Ivanhoe is first and foremost an adventure novel. Its popularity and longevity have secured it a place as one of the great historical romances of all time. The main goal of the novel is to entertain and excite its readers with a tale of heroism set in the high Middle Ages, and any symbolic or thematic purpose Walter Scott might have is decidedly secondary to that goal. Still, Scott was too intelligent an author to have written a mindless book. In addition to evoking the atmosphere of a vanished era, Ivanhoe's adventure story makes some critical points about an important time in English history, the moment when King Richard the Lion-Hearted returned to England after four years spent fighting in the Crusades and languishing in Austrian and German prisons. The novel's main historical emphasis focuses on the tension between the Saxons and the Normans, the two peoples who inhabited England. As a matter of course, the novel proposes Ivanhoe, the hero, as a possible resolution to those tensions--not because of anything Ivanhoe does, for he is weirdly inactive for an action hero (he spends more than half the novel on the sidelines with an injury), but for what he is, a Saxon knight who is passionately loyal to King Richard, a Norman king.

Structurally, Ivanhoe is divided into three parts, each of them centering around a particular adventure or quest. The first part involves Ivanhoe's return to England in disguise (disguise is a major motif throughout the novel: Ivanhoe, Richard, Cedric, Locksley, and Wamba each mask their identities at some point) and centers around the great jousting tournament held at Ashby-de-la-Zouche. The second part involves Sir Maurice de Bracy's kidnapping of Cedric's Saxon party out of lust for Rowena and centers around the efforts of King Richard (in disguise, of course) and Robin Hood's (Lockley's) merry men to free the prisoners. The third part involves Rebecca's captivity at the hands of the Templars and Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert, and centers around the trial-by-combat which is arranged to determine whether she will live or die.

For a writer whose early novels were prized for their historical accuracy, Scott was remarkably loose with the facts when he wrote Ivanhoe. Historical errors plague the book, and in many cases (as in the depiction of Isaac, presented as the stereotypical literary Jew) the depictions reveal more about mores and attitudes when Scott wrote the book, in 1819, than when the story is supposed to have happened, in around 1194. This has led many contemporary critics, especially fans of Scott's popular Waverly novels, to criticize the book. But it is crucial to remember that Ivanhoe, unlike the Waverly books, is entirely a romance. It is meant to please, not to instruct, and is more an act of imagination than one of research. Despite this fancifulness, however, Ivanhoe does make some prescient historical points. The novel is occasionally quite critical of King Richard, who seems to love adventure more than he loves the well-being of his subjects. This criticism did not match the typical idealized, romantic view of Richard the Lion-Hearted that was popular when Scott wrote the book, and yet it accurately echoes the way King Richard is often judged by historians today.