Ballads of Sherwood: Books Inspired by Robin Hood

A few years ago, I went to visit a friend of mine in Alberta. The day my flight came in, she was attending a birthday party, so I went too. Apparently nobody in Alberta does things in a small way (who knew?), so there was a fair crowd. As a get-to-know-you, we played Who Am I. Well, who I am is someone who dislikes crowds of people I don’t know. Particularly if I am expected to talk to them. But needs must when the devil drives. I started asking people your standard questions: male or female, real or fictional, old or young. I ran into trouble really fast. I was jetlagged and drained from the peopleyness of the day, but I suppose those are just excuses for how slow I was. I had gotten stuck in the wrong track with some of my questions and I was the last person left guessing who they were. My density got so painful that one guy asked my friend if I would know who the person was. She looked at the tag on my forehead and said, “Oh yeah,” confidently. I was not so confident but persisted, asking the same questions of different people—it didn’t help that I got different answers. Finally, I realised why—there was no consensus about who the person was. It was a mythical person. Legendary. “King Arthur!” I guessed. But no, that didn’t account for someone’s helpful allusions to Katniss and Legolas. Well, now you as the reader know exactly who I was. And when I finally got there, I was mortified at my slowness. Oh, and my friend’s name just happens to be Robyn, as well.  

One of the oldest English legends, the story of Robin Hood has been told and retold for generations. It’s been adapted into books and movies, and the characters make cameo appearances in all sorts of media due to their being immediately recognizable. Aside from Howard Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, I’ve read two book retellings of the Robin Hood legend: Shadow of the Wolf by Tim Hall and Scarlet by Stephen R. Lawhead. Shadow of the Wolf is the first book in what is going to be a series called Sherwood’s Doom. Scarlet is the middle book in the King Raven Trilogy, flanked by Hood and Tuck.

Both Shadow of the Wolf (SotW for short) and the King Raven Trilogy recast the Robin Hood legend in a darker, more mythical light, filled with Celtic paganism and borderline horror. They both have a bit of an alternate persona element going on, in which they put on a mask or an animal skin and embody something else, channeling a kind of elemental force or perhaps even a spirit. SotW is most blatantly fantastic, gifting Robin with supernatural archery powers and containing appearances from gods, but King Raven also dabbles in the uncanny as it reveals the clash between the old Welsh religion and the Roman Catholic church. Yes, you read that right: Welsh. Lawhead sets his series in Wales during the time of the oppressive William the Red and creates a new origin story: the rise of Rhi Bran y Hud, Welsh for “King Raven the Enchanter,” roughly.

SotW is an intriguing, atmospheric reimagining of the Robin Hood story and I really thought I was going to like it. The tagline on the front cover should have tipped me off: Forget everything you’ve ever heard about Robin Hood. Yikes. This is the exact same thing I talked about in my Alice in Wonderland post when reviewing Frank Beddor’s The Looking-Glass Wars: How can you write a story inspired by something, and then disregard the source material in the same breath? So I’m supposed to imagine that I’ve never heard about Robin Hood. Okay, then I don’t have to read this book either, because it’s a Robin Hood retelling and I’ve never heard of Robin Hood. Next!

This type of tagline even appears in the blurb for Scarlet: Prepare for an epic tale that dares to shatter everything you thought you knew about Robin Hood. The same sentiment in a different wig, and I blame the publishers and marketing people for this. They want the benefit of name recognition, but also to convince you it’s something different—something better. I think it’s cheap, lazy, and doesn’t cohere logically with trying sell a retelling of a famous story.

But we’re straying off target. I’m definitely not going to win any golden arrows for my discussion’s smooth trajectory. Which brings us to an integral part of the Robin Hood persona, and the part that should have told me immediately who I was in that stupid birthday game: archery. SotW tells us to forget everything we’ve ever known about Robin Hood so it can give us a wild new take, but it can’t get away from the archery. Instead, in its effort to be a “new twist” it manages to be so outlandish it becomes ridiculous: Robin Hood is blind. How he can be the best archer in the land if he can’t see the forest for the trees? SotW’s answer: magic, courtesy of his forest goddess mistress. And I’m sorry, but—what!? Why?

Granted, there is precedent for this type of ableism disguised as disability inclusivity (where the person has a “disability” but it doesn’t actually disable them in any real way because of super-senses or magic or whatever), mainly in comics and cartoons. I like Matt Murdock and Toph Beifong as much as the next person, but they’re original characters. If Hall wanted to make an original fantasy story about a blind archer who taps a goddess for “second-sight,” I wouldn’t care. But why slap it onto the Robin Hood mythos? What is the point, or, the arrowhead, if you will? Flies right by me.

And then there’s the writing. Mainly, I was interested in SotW because of the atmosphere and tone as advertised by the short excerpt on the back cover. It was dark, it was mystical, the writing was solid and haunting…and that single excerpt was about the only example of any of those things in the entire book. The rest of it just settled on me like a grey-washed mass of bland, emotionally flat characters and their equally uninteresting adventures. And it was so looooong. Everything was just a drag of heavy mood disguising the surprising lightness of actual substance. It might be some people’s cup of ale, but it just wasn’t for me. It was exhausting to read and I felt misled by the excerpt.

The King Raven Trilogy is similarly dark, as I said before, trading on pagan superstition and ritual to jack up the reputation of Rhi Bran y Hud as a powerful avenger of the people. But everything is just smoke and mirrors, with the exception of some vague powers like “second-sight” that a witch-like sage possesses. And, lest I give you the false impression that I have no criticism for this series, I didn’t like the first book in the trilogy, Hood, much. It, too, partook of the somewhat gloomy, flat tone and bland characterization I was so unimpressed with in SotW. And, it would be disingenuous of me to pretend that my issue with how far-out the “reimagining” was in SotW does not also apply to some degree to Lawhead’s books. I mean, it is a bold move to transplant the entire story to Wales, no matter how you justify it. Necessarily, the origins have to be revisited, the relationships have to be reimagined and, as much as it pains me to say it, this trilogy is about as little of a Robin Hood story as SotW is. Instead, it’s more of a Robin Hood-esque historical, political thriller/adventure tale.

Scarlet is from Will Scarlet’s first person perspective as he “confesses” to a scribe while imprisoned and awaiting execution. He goes into how he was set on the path to seek out King Raven and join his cause, planting important context about the state of the politics and religion in the country by his frequent disagreements with his monkish scribe about the justice of it all. As Will tells about how he got where he is now, a few breaks in the narrative for a third person scene with some other characters provide ongoing action. At about two-thirds through the book, Will’s tale catches up with the present and what happens next is all in the now. I loved Will’s voicing, but there is no denying that it is a slow-paced read, and the breaks that were third-person shots of different random villains doing different random things rarely segue smoothly into the narrative flow. More, any of the critical information provided in these one-shot glimpses is reiterated through the concluding section of the book as the plots are revealed, so the little vignettes are really unnecessary. I have re-read this book skipping all the alternate viewpoints and it didn’t really harm the story.

Also, all the character building the author had energy for went into Will and his voice, which is definitely the strongest. His relationships with other characters didn’t progress very naturally or noticeably, and the one character you’d think would have a little more put into him—Bran, King Raven himself—came off like a stock leader-of-the-band. For instance, we are told that Bran gets into these “black rages.” What do these black rages look like? Does he get violent with his men? Does he start popping arrows at an apple on Merian’s head? I couldn’t tell you. Because the phrase “black rage” serves as all the description we get. To be fair, these rages do get more development in the first book, Hood. Which leads me to thinking that maybe some of the other characters who were a little “meh” in Scarlet might get more development in Tuck. For instance, there are moments of seeming decency in the character of Guy of Gysburne that seem like they were plants for future development. But on the petty side, Guy of Gysburne is described as fair haired; if your Guy doesn’t look like Basil Rathbone or Richard Armitage, I don’t want him.

So, although they both use Robin Hood as inspiration, or even claim to be Robin Hood stories, neither the King Raven Trilogy nor SotW are quite that, to me. What is the Robin Hood story? Well, as I discovered in that game of Who Am I, it depends who you ask. Overly Sarcastic Productions did an awesome, bite-sized overview of the development of the Robin Hood legend that I’m not even going to try to summarize. Just go watch it. I must admit to knowing little besides Howard Pyle’s rather recent collection of various legends and characters in The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood. Certainly, I can’t hold Lawhead’s and Hall’s books up to that late version of the sources.

Which is why I’m a little more forgiving about the King Raven trilogy. Because, despite the publisher’s decision to claim it’s a new Robin Hood legend, the contents of the book don’t really come off like that. Yes, King Raven in Welsh gets corrupted into Robin Hood, so it puts forward a plausible progression for how the Robin Hood legend might conceivably have grown out of this “what-really-happened” scenario in Wales. Yes, there is a Merian, an evil sheriff, Guy de Gysburne, a friar Tuck, and an Iwan, which is a form of John (Little). There is, obviously, also a Will Scarlet. But aside from the occasional recalling of the better known versions of the legend, the story itself is completely unique in character and incident. It doesn’t really try to convince you it’s a Robin Hood story as such. It’s more of an imaginative exploration of the type of events or characters that may have sparked the stories.

With SotW, the purpose of the story is expressly to set the record straight about Robin Hood. It says point-blank in the frontispiece: “Forget everything you’ve heard. Robin Hood was no prince, and he was no dispossessed lord. He didn’t fight in the Crusades. He never gave a penny to the poor. In fact, of all those Sherwood legends, only one holds true: Robin was blind.” Okay, first off, only some versions say Robin was noble, so it’s not an innovation for your story to stray from that. Second off, I don’t think any original Robin Hood source ever said he fought in the Crusades—I feel like that was an aspect first introduced by Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and BBC’s Robin Hood series, probably drawing from Ivanhoe. Third: You cannot get the Robin Hood persona without some form of “robbing of the rich to feed the poor,” even if that part is only selective or secondary. Fourth: I have never before heard that Robin was blind. I could not do an internet search and come up with any version of the legend in which Robin was blind. Therefore, we are not only asked to forget what we know, but also to remember something we never knew. It is framed as if the author is writing the original out of existence, that his take on it is definitive henceforth and will replace the other versions.

But the entire purpose of the author writing a Robin Hood retelling is owing to the existence of the original story concept. I’m reading your book because I know something about Robin Hood. And that’s the difference between the two books as I see it: Lawhead’s books add some accessory material to the legend, which can be seen as coinciding with it. Hall’s book presumes to rewrite the legend, forcing the reader (perhaps unintentionally) into this false dichotomy of choosing either to enjoy the classic tale or this new one, but not both. It’s just not a good position to put your story in. For me, the new one loses every time.

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