The Dean's Diaries: Creating a pong around Ivanhoe

The Dean's Diaries: Creating a pong around Ivanhoe

by Prof. D.W.R. Purdie
article from Friday 31, August, 2012

Office of the Dean: St Andrew’s College, King George IV Bridge, Edinburgh EH1 3TD

THE COLLEGE has now had its academic serenity restored with the thankful departure of The Edinburgh Festival Fringe. We have had three ‘shows’ in our lecture theatre over the past month, one of them labelled ‘New Comedy,’ if a parade of lavatorial, scatological and gynaecological observations delivered at 160 decibels by an unshaven oik, may be so defined.

Otherwise it’s been a relatively peaceful week with only the arrest of our Prof. Gilbert Osram in Shanghai to enliven things. Apparently he had been attending a seminar on the Chinese poet Hs’ien Li Wu, a writer of the Pong Dynasty, whose work he described in his lecture as ‘obscure.’ Anyway, that is what he meant to say, but a tiny error in his pronunciation of the correct Mandarin word móhu (模糊) led to it coming out as ‘reeking of the dung of a he-goat.’ This led to a major riot, the police were called and Osram found himself in a People’s Court charged with an impressive range of public order offences.

Unfortunately, he chose to defend himself in Mandarin when, stap me, did he not describe the Judge’s opening statement as ‘obscure’ using the same mispronunciation that had landed him there in the first place. The Judge blew his cylinderhead gasket and Osram found himself in a Chinese pokey for six weeks without the option. That’s the trouble with such a group of noisy, outspoken combative academics as we have here; the very qualities that win them glittering prizes tend to give great offence to apparachniki in less enlightened realms.

Now, to cap it all, I hear that Orlando de Figueres, my Head of Hispanic Studies, has been caught starkers in a Manila flophouse with four local lovelies and a hookah containing an ‘unknown substance.’ Bet I know what it is… But that is it; I give up.

Right; on a completely different tack, I have now completed a labour of love - and of 18 months. This is an abridgement, or redaction, or condensation of Sir Walter Scot's classic Ivanhoe, although the classic Greek term of ἐπιτομή, our epitome, is perhaps nearer the mark. As its Greek etymology suggests, an epitome cuts away any extraneous matter, leaving the kernel or marrow of the work intact and open to inspection. The great novelist, the ‘Wizard of the North’ is remembered with affection, admired as the inventor of the historical novel - but little read. His collected works filled the bookshelves of our grandparents, the attics of our parents and the landfill sites of today – and that is a pity.

The general opinion has grown up that Scott, as novelist, is ‘difficult.’ This impression probably arises from his writing at a time when the printed word was the central means of communication, when attention spans were longer, distractions fewer and the historical novel a brilliant innovation.

Scott is still studied in College and University courses both in the UK and in continental Europe where his contribution to romance literature is secure. However, the non-academic reader now finds him prolix in dialogue, rambling in description, meandering in plot and, well, just too long.

What I have done is to preserve the driving storyline of Ivanhoe as well as the sights, sounds and smells with which he evokes the Middle Ages. Social conflicts, always central to the plot in Scott, abound in Ivanhoe where we have the collisions of: Norman and Saxon; Monarch and Pretender; Cleric and Layman; Freeman and Outlaw; Jew and Gentile. Scott’s dramatis personae, such as Wamba the Jester and Robin the Hood, are supplied with a delightful dry and ironic sense of humour as noble Saxons and despicable Normans fight it out with sharp words and sharper weapons.

We also have Scott’s finest female portrayal in the Jewish intellectual Rebecca of York, who rises to stratospheric heights of moral rectitude while her would-be seducer, the Templar Sir Brian de Bois Guilbert sinks to fathomless depths of dastardliness. Neither heroine, Jewish Rebecca or Saxon Rowena, succumb to the blandishments of their respective Norman pursuers, principally because both (pursuers that is) are encased cap a pié in plate mail. Ladies, then as now, prefer their suitors to be suitable - and preferably suited by Brooks Bros. rather than the blacksmith. Robin Hood and Friar Tuck show up, as does Richard Coeur de Lion, sprung from durance vile in Austria just in time to give the deep six to reptilian Prince John and his satraps. It’s a terrific yarn.

The resultant text runs to some 96,000 words, about the average for a modern novel, whereas the original had around 194,000. ‘Spring must be coming,’ opined a local newspaper when the story emerged in April, ‘even the knights are getting shorter!’
I am braced for criticism of the very concept of such an abridgement. Whatever the motive, no-one adjusts the text, or the musical score, or the brushwork of a master and escapes with impunity, scaithless as Scott himself would say. However, if the present work, published by Luath, leads modern readers back to the original masterpiece and indeed back to our greatest novelist himself, it will have served its purpose.

And it's still a thundering good read. It ends with the famous scene where Lady Rowena (now Mrs Ivanhoe) is closeted with her maidservant Elgitha on the morning after the wedding.

However, there is sadly no truth whatsoever in the rumour that Elgitha says, “Well, mistress, how did it go?” whereupon Rowena says, in Anglo-Saxon of course, “Ah, dearest Ivanhoe; a knight to remember..The only thing is, when he turns over in bed, Oooh - all that cold armour…”

[St. Andrews, an affiliate of the University of Edinburgh, is a research institution, specialising in the Humanities and the Physical sciences. Known to irreverent scholars as McAll Souls from its similarity to its Oxford cousin, it has no undergraduates; only Postgrads and Research Fellows who complement the permanent Academic Staff. The Dean is assisted, and betimes thwarted, by the Bursar, the Prebendary and the Bedellus who sit on the 'Estaitis', an ancient Scots word for Council, dating from the Foundation by Queen Mary in 1562.] 

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