“Is that The Star of Kazan?” asked my neighbour at work, about three picoseconds after sitting down. The cover is certainly distinctive.
Having only previously read one Ibbotson book, A Song for Summer, this one was almost a shock to me. A Song for Summer is not a children’s book; The Star of Kazan is. Although it’s not exactly infantile, therefore, the difference in register is distinct.
Its blurb describes it as an adventure book. This is not particularly accurate. It’s a story about the people and places who matter to us. The mere existence of dirty work at the crossroads is not, I think, enough to call something an adventure story proper – actual adventures are required, and this book is trying to do something different. To be fair, though, I can’t think of anything better to categorise it as. It’s pretty good, though, and in some regards a little different.
Now we get to a real adventure story, almost an archetypical one: Ivanhoe. “The big bow-wow strain I can do myself like any now going,” wrote Sir Walter Scott when praising Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and he certainly lives up to the boast. Weaving characters and adventures – and a whole rich tapestry of Norman–Saxon racial tension – with consummate skill, he takes us on a roaring tour of England, from old Saxon halls to modern castles, from Robin Hood in the greenwood to the counting-houses of Isaac of York. Religious tensions are also writ large, and some of the most moving passages involve Isaac and Rebecca’s precarious position as Jews in England. Scott is contemptuous of much of the Christianity of the time, remarking mockingly that Ivanhoe was “too good a Catholic” to be attracted to Rebecca, and having one of his characters make this ironic comment:
Here is the stout Baron Reginald Front-de-Bœuf, whose utter abomination is a Jew; and the good Knight Templar, Brian de Bois-Guilbert, whose trade is to slay Saracens. If these are not good marks of Christianity, I know no other which they bear about them.
The best characters in the whole story are Gurth and Wamba – also the first two we meet – who are Cedric’s serfs, and whose unwavering loyalty is immensely touching.
(Ivanhoe himself is described in the Wikipedia article for the book as “not exceptionally outstanding in his abilities.” This is a very long way off from the truth. The Talk page for the article contains a discussion of the matter which brings to mind the phrase missing the point.)
I honestly cannot recommend this book highly enough. Settle in with a glass of something, and ideally a nice fire, and let the master of the craft work. It’s got a lot of pages, but I promise you they fly by.
The Star of Kazan
Author Eva Ibbotson
Best character Pauline, who makes her guest comfortable “by piling the books she thought would interest him on the upturned packing case that served as his bedside table.”
Author Sir Walter Scott
Best character Tie between Gurth and Wamba. No question about it. (Essay: How far does Wamba fit the archetype of the Shakespearean fool?)