The Life of Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert
JULY / AUG 2015: BY CARISSA HORTON
The world of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe is one of heroic knights, fair damsels, noble deeds and foul villainy. A world where two cultures, that of the Christian and that of the Jew, clash violently. It is also the tale of two men. Yes, certainly it is the tale of Ivanhoe, the courageous hero who is charming and youthful, full of vigor and passion. But ‘tis also the tale of Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert, the ferocious Knight Templar, whose heart is captured by Rebecca, the Jewish maiden, whom he cannot have by any approved means and so determines to steal instead.
It takes a ruthless man to abduct an innocent maiden and plead with her to become his mistress. But this is what de Bois-Guilbert does to the brave Rebecca. His heart, or rather his lust, is aflame for this exotic flower, and he does nearly all, short of rape, to claim her as his own. Yet, at the last moment, when Rebecca’s very life is at stake, he willingly sacrifices himself to save her. When Rebecca is “rescued” from de Bois-Guilbert’s clutches, it is only to be placed under another type of imprisonment, that of the church who insists she has bewitched their knight and must be put to death. She claims Ivanhoe as her champion and the church claims de Bois-Guilbert. When he could have easily defeated the wearied Ivanhoe, instead de Bois-Guilbert topples from his horse at the barest scratch in their joust and will not draw his sword when Ivanhoe approaches, thus conceding the contest to Ivanhoe, and ultimately, to Rebecca, winning her liberty.
Life is full of moments where we stand at a crossroads with temptation. First one step down the wrong path and then another and then suddenly the crossroads are gone and there are more steps than we can even count than it would take to get us back there to embark upon the other path. Such is Brian de Bois-Guilbert’s life story. He took many, many steps down the wrong road, and his encounter with Rebecca was simply one step in a long chain of them. His lust, for it cannot be named otherwise, blazed bright and he took her prisoner without respect for her will and desires.
It is easy to live a life guided by desire yet devoid of conscience. Sin grows. A temptation starts out small and seemingly insignificant. Then it hatches a new, slightly racier temptation. The new temptation is followed by yet another, even bigger than the last two. That is the downfall of man. Temptation dulls the conscience. The little Voice no longer whispers we shouldn’t be doing this, not because it is gone but because it has been ignored for so long that we can no longer hear it.
The question of the hour is whether or not Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert ever returned to the correct path. That is a debatable question. After all, he wove the web through his abduction and then seductions that eventually caused the Templar to ensnare Rebecca. And he does little to help her at first, other than think about rebelling from the command to stand as champion against her. He accepts his fate to kill her champion with surprising complacency, saying “It must be—nothing may now save thy life. Thou and I are but the blind instruments of some irresistible fatality, that hurries us along, like goodly vessels driving before the storm, which are dashed against each other, and so perish.” His behavior implies he has no say in his fate because it is driven by elements outside his control, so he and Rebecca must accept their destiny. It is his duty to kill her champion and it is her duty to die when he does so.
So he says, up until the very final moment, when he finds he cannot do it and he allows Ivanhoe to win, preserving Rebecca’s life. It is the most sacrificial choice that Brian de Bois-Guilbert ever makes in the story, and it redeems him, at least in my eyes. Yes, he is terrible and frightening. Yet, he is also a tragic character, so near in design to Carver Doone from the epic classic romance Lorna Doone. But where Carver chose to kill what he could not have, de Bois-Guilbert chose to save and release what he could not have. Two men of a similar bent, similar desires, but a different outcome, which is what ultimately makes Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert an empathetic anti-hero of the first class order. Readers may feel guilty in liking him, pitying him, or perhaps in despising him when he is, in fact, not all evil. He is simply a valid representation of a man who trained himself to take what he wanted until he finally discovered, too late, that some things cannot be stolen and those things are the most worth earning.
Carissa Horton spends her working hours at Compassion International whose tagline reads “Releasing Children from poverty in Jesus’ name.” She is an avid crafter, a prolific blogger on Musings of an Introvert about all things literary and film-based, and dreams of someday getting her stories published.