A Novel of Sherwood
When I reread The Golden Key some months ago, and realised that Jennifer Roberson had written my favourite section of the novel, I asked for recommendations of her other books. Elaine kindly suggested Lady of the Forest which, by complete chance, I found in my local charity shop last weekend (despite the fact it currently exists only in an out-of-print American edition).
Now, Robin Hood and I go back a long way: I fell in love with the stories when I was very small: so small that, thanks to Disney, I had a confused impression that he was actually a fox. Afterwards I read Ladybird’s Robin Hood and watched some of the numerous film and TV versions, among them Errol Flynn’s Adventures of Robin Hood, Maid Marian and her Merry Men, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (inescapable for a child of the ’80s and worth seeing if only for Alan Rickman), Robin Hood: Men in Tights and, most recently, the unsatisfactory film with Russell Crowe (don’t get me started on the Magna Carta). Of course, any writer dealing with the legend today faces the difficulty that his or her audience already knows the story and the characters: the challenge is to keep the traditional and well-loved elements of the tale, while interpreting them in a fresh new way.
Roberson’s interest lies not so much in the band of merry men, or the greenwood tree, or the robberies on the road to Nottingham, but in the question of how a young lord (the sole surviving son of the Earl of Huntingdon) comes to associate with outlaws. Her Robin is freshly returned from Crusade, but can’t share in the triumphant celebrations organised by his father. He finds himself a stranger in his own country, a wet, green land that means nothing to him, among people who have no idea of the horrors he has witnessed in the Holy Land. He is traumatised by memories of the slaughter and haunted by snatches of the Arabic he spoke during a year of Saracen captivity, and at the heart of everything lies his shame that he was ransomed back from the Saracens by King Richard himself, who now lies in prison in a German castle with no one to ransom him.
No one in England can spare much thought for Richard: the country has already been taxed to its limits to support the Crusade and, in the King’s absence, his younger brother John is trying to consolidate his own power. Ambitious new men like William deLacey, the Sheriff of Nottingham, calculate their best chances of advancement and even Robin’s father, the Earl, is too busy plotting against John with his fellow barons to spare a thought for a distant king. In Roberson’s telling of the story, Robin is a confidant and favourite of the king and, since he owes both his knighthood and his liberty to Richard, has a strong personal edge to his loyalty (I liked her take on Richard, incidentally, and was amused by the jibes about Blondel). And here is the motivation for Robin to turn robber: to raise enough money to send to Germany in the hope of ransoming his lord. It’s a much more plausible motivation than simply robbing the rich to give to the poor.
As suggested by the title, Marian plays an equally large role in Roberson’s retelling. She is the daughter of Sir Hugh FitzWalter, one of Robin’s fellow Crusaders, whom he saw killed in a manner for which he feels responsible. As an orphan and only surviving child, with her own manor, she has a degree of freedom which is very unusual for women at this date. As a ward of the Crown, she has further protection from being pressured into marriage, the more so because the Crown (embodied by Richard) is currently somewhere in Germany. I appreciated the fact that Marian is independent and perfectly capable of wielding pieces of wood to fight for those whom she loves, but I didn’t feel that she ever quite escaped the cliches of the romantic heroine. Her voice was described as ‘smoky’ once or twice too often, and she is so stunningly beautiful that a man can scarcely look at her without being overcome with a desire to take her to bed (although, being a heroine, she is modestly unaware of this). Such things are fine in historical romances; indeed, they’re expected; but as someone who’s used to straight historical fiction, I found it distracting.
Still, at least Marian does feel plausibly medieval, whereas her counterpart (and the only other significant female character), the Sheriff’s daughter Eleanor deLacey, felt anachronistic to me. She was simply a sullen modern teenager in a medieval gown, slamming doors and storming off to her room: I can’t believe that any medieval father would have tolerated such behaviour. Moreover, Eleanor is given attitudes that are too modern for her age: while I see the justice in her argument that a woman should be free to enjoy men, as a man enjoys women, it’s a 20th-century sentiment that rings false in a 12th-century mouth.
The book revels in the kind of sumptuous detail that really brings the period to life and I enjoyed the little touches that remind you how different the medieval period was from today. The only people who can read and write are the lay clerks and the clerics, and although Nottingham and Huntingdon are dominated by their castles, the manors we see at Ravenskeep and Locksley are much simpler affairs. Ravenskeep at least has an upper solar and I imagine it looking rather like a more modest version of Stokesay Castle, but Locksley has more in common with the halls of Anglo-Saxon chieftains than with the keeps and baileys that come to mind when we think of Robin Hood’s world. The manor floors are of beaten earth, strewn with rushes; the vaulting technique in Huntingdon’s great hall is sufficiently novel for it to be remarked on several times. And, above all these things, Roberson shows us a world which is divided not so much between Richard’s men and John’s men, but between Saxon and Norman: the scars of the Conquest are still fresh and this is a world where the peasants and a few old families (Robin’s and Marian’s among them) not only speak a different language to the elite but are of entirely different origins and culture.
All these things added a depth of flavour that made the book much more enjoyable to read. And yet, the flip-side of the coin is that there is sometimes too much detail, especially in the way that some scenes are told from three or four characters’ points of view. My edition of the book is 589 pages long and I reckon that the vast majority of the action takes place across little more than a week. This means that sometimes the pace lags a bit and I felt that the book could have been three-quarters of the length without losing any of its style or drama.
But, at the end of the day, I can’t really complain. This was a thoroughly enjoyable retelling and I thought the portrayal of Robin was superb, even though I found it oddly troubling that he was blond (I always imagined him dark). His tortured soul and inner trauma reminded me at times of Lymond. Moreover, the book contains scenes or allusions which cover all the favourite aspects of the Robin Hood legend, albeit sometimes in an original guise (spoilers follow). We have the archery contest in which Robin splits the shafts of his opponent’s arrows; the quarterstaff battle with Little John; the race against time to rescue Marian from being forcibly married to the Sheriff of Nottingham; and, most satisfyingly of all, the eleventh-hour arrival of Richard the Lionheart. It isn’t quite pacy enough to be labelled ‘a romp’, but it’s an intelligent and carefully-crafted book and, despite the occasional over-emphasis on Marian’s ravishing beauty, something I’d happily recommend to anyone who has a fondness for the legend. Of course now I want to find more novels about the Crusades… I have Cecilia Holland’s Jerusalem waiting to be read on my Kindle, but if anyone has any further recommendations, do let me know!
I’d like to finish off with one of my sporadic cover review features. You know by now that I am the kind of shallow person who does judge a book by its cover and, to be honest, without knowing Roberson’s quality as a writer and without Elaine T’s recommendation, I might have shied away from this edition. It struck me as overly pretty for a historical novel, even one which does have its roots in popular legend. Indeed, one of my colleagues commented, on seeing it, ‘Oh, is that Legolas?’ – which I think emphasises that the book gives off a fantasy romance vibe which doesn’t really fit with the contents. The cover of the forthcoming paperback reprint, which will be available in May 2013, is much more sober and restrained and, I would argue, suitable for the story. I was very much amused to discover that things could have been worse, however: I could have ended up with a half-dressed, Highland-romance-style Robin, or a Marian who, both anachronistically and impractically, is wearing a bikini. In fact, the latter cover bears absolutely no relationship to the genre or contents of the book except for the presence of a forest and a horse… And at least two of the cover artists have failed to register the often-repeated fact that Marian is, in fact, dark-haired.