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The major theme is centered on the chaos that politics can cause. There is a smoldering hatred between the Saxons and the Normans caused by Norman arrogance, superior feelings, cruelty, and injustice. The King's absence and indifference to his country encourages social chaos and a volatile climate where anything can happen. Civil unrest has spread. The forests are infested with robbers and outlaws. The common people are discontented and oppressed; the stability of the nation is questionable.
Dispossession is another recurring thematic concern with many of the main characters being displaced. Richard has been supplanted by his brother. Ivanhoe has been disinherited. Robin of Locksley has lost his lands. Isaac and Rebecca, being Jews, have lost their own country, land, and hope.
The importance of honor is another theme in the novel. Honor is supposedly the guiding principle of knighthood, but Sir Walter Scott shows how the knights often act dishonorably; in fact, some of the thieves in the book act with more honor. Those whose lands have been seized unjustly now roam the forests stealing from the rich to give to the poor. Even with their "criminal" acts, many of these outlaws are more noble than the greatest of the honored knights.
The injustice of anti-Semitism is another theme of the novel. Unfair practice toward the Jews is seen in the treatment of Rebecca and her father. In spite of the discrimination that she feels, Rebecca shows herself to be a stellar example of human goodness, and even her greedy father Isaac has more regard for his family than do Prince John and Cedric. Isaac would give up everything to keep his daughter near him.
The predominant mood of the novel is exciting. Scott very skillfully creates the explosive temper of the Middle Ages by using history, chivalry, and antiquity in the novel. His mastery of description creates colorful excitement in each tournament scene, and brings battle scenes to the front of the readers' imagination. His most significant achievement, however, is the creation of a believable narrative atmosphere in which the tension between the Normans and the Saxons is very real. Amidst the conflict, there are sweepingly heroic moments and frighteningly violent ones. The novel, like life in the Middle Ages, is unpredictable, dangerous, satisfying, and in the end, wonderfully romantic, for the tension is resolved and the characters are safe.
Pageantry and spectacle add to the exciting mood of the novel. The best examples of this are to be found in the splendid description of the siege of Torquilstone Castle and the pageantry of the Ashby tournament. The enormous cast of characters he employs adds to the spectacle. The antiquarian details, including descriptions of dress, armor, and weapons, help to create a rich, multicolored tapestry. The enormous weight of custom and tradition are also palpable forces in this exciting novel of heritage and history.