Wordy Sir Walter Scott cut down to size
The original version of Ivanhoe, the classic story by Sir Walter Scott about a valiant knight, has been rewritten and cut to appeal to a new generation of readers.
The man risking the wrath of Scott purists is David Purdie, an author and chairman of the 119-year-old Sir Walter Scott Club, which has more than 200 members.
Professor Purdie, a retired academic, has spent 18 months cutting the novel to a third of its size, from 179,000 to 80,000 words – just a bit shorter than the average modern novel. Scott’s antiquarian medieval language has been largely retained, he said, but he has taken out countless commas and semi-colons that stretch the length of many sentences.
“Very few people read Scott these days because he’s long and wordy and difficult for the modern ear and modern attention span,” Purdie said. “I had this idea that I would have a go at redacting, abridging and adapting.”
A constant theme of meetings of the club, he added, was what could be done to “reactivate” the author, and, if the new Ivanhoe was successfully published, he might take on other titles.
“Scott dominates Princes Street in a monument but not its book shops,” he said. “I would just like to see Scott back in the shops in a format that might entrance the younger reader.”
Purdie said he had “repunctuated” the original text, with its old fashioned language, into shorter, modern sentences, taking out countless commas and semi-colons that stretch the length of many sentences.
“In the early 19th century, a comma was placed after every phrase, which makes it tedious reading,” he said.
There had been, he acknowledged, a “very mixed response” from the Scott club, founded in 1893.
“Some of the older members say you are toying with the original text. The younger members say good, if it’s much more readable than the original I’m for it.”
Paul Scott, author and former president of the Saltire Society, said Scott “does tend to be long winded. If somebody produces an edition limited to the interesting bits, then – although a Scott enthusiast should not admit this – there’s something to be said for that”.
The club’s secretary, Professor Peter Garside, a specialist on Scottish literature, said: “A Scott purist would say that Scott wrote it in a certain way, and that’s how he intended it to be. Something which is a reduction of Scott, and introduces new elements, is producing something which is not Scott himself, but could have a beneficial effect in inspiring new interest and possibly leading people back to the original text. Every effort to make Scott more widely available to the general readership should be applauded.”
But Professor David Hewitt, a past president of the club and emeritus Professor of Literature at the University of Aberdeen, said he disagreed that Scott’s original novels were not selling well in modern Scotland. “The idea that Scott is neglected, no, it’s not neglected at all,” said “Ivanhoe is being well read”.
Hewitt was the general editor of the popular Edinburgh edition of the Waverley novels. While they sell for £40 a copy, cheaper Penguin editions of Scott have sold about 100,000 copies in the last ten years, he said, with estimated sales world wide of perhaps 200,000 copies.
But he added he would be interested to see the result of Purdie’s version. “Provided you don’t call it Sir Walter Scott, but Scott via Purdie,” he said. “Or, after the novel by Sir Walter Scott.”
Scott was an international phenomenon in the 19th century, considered the inventor of the historical novel, and admired by Tolstoy and Goethe. His global fame, and his influence on Scottish literature and identity is marked in Edinburgh with the Scott monument and Waverley station.
However, his popularity plummeted in the early 20th century, as modern British writers made him almost a figure of literary ridicule. His readership pales beside contemporaries such as Jane Austen, for example, despite a recent revival in his academic reputation.
Despite its enormous length, long-winded introductions and descriptions, the original Ivanhoe has many admirers, including former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who chose it as an item that he would like with him if stranded on a desert island, and Ho Chi Minh, the Chinese leader, who liked its gallantry.
There have been several screen versions of Ivanhoe. In a 1954 film, Elizabeth Taylor played Rebecca, a beautiful Jewish girl who nurses the injured Ivanhoe back to health, and Roger Moore played the title role in a 1958 television series.
In the book, Scott reshaped the legend of Robin Hood, fixing Robin of Locksley in popular imagination ever since.
Ivanhoe in 80 words
Ivanhoe, a disinherited knight, returns from the Crusades to discover Prince John plotting to seize King Richard’s throne.
Disguised, he wins a joust and defeats Richard’s enemies, including Templar Brian de Bois Guilbert.
Wounded Ivanhoe is healed by a Jewish girl, Rebecca, but they are captured by Templars. Bois Guilbert becomes infatuated with Rebecca but after she is declared a witch, Ivanhoe fights him for her life, wins, marries the princess he loves and is reconciled with his father.
At length the barriers were opened, and five knights, chosen by lot, advanced slowly into the area; a single champion riding in front, and the other four following in pairs. All were splendidly armed, and my Saxon authority (in the Wardour Manuscript) records at great length their devices, their colours, and the embroidery of their horse trappings. It is unnecessary to be particular on these subjects. To borrow lines from a contemporary poet, who has written but too little:
“The knights are dust,
And their good swords are rust,
Their souls are with the saints, we trust.”
At length the barriers were opened and five knights, chosen by lot, advanced slowly into the area; a single Challenger riding in front and the other four, splendidly armed, following in pairs. To borrow lines from a contemporary poet, who has written but too little:
“The knights are dust,
Their good swords rust,
Their souls are with the Saints, we trust.”