“One of the things you insist on leaving out of your calculations is that our absurd and uncomfortable life under Sherwood’s wide branches suits some of us,” said Will. “Say, Little John, if someone gave you a herd of cattle, would you go back to farming?”
“No,” said Little John immediately. “They’d get the pox, and I’d not have rent on quarter day, and soon I’d be an outlaw.”
“Nothing would drive me back to my father’s hall,” said Will; “not even a full pardon. Indeed, particularly not a full pardon, because then I’d be treated as the lord’s son again, and if you knew how boring it is, dressing up in frills and a clean shirt every day and praying that a guest will arrive some time soon with a few new jokes... You can even get bored with hunting and hawking occasionally, without the savour of need. I know why the Lionheart went off to Palestine; he couldn’t stand it either. All those state dinners. I’d have followed him if I hadn’t heard about Sherwood. I wanted to stay in England.”
Author: Robin McKinley
Synopsis: After a misfired arrow makes him an outlaw, Robin flees deep into Sherwood, which he knows well from having worked as one of the king’s foresters. He expects to be sought by the corrupt sheriff of Nottingham, but two of his friends find him first: Much and Marian, the former of whom has ideas for making him a Saxon rebel-hero against the domineering Normans, and the latter of whom he loves. Though Robin wants nothing to do with leadership, he soon finds himself responsible for a band of renegades in the forest—hiding them, teaching them how to hunt and survive, and superintending their work against the sheriff and all Norman cruelty.
Notes: In a brief note in the back, McKinley speaks straightforwardly about her interpretation of the Robin Hood legend, including the difficulties of drawing from widely varying versions and the incompatibility of the modern image with historical likelihood. I wish I’d read her note before the book, rather than after. But the few hey-wait-I-don’t-remember-thats hardly detracted from the pleasure of the tale.
McKinley’s note is important, however, because she reimagines a named time and place. The language and humorous banter—Much always made me laugh—are in the voice and tradition of fairy tales, not of plain history; also, the author overrides conventional portrayals to offer her female characters a stronger role.
The matter of outlaw femininity forms its own subplot to the tale. Marian, for instance, proves the true sharpshooter, and she and several other women struggle to be taken seriously by their male companions. McKinley develops this beautifully, although I might make the slight complaint that as marriage by nature is ordered toward the creation of children, it’s hard to imagine what all those girls and their respective lovers plan to do in their future situation. Slight complaints aside, the romances are enjoyable, and readers will delight alongside the young women as the latter hunt, shoot, learn woodscraft, join in the practices of Sherwood outlawry, and escape being sold into marriage for political advantage.
Robin—but here the reviewer struggles with the fact that author and protagonist carry the same first name. Robin Hood, in this incarnation, is strong and wood-wise but not quite legendary in his own right. His marksmanship is average, clearly inferior to Marian’s. Difficulties have left him silent and resentful. But like many others who have leadership thrust upon them by quick-thinking friends, rather than demanding the mantle for themselves, he proves more than capable.
My own acquaintance with the Sherwood hero comes mostly through Sir Walter Scott and Disney (though I’ve seen both Prince of Thieves and Men in Tights... maybe the less said about that, the better), and McKinley’s version proved thoroughly likable in its own right as a more careful and intimate development of the characters. In fact, the book’s main weakness—and it would have been admittedly difficult to fix—was that after the first chapter, it spent a little too long adding new characters without much progression of plot otherwise. It got far more interesting after Friar Tuck, one of the last of the main additions, entered the story, after which I had not a fault to find with the playing out of the tale.
At the end the book focuses on friendship, the power of camaraderie, and does so with a lot of beauty. For myself, I was sorry to see it come to a close; Sherwood Forest and the outlaws’ affection and woodscraft captured something exquisite from my childhood fantasies, and I would have been glad to remain there.
Recommendation: Read it for woodsy adventures, for humor and wonder and the strength of a band of true friends.