I just finished reading Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe. It was terrific. I'll admit that over the last couple of years I've really become a sucker for this medieval stuff. The language is rich, and I don't even mind that sometimes I'll have to read the occasional paragraph three or four times over to get the meaning.
If you aren't familiar with Ivanhoe, it takes place around the Eleventh Century, during the time of the Crusades. Richard the Lionheart is off in Palestine fighting the Muslims and his sleazy brother John has taken over the country in his absence. The Saxons are miserable under the conquering Normans, who look down on the Saxons as ignorant savages (there are some amusing passages that describe how badly the Saxons build houses). The Normans have the best names, one of them (a gigantic oafish warrior) is called Sir Reginald Front-de-Boeuf (my French-speaking friend Andre told me it means "Meat Forehead").
One of my favourite parts of the book is where Prince John throws a big tournament, with tilting (or jousting, as we call it these days) and the melee, and all that good stuff, and when Norman Prince John and his five knights (including Front-de-Boeuf) knock all Saxon challengers on their arses, a mysterious knight rides in and turns the tables on the snooty Normans.
Most surprising to me however, was the treatment of the Jew, Isaac of York, and his daughter Rebecca, and the venomous way the 'Christian' characters spoke of the Jews as a people, who they seemed to hate even more than the 'infidel Muslims'. I was aware that before the Holocaust (which nobody could be accused of being ignorant of these days, I'm sure), the Jews had been persecuted all over the place, but the way it was written in this book made vivid the ugliness and inhumanity of it all. Even the 'good' characters had this prejudice, for example when Ivanhoe was cured of his grievous wound by the Jewess Rebecca. Ivanhoe was enchanted by her, yet when she told him she was a Jew, he was repulsed, and treated her very differently. This (and especially a later scene where Rebecca is about to be burnt at the stake for being a witch) reminds me of the Simpsons episode where a homosexual character, John (voiced by John Waters), saved Homer from being killed by reindeer. Throughout the episode, Homer refused to have anything to do with John, on account of his being a homo, but when his life was saved by the homo, Homer told him he was OK after all, to which John replies, "Well, Homer, I won your respect, and all I had to do was save your life."