The Story of Gurth


22 October, 2011

Milord, dost yon Swineherder bear both sword and chain?

                In the book Ivanhoe by “Sir Walter Scott” He introduces three minor characters in the first chapter of the book. They are “Gurth the Swineherder”, “Fangs “his dog, and “Wamba the Fool.”Out of all the characters in the book both major and minor the actions of Gurth are perhaps the most defining of the true ideals of chivalry. The book itself is set against the backdrop of medieval England and tells a story of Chivalric perfection and the short-comings and desires of the men who aspire to reach that perfection.  It’s set during the time of King Richard I (the Lionhearted) in a time of conflict between the former ruling Saxon nobility and their “new” Norman overlords and their allies and tells the story of Wilfred of Ivanhoe a young Saxon noble who is estranged from his father Sir Cedric of Rotherwood because he felt he was chivalry bound and so left to fight in the crusade with King Richard who is a Norman.  As the story unfolds Ivanhoe returns to England and attempts to set things right with his father, and marry the woman Rowena who is a ward of Sir Cedric and is promised to Sir Athelstane another Saxon noble and last descendant of the last true Saxon King.

Scott’s introduction of Gurth paints a picture of an uneducated, foulmouthed, thrall to Sir Cedric who has not time, inclination nor desire to be in the company of either Knights or landed gentry, instead he tends his herd with as little outside contact as possible, he physically describes him as “His garment was of the simplest form imaginable, being a close jacket with sleeves composed of the tanned skins of some animal on which the hair had been originally left, but has since worn off.” Save only for his friend Wamba who is also a thrall of Sir Cedric and the company of his old semi-lame half-wolf dog Fangs. Gurth is loyal to Sir Cedric and when he is not herding can be found tending to other matters in Cedric’s manor. It is here that Gurth shows yet another chivalric trait which is courage. After being instructed by Sir Cedric not to allow “Isaac of York” and his daughter “Rebecca” to leave the manor, he risks severe punishment and lets them go showing a measure of pity on Isaac and Rebecca. He does because the person guiding the pair is Ivanhoe disguised as a Palmer and Gurth’s sense of duty to his once and future master.  Not only does Gurth show courage here, he also shows loyalty to Ivanhoe, another act that would have gotten him severely punished.

As the story progresses, Gurth makes several more choices that bespeak of his chivalrous nature. At an even greater risk and sacrifice to his person that his loyalty and sense of duty require him leave his service to Sir Cedric, an act that if he were caught carries the direst of consequences.  Courageously venturing forth alone and basically unarmed into dangerous areas full of outlaws to track down Ivanhoe and serve him in whatever capacity Ivanhoe would let him.  When he finally does find Ivanhoe, his former and now current master is so moved by Gurth’s loyalty at he appoints him to be his squire, to assist him during a tournament that Ivanhoe hopes that in winning will allow him an opportunity to end his estrangement from his father. After the first day of the tourney Ivanhoe sends Gurth is see Isaac with a payment for the horse and armor lent to him by Isaac. Gurth complies with the request. Unbeknownst to him at the time, after he paid Isaac, Gurth is forced to display great courage when he is confronted by “Robin Hood” and some of his merry men. Gurth has to prove to Robin that he and his master are honorable and worthy of not having all the money won taken from him by Robin. He does this by faithfully standing his ground to them and winning a quarter-staff fight against one of Robin’s men. Gurth continues to faithfully serve Ivanhoe through-out the tournament.

It is however, after the tournament that Gurth really begins to develop his chivalrous side.  After the tournament Ivanhoe is unmasked and seriously injured, he is under the care of Isaac’s daughter Rebecca who is a healer of great repute. Gurth so loyal to his wounded master and unsure of his whereabouts begins searching for him giving little concern to the fact that he himself is not in his disguise and is subsequently captured by the cupbearer of Sir Cedric and returned to him. Gurth penitent of his actions allows Cedric’s men to bind him without a struggle.  He is even co-operative with them while awaiting his fate. That is until Cedric makes a perceived personal insult to Gurth by attempting to kill Gurth’s dog “Fang” that he decides he can no longer continue in any form of service to Cedric.  Even though Cedric could have him put to death for leaving or refusing to resume his service as the law of the day required. Gurth manages to escape from Cedric’s group just before it is attacked by a group of outlaws, Gurth sees this and decides to see if he can free Cedric. When Wamba asks Gurth why he would return to assist Cedric after renouncing his service to him Gurth replies “that was but while he was fortunate-,” so he elicits the aid of Robin Hood and his men to help the now weak and defenseless Cedric.

With the help of Robin Hood and others Gurth manages to free Cedric and some of his companions. However, Ivanhoe, Rebecca, Isaac and Rowena are still trapped by the Templar Knight DeBracey. Gurth again risks his life to aid his master and former master in their rescue. When Gurth, Cedric and their companions finally breach the castle walls, Cedric places Rowena in Gurth’s care to get her out of harm’s way. A task that Gurth swiftly and steadfastly completes with the assistance of his loyal friend Wamba. For this heroism Cedric grants Gurth his freedom, a small tract of land and raises him officially to the status of Ivanhoe’s squire.

It is after this event that Gurth returns to a more secondary character in the book, until the very end where he appears at the wedding of Ivanhoe and Rowena, Scott describes him as “Gurth, gallantly appareled, attended as esquire upon his young master whom he served so faithfully,” the contrasts between the two, both in the physical and mental ways Gurth develops from swine herder to squire is the most the poignantly different of all the characters.

The Chivalric ideal is thought of as a person who is loyal, respectful, and honorable in both action and deed, with a willingness to help those in need even at a great personal risk to one’s self. A person who by their actions shows themselves to be in control of their emotions and not ruled by their passions.  Although, all these traits are hard to maintain at all times it is how a person deals with them that can determine whether they are thought of as chivalrous.  Gruth demonstrates this throughout the book and in the end is duly rewarded for his efforts.

About MartyW47

Attending Triton College. Studying Emergency Services Management & Criminal Justice. Currently employed @ MPPD & Aflac. After 30 years out of school I'm back in College and having a Blast!
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