Ivanhoe–Or: High School Literature in Our House

Have you ever read Ivanhoe? It’s a tough read if you read the original version. Only after starting it, did I read that the author wanted the book to sound as though it were written in the Middle Ages but thought that putting it in the English of that day would make it unreadable to modern audiences, yet worried that in modern English it wouldn’t feel authentic; so he created a mismash of modern and older English and invented a number of words meant to sound older to tell his story. Altogether it makes the book harder to wade through than most classics.

But…. We finished it! This was a big accomplishment as it took us most of the school year. We did read a number of other books during that time, too, as Ivanhoe was too tough a read to swallow in large chunks without something else to work on as a break. We trudged along, though, and finally made it.

We read most of Ivanhoe together, discussing each chapter after reading it to be sure the kids understood it. I’m not usually one to look up discussion questions to use with our reading as I’m an avid reader, and it seems more logical to me to just discuss the book, to pay attention to my children’s faces and discuss parts that clearly puzzled them, to talk about the words the author chose to use, to try to get them to notice things like imagery and symbolism used by the author, to talk about possible themes running through the book, to get them to guess where the author might be leading, etc. If I read the book along with them and we talk about it thoroughly, I don’t see the need for questions from someone else or written exercises about such questions. But with this book, I’ll admit that I struggled in the beginning. I had to look up summaries of some of the early chapters to get a solid understanding of what the author was saying; but once we got through chapter eleven or so, I think we all grew accustomed to Sir Walter Scott’s verbiage.

At the beginning of this school year, I thought a lot about what I wanted my children to get out of literature this year. I started the year with an English textbook, but we’ve always used literature for learning literature and though the textbooks entice me, we went back to our tried and true methods and forged our own way. I thought about the college classes I took. We read books, mostly classics, and discussed them in class and then had to write a paper as the final exam. So, that’s been my goal for us in literature this year. I wasn’t sure how well it would go, but I have to say that I’m encouraged as my children presented their thesis statements to me before heading off to write their papers. Neither went with the themes we’ve discussed along the way, but each came up with another angle. One chose to argue that Athlestane suffers from an eating disorder, while the other wants to argue that Ivanhoe should not be considered the main character even though the book bears his name. I can see a professor finding those to be interesting arguments. And for ninth graders, I think they show promise.



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