Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe begins its run today as the new BBC1 Classic Serial. Only last month on Radio 4 the same novel was chosen by Tony Blair as the perfect book to while away his desert-island exile. Coincidence, skilful spin-doctoring or the new Zeitgeist making its presence felt? Whichever may be the case, it struck some listeners as an unlikely choice. "Unfashionable" was Blair's own word for it. But then much the same could be said of the severely ethical brand of politics that seems likely to lead him to Downing Street.
The BBC adaptation by Deborah Cook includes modifications that bring the tale more into line with modern taste. The heroine Rowena, for instance, is far less tolerant of patriarchal autocracy than the character in the novel, and Cook seems a shade unhappy with a hero who is something less than an action man throughout. But it is, in essence, a romantic swashbuckler with the emphasis on spectacle and innocuous violence. It is also, as Blair remarked, a great love-story, though an immensely idealistic one and not at all in our fin-de-siecle mode. But it seems strange that Blair had nothing to say about the book's political significance.
A dyed-in-the-wool Tory and a Unionist, Scott was nonetheless passionately engaged by the Romantic urge for national self-expression. He was a Scotsman, after all, and cared about his people and their culture. National identity, he realised, is the product of history, just as personal identity is the product of memory. And so he invented the historical novel, a form which describes the past in order to explain the present, and which entails broad sympathies in the author - understanding for the enemy, for example, and as much care for the invisible poor as for those with status and authority.
Most of Scott's novels have Scottish themes and deal with the recent past. In Ivanhoe - published in 1819, quite late in his career - he turns his attention to England and the Middle Ages. The book has been criticised for inaccuracy and irrelevance, but that is to miss its point. As laird of Abbotsford, his pseudo-medieval mansion in the border county, Scott belongs to the early Gothic Revival. Like the many-pinnacled buildings of that movement, Ivanhoe owes as much to fantasy as the real history. It is no more an attempt at historical realism than The Lord of the Rings or Star Wars.
This doesn't mean that it has nothing to say about reality. On the contrary: fantasy worlds play an important part in the generation of new social orders. Moreover, in his England of Saxons oppressed by their Norman overlords, Scott clearly had a real society in mind. In some sense his Saxons stand for modern Scots and his Normans for the Hanoverian English.
But this book is first of all an adventure story. It established the modern legend of Robin Hood, who appears in it as a character called Locksley. The setting is the England of Richard the Lionheart. The King has secretly returned from the Holy Land. His brother John has been conspiring against him and oppressing the Saxon poor. Our hero, Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe, is a Saxon knight whom the King has befriended in Palestine. Famed for chivalric prowess and gentleness, he has been disinherited by his father, Cedric, because of his love for Cedric's ward, Rowena. Cedric himself is an anachronistic figure, a struggler for Saxon independence, clearly modelled on a 19th- century Jacobite. A stiff-necked but honourable man, he has plans for Rowena as a future queen, which his son, a friend of Normans, seems keen to obstruct. In his first move to reclaim his rights, Ivanhoe appears incognito at a tournament - a splendid set-piece, this - and triumphs over all five of Prince John's champions. In the process, however, he is gravely wounded.
Other (in many ways more colourful) characters now complicate this picture. There is the beautiful Jewess, Rebecca, who falls hopelessly in love with Ivanhoe and, skilled in mysterious oriental medicine, succeeds in saving his life after the tournament. She in her turn inspires the love of Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert, Ivanhoe's enemy and, in a sense, his alter ego. Bois-Guilbert is a Norman, an associate of Prince John's and a celibate knight of the priestly order of Templars. "A victim to the violence of his own contending passions", as Scott says, this Byronic presence dominates the book. Intending to rape Rebecca, he falls in love with her when she threatens suicide as her only way of resisting. He abducts her from a flaming castle besieged by Robin Hood's outlaws. Finally, when Rebecca is charged with witchcraft for seducing him, he fights to defend his honour in trial by combat, tortured by the knowledge that, if he wins, the woman he loves will burn. It is hard to withhold sympathy from this cruel but tormented figure - brooding, sceptical, passionate and courageous.
Still more sympathetic, if less convincing, is the unfortunate Rebecca. A woman of "inferior race" (as even the gentle Ivanhoe observes), she is given to honour and charity and consistently behaves in a more "Christian" manner than most of the Christians. She has, we are told, an "apt and powerful mind" that notes how men of supposed honour are deceived by their own rhetoric. She is also endowed with scientific knowledge. This fuels the charge of witchcraft, allowing Scott, despite his medievalism, to pay his respects to the Enlightenment, of which he was a child.
Rebecca and Bois-Guilbert are both outsiders and the book, we soon realise, is full of sub-cultures and outcasts. Ivanhoe, who first appears in the guise of a wandering pilgrim, has been disinherited by a father who feels his nation's disinheritance. The Jews are also wanderers and exiles. But it is the outlaws, above all, who exemplify the condition: Locksley's rebellion entails defending the weak against the strong and the rights of the exiled King against his brother's depredations. For the King, too, is an exile from his kingdom, like Ivanhoe appearing in disguise and identifying with the outlaw band.
Richard, Locksley and to some extent Ivanhoe are figures taken from romance and legend. Indeed, by comparison with the Templar, Ivanhoe is a shadowy creation. He explodes into action in a mock battle, the tournament, but appears as an unknown stranger without name or history. He then subsides into convalescence for almost two-thirds of the novel, returning to action for the final combat, but so enfeebled by his wound as to be wholly ineffective, except - and this is the point - as a moral catalyst. Stuart Orme, who directs the BBC serial, has shirked the purity of this superficially unheroic climax. So did Richard Thorpe in the 1952 movie with Robert Taylor and George Sanders. Both go for the conventional satisfactions of a struggle to the death.
Yet this is precisely what Scott was avoiding. As A N Wilson observes in his introduction to the Penguin Ivanhoe: "All Scott's art grew out of tension between opposites." In recreating a medieval world, Scott sees the brutality of a culture in which the dominant virtues are military ones. But he is conscious at the same time that many of our most civilised ideals originate in the chivalric code: the association of honour with gentleness, the respect for women that grew out of courtly love, noblesse oblige - the duty of the strong to serve the weak. It is these values that Ivanhoe represents, and the effect of his incapacity is to emphasise their moral force at the expense of their physical origins. This is not to deny the physical origins. He is only capable of moral force if he shows physical courage.
Ivanhoe became Scott's most popular novel. Its influence was immense. The public school ideal clearly owes much to it; without it, Cardinal Newman attested, he would have been unable to conceive of a new Catholicism, the spiritual glue of an organic society. At the same time, Scott's sympathy for the Jews attracted the young Jewish Tory, Benjamin Disraeli, whose industrial novel, Sybil, is plainly modelled on Ivanhoe. It calls for an England that is truly one nation, and the conflict between Saxon and Norman finds its modern equivalent in that between worker and capitalist.
However, as Tony Blair might wish to note, it was not only conservatives who fell under the spell. Ivanhoe could also inspire Socialists. It fed the imagination of William Morris and, in its elaborate descriptions of 12th-century interiors, gave him ideas for modern decoration. It provided subjects for Turner and Delacroix (above); Rossini based an opera on the love theme. This is to say nothing of Scott's broader impact on 19th- century fiction across Europe; Hugo, Stendhal, Manzoni and Tolstoy all acknowledged a debt to him.
But who, apart from Blair, reads Scott today? Even the small minority that does would value the Scottish novels, books like Waverley and Old Mortality, above Ivanhoe. The leisurely storytelling can have little appeal for the TV generation with its demand for instant action. For Scott, no action was possible until it had been placed in a context of landscape, decor and historical circumstance. This pedestrian descriptiveness has its perverse appeal, evoking as it does a way of life less hectic than our own. Much more importantly, though, what Scott's descriptions suggest is that there is no value or motive that is not rooted in material culture, and that history, geography and character can never be disentangled.
That sense of how things intertwine is the key. Ivanhoe is a great plea for community. It suggests that different peoples with different histories can share the same nation if they learn to respect one another and resist oppression wherever it occurs. As Tony Blair must have noticed, that message is not irrelevant here and now. It helps, too, that it comes in a thrilling tale.
The TV tie-in edition of `Ivanhoe' is published by Penguin at pounds 3.99. There is also a pounds 2.99 Penguin Classic, ed A N Wilson, and a pounds 1 popular classic.