Lesson #186: Advanced Reading Comprehension from Scott’s ‘Ivanhoe’

Today’s Lesson draws on one of Sir Walter Scott’s most beloved works, the medieval romance Ivanhoe (1819). Sir Walter Scott was a Scottish novelist who both lived concurrently (at the same time) with Jane Austen, and also admired her writing (especially Pride and Prejudice, which we enjoyed yesterday).

In his own right, Scott was one of the most widely published and read authors of his day. Many of his writings had a connection with Scotland and were historically-based in one way or another.

Our Lesson today is suitable for more advanced learners of English.

You will find 3 paragraphs from the novel. I have provided a comprehensive list of vocabulary to accompany these opening pages of Ivanhoe, so that should help!

Of course any student is welcome to try it out, but you have been warned – it could be difficult!


📗 In that pleasant district of merry England which is watered by the river Don, there extended in ancient times a large forest, covering the greater part of the beautiful hills and valleys which lie between Sheffield and the pleasant town of Doncaster. The remains of this extensive wood are still to be seen at the noble seats of Wentworth, of Warncliffe Park, and around Rotherham. Here haunted of yore the fabulous Dragon of Wantley; here were fought many of the most desperate battles during the Civil Wars of the Roses; and here also flourished in ancient times those bands of gallant outlaws, whose deeds have been rendered so popular in English song.

– Sir Walter Scott, Ivanhoe: A Romance (1819)

‘which is watered by the river Don’: the river Don provides water and refreshment to [this district of England]

‘there extended in ancient times a large forest’: there was a large extent of forest in ancient times

Remains: whatever parts are left behind

Extensive: vast, very large and spacious, covering a large area

Haunted: < haunt: (of a ghost or spirit) to appear to the living or to follow around, sometimes in a scary way

Yore: (literary) of a long time ago

Fabulous: great or stupendous

Dragon: a mythical monster, usually with wings, claws, a long tail and able to breathe out fire.

Desperate: having a great energy or desire to act rashly, usually when running out of hope

‘the Civil Wars of the Roses’: Here Sir Walter Scott is referring to a period between 1455-1487 when two dynastic families in England fought for the English throne.

Flourished: blossomed, prospered, grew in a wonderful way

Bands: groups

Gallant: brave, courageous in war

Outlaws: people who were ‘outlawed’ or had broken the law and were cast away from society.

Deeds: acts, actions

Rendered: became, considered to be, deemed to be, seen as being [something]


📗 Such being our chief scene, the date of our story refers to a period towards the end of the reign of Richard I., when his return from his long captivity had become an event rather wished than hoped for by his despairing subjects, who were in the meantime subjected to every species of subordinate oppression. The nobles, whose power had become exorbitant during the reign of Stephen, and whom the prudence of Henry the Second had scarce reduced to some degree of subjection to the crown, had now resumed their ancient license in its utmost extent; despising the feeble interference of the English Council of State, fortifying their castles, increasing the number of their dependants, reducing all around them to a state of vassalage, and striving by every means in their power, to place themselves each at the head of such forces as might enable him to make a figure in the national convulsions which appeared to be impending. …

‘Such being our chief scene’: Since all that has been described is our most important scene …

Captivity: the state of being captive or imprisoned

‘… had become an event rather wished than hoped for by his despairing subjects …’ His subjects were in despair and had wished, but not even hoped for, his return from long captivity.

Subjected: forced to obey, harshly and unwillingly under the authority of someone to accomplish their will

Subordinate: under someone’s authority

Oppression: long-term unjust treatment of someone, or the cruel exercise of authority over someone

Exorbitant: unfairly expensive or demanding

Prudence: the quality of being cautious and thoughtful of possible consequences

Resumed: began again, renewed

License: formal permission from a government to allow a person to do something

Utmost: the most, the greatest degree of something

Extent: the area covered by something

Feeble: weak, unable to govern

Interference: intervention, when someone or something stops the continuation of something in a negative or unwelcome manner

Fortifying: making stronger

Dependant: someone who is dependent on another; not independent; needy person

a state of vassalage: a state of being submitted to and loyal to a political power

striving: making a great, strenous effort to gain something

at the head of such forces: at the head or front of these armies

make a figure in: distinguish [oneself/herself/himself] by noble actions, etc.

convulsion: disturbances, revolutions, agitated movement that turns something about violently

impending: approaching in a dreaded or fearful way, looming


📗 A circumstance which greatly tended to enhance the tyranny of the nobility, and the sufferings of the inferior classes, arose from the consequences of the Conquest by Duke William of Normandy. Four generations had not sufficed to blend the hostile blood of the Normans and Anglo-Saxons, or to unite, by common language and mutual interests, two hostile races, one of which still felt the elation of triumph, while the other groaned under all the consequences of defeat. The power had been completely placed in the hands of the Norman nobility, by the event of the battle of Hastings, and it had been used, as our histories assure us, with no moderate hand. The whole race of Saxon princes and nobles had been extirpated or disinherited, with few or no exceptions; nor were the numbers great who possessed land in the country of their fathers, even as proprietors of the second, or of yet inferior classes. The royal policy had long been to weaken, by every means, legal or illegal, the strength of a part of the population which was justly considered as nourishing the most inveterate antipathy to their victor. All the monarchs of the Norman race had shown the most marked predilection for their Norman subjects; the laws of the chase, and many others equally unknown to the milder and more free spirit of the Saxon constitution, had been fixed upon the necks of the subjugated inhabitants, to add weight, as it were, to the feudal chains with which they were loaded. At court, and in the castles of the great nobles, where the pomp and state of a court was emulated, Norman-French was the only language employed; in courts of law, the pleadings and judgments were delivered in the same tongue. In short, French was the language of honour, of chivalry, and even of justice, while the far more manly and expressive Anglo-Saxon was abandoned to the use of rustics and hinds, who knew no other. Still, however, the necessary intercourse between the lords of the soil, and those oppressed inferior beings by whom that soil was cultivated, occasioned the gradual formation of a dialect, compounded betwixt the French and the Anglo-Saxon, in which they could render themselves mutually intelligible to each other; and from this necessity arose by degrees the structure of our present English language, in which the speech of the victors and the vanquished have been so happily blended together; and which has since been so richly improved by importations from the classical languages, and from those spoken by the southern nations of Europe.

Enhance: improve

Tyranny: cruel ruling or governance

‘arose from’ : < arise: came from, was a result of

Conquest: this Conquest (with a capital ‘C’) is referring to William the Conqueror’s Norman Conquest of England in 1066.

Duke: a man who holds the highest hereditary title in British and other peerages.

Sufficed: < suffice: to be enough or adequate

Blend: mix together so that two or more substances become one

‘to blend the hostile blood of the Normans and Anglo-Saxons’: to allow for reconciliation and intermarriage between Normans and Anglo-Saxons (formerly enemies of one another) to take place

Mutual: shared, common

Hostile: relating to an enemy, fiercely opposed, hating and dangerous to another

Elation: great delight and exhiliration (especially of the kind that elevates or raises a person’s mood or purpose)

Groaned: < groan: to make a low and lingering sound, as if in pain or disappointment

Defeat: loss of victory (e.g., in a battle)

‘with no moderate hand’: without moderation or gentleness; roughly

Extirpated: < extirpate: destroy something completely, eradicate

Disinherited: < disinherit: remove (or cause to be removed) a person or people’s inheritance from them against their will

‘nor were the numbers great who possessed land in the country of their fathers’: nor were there many people who possessed land in the same country as their parents and forefathers had lived in

Proprietor: owner; holder of a property

‘The royal policy had long been to weaken, by every means, legal or illegal, the strength of a part of the population …’ : It was the royal policy’s aim to weaken by whatever means (even if illegal) the strength of part of the population

‘justly considered as’ : rightly understood as

Nourishing: restoring health through food, feeding to make stronger

Inveterate: having a particular habit, activity, or interest that is fixed and unlikely to change

Antipathy: hatred, opposition to

Victor: winner

Monarchs: kings and queens

Predilection: preference

‘the laws of the chase’: the laws on who was allowed to hunt and how far (hunting was a privilege in the Norman culture)

‘the milder and more free spirit of the Saxon constitution’ : In contrast with the Normans, the Saxons as a people tended to be more mild and free-spirited

‘the necks of the subjugated inhabitants’ : The ‘necks’ is a word that not only describes a physical part of the human body connecting the head to the torso, but is also used (as it is here) to emphasise submission. In this passage Sir Walter Scott is describing how the hunting laws added a new burden to the subjugated Saxons.

‘to add weight, as it were, to the feudal chains with which they were loaded’ : to add a heavy burden on top of the other ties of submission with which they were already burdened

‘pomp and state’: This is a fixed phrase, meaning pretentious or vain show (‘pomp’) that sometimes accompanies government (‘state’)

Emulated: < emulate: copy, try to imitate

Employed: < employ: either 1) to hire or 2) to use. In this context, it has the second meaning

Chivalry: medievaly knightly system with religious, moral, and social values (especially bravery, defence of the vulnerable, gentlemanliness, romance, strong sense of duty, etc.)

Rustic: (n.) a person who comes from the country; an unsophisticated or simple person from the country.

Hind: (n.): (archaic Scottish) a skilled farm worker, often someone who was married and with a tied cottage. Sometimes a peasant or rustic person.

Intercourse: interaction

‘occasioned the gradual formation of a dialect’ : created a dialect over time

Compounded: < compound: making a whole, constituting a whole

Betwixt: (archaic): between

Intelligible: able to be comprehended and understood

‘and from this necessity arose by degrees the structure of our present English language’ : and from this necessity we gradually received the structure of our present English language

‘the vanquished’: those who were vanquished or conquered

Importation: the act or results of bringing goods (physical goods, or cultural ideas, etc.) into one country from another

‘the classical languages’: Latin and ancient Greek

🧐 How did you find that?

If anything, try and read over the vocabulary list, and just pick a few words that are new and useful to you in your sphere. Memorise them and try to use them somehow over the next week.

Their addition to your vocabulary could be one of the best things you learned from our Lesson today!

by J. E. Gibbons

English language tutor and researcher at 'Learn English Through Literature' (2024)