Scott's Ivanhoe is that all the bad guys are shown to be constantly justifying their bad behaviour because of good works they had previously done.  On the other hand the two heroes, Ivanhoe and Rebecca, do good deeds without any thought for recompense and yet every good work leads to a favour being returned which serves to advance the story and ultimately results in Rebecca's salvation and vindication at the end of the story.  Towards the end of the story Wamba, the saxon jester, exposes the rationale and modus operandi of those who justify themselves in conversation with the black knight: 
They make up a balanced account with Heaven, as our old cellarer used to call his ciphering, as fair Isaac the Jew keeps with his debtors, and like him, give out very little, and take very large credit for doing so; reckoning, doubtless, on their own behalf the sevenfold usary which the blessed text hath promised to charitable loans . . . these honest fellows balance a good deed with one not quite so laudable; as a crown given to a begging friar with a hundred byzants taken from a fat abbot, or a wench kissed in the greenwood with the relief of a poor widow . . . The merry men of the forest set off the building of a cottage with the burning of a castle - the thatching of a choir against the robbing of a church - the setting free of a poor prisoner against the murder of a proud sheriff . . . Gentle theives they are, in short, and courteous robbers; but it is ever the luckiest to meet with them when they are at the worst . . . then they have some compunction, and are for making up matters with Heaven.  But when they have struck an even balance, Heaven help them with whom they next open the account!
[pp343-4 of the 1995 Wordsworth edition]

The interesting thing is that up to this point the outlaws of the forest have been the good guys and yet Wamba's insight shows that really they just happen to be on the side of "good" when we meet them in the narrative.  In reality they are operating on the same principles that the bad guys are.  This passage and the way the black knight, revealed later to be Richard the Lion Heart, is portrayed leave the observant reader unsettled.  Ivanhoe is not the simple swashbuckling tale of good versus evil, it is more the story of two virtuous people navigating a treacherous world where one side is little better than another.  If anything there is something karmic rather than Christian about the way one good deed done selflessly leads inexorably to another.  But in the way Scott exposes the human tendency to "trade with Heaven" he is spot on. 

In the finale when Ivanhoe takes the part of Rebecca's champion in trial by combat he is wounded and exhausted, barely able to stand, and totally outmatched by his opponent.  Yet ultimately the vindication that Rebecca needs does come, and not from Ivanhoe's strength, which is already spent.  I think it fair to say that for Scott, those who justify themselves are ultimately found wanting, some coming to very sticky ends, and it is only those who give no thought to such accounts but do the right thing anyway who experience Heaven's reward.


Popular posts from this blog

Why Dr Charles Stanley is not a biblical preacher

Unusually for me I was watching the tele early on Sunday morning and I caught an episode of Dr Charles Stanley preaching on his television program. Now I know this guy has come under some criticism for his personal life, and that is not unimportant, but it is also not something i can comment on, not knowing the facts. His preaching is however something I can comment on, at least the one sermon I did watch.

He started off by reading 2 Timothy 1:3-7. Which is a passage from the Bible, so far so good. He then spent the next 30 minutes or so talking about his mum and what a great example of a Christian mother she was. Now nothing he said or suggested was wrong, but none of it actually came from scripture, least of all the scripture he read from at the beginning. It was a lovely talk on how Stanley's mother raised him as a Christian despite considerable difficulties and it contained many useful nuggets of advice on raising Christian kids. All very nice, it might have made a nice…

The false link between suicide and mental illness

One characteristic of human society is the tendency to keep doing something over and over again despite it not working. One example would be our approach to incarcerating criminals to punish them instead of rehabilitating them, compounding their trauma and making it harder for them to live productive law-abiding lives when they get out. But this is the "common-sense" approach, the intuitive human response to the failings of others, punish them and they wont dare do it again. It has never worked, ever, but let's keep doing it. Secular society is screwed because it cannot comprehend that its vision is blurred by sin and therefore knee-jerk, common sense solutions are usually destructive and counter-productive.

So it is with our response to suicide. To kill yourself must be the response of the weak minded and sick - so the thinking goes - so to combat rising suicide we treat individuals medically. Yet suicide is a perfectly rational response to a world as broken as ours and…

The Addictive Power of End Times Speculation

The mighty Rhett Snell has picked up his blog again (I wonder how long he'll last this time), check out his theory on why people get so into annoyingly unbiblical end times nonsense.

I think that where codes-and-calendars end times theology is dangerous, is that it can give a sense of false growth. We read a theory online, or hear it from some bible teacher, and we come to think that we have mastered an area of our faith. A bit like levelling up in a computer game, or Popeye after he’s eaten some spinach. At worst, we begin to believe that we’ve taken a step that other Christians have not; that we’ve entered an elite class of Christianity.