The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde (Guest Post)

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We are continuing this week’s Charlotte Brontë feature with a guest post by our friend Denise.  Denise is a librarian and an avid reader.  She has contributed a number of guests posts to Pages Unbound, including reflections on Robin Hood and Tolkien and reviews of The Doomsday Code and The World Above, among others.  See all her contributions here.

Cover of The Eyre AffairInformation

Goodreads: The Eyre Affair
Series: Thursday Next #1
Published: January 1, 2001

Summary

Set in an alternative Great Britain, where time travel is a completely normal occurrence and forging great literary works is a punishable crime, this book features Thursday Next, a literary detective whose job is to protect literature from theft, fraud, and sabotage. And the works of sabotage can get pretty ugly, as Thursday finds herself in a battle to save Jane Eyre (both the character and the story) from being destroyed by an adversary with fantastic abilities and a penchant for committing crimes for the sake of committing crimes.

Review

Adaptations can be a tricky thing. Usually, they are loved for being clever and on-point with the spirit of the original, or they are vehemently despised for totally missing that point or being little more than imitation. I’m not sure Fforde’s Eyre Affair fits totally with any of these opinions. I found the story as a whole enjoyably clever, though I can understand arguments that Fforde’s treatment of Jane Eyre misses some key points. Regardless, I became hooked on this series the first time I read The Eyre Affair. But then, it was difficult not to, with the world Fforde has created – where serious discussions of literature are both commonplace and heated; where the lines between fiction and reality are constantly being blurred to the point where fiction as a whole begins to have a life of its own, not to mention the puns! And Fforde’s world just gets better and better as the series goes on.

But we’re celebrating Brontë this week, so on with an examination of Jane Eyre’s place in The Eyre Affair

Despite the fact that the title of the work is The Eyre Affair, Jane Eyre is not dragged into the story (literally) until about halfway through. Fforde’s is a world that loves Jane Eyre, but is unhappy with its ending – a much different one than we are familiar with, where Jane does not go back to Rochester but elects to go with St. John Rivers, though she still refuses to marry him. In a way, The Eyre Affair is also the story of how Jane Eyre got its mostly happily-ever-after ending, with the implication being that some of the things that happen in the novel happen, not because Brontë wrote them that way but because other things entered the manuscript and affected its outcome behind the scenes. “What was Brontë thinking?” is a common sentiment expressed among the characters in the novel. At the same time that some might see something taken from Brontë’s genius with this set-up, I think Fforde is highlighting it. We know the “original ending” is what is really fake, and it shouldn’t be a surprise that no one likes it in the book. I’m sure there are many who wouldn’t like it in our real world either. Ultimately, it’s an interesting thought experiment, like so much else in Fforde’s world. And the changes are still “pure Brontë” as far as this world is concerned; she may as well have originally wrote it herself by the time all is said and done. I do struggle to suspend my disbelief with that claim though, since it is a bit unclear how the structure/understanding of Fforde’s world supports it. It wasn’t the ending in Brontë’s “original manuscript,” after all, and she isn’t shown rewriting her own story. (Though that is, perhaps, a possibility, with all else that is possible in Fforde’s world – the time travel, jumping in and out of book worlds, etc.)

What’s also important to understand about this book is that it is clearly meant to be funny; it is very rare that this world of Fforde’s actually takes itself seriously. I mean – the main character’s name is “Thursday Next”… and the pets everyone just has to have are cloned dodo birds. Even the charming premise that destroying great works of literature is a punishable offense can seem as ridiculous as it is charming within the realms of this text. Just about the only things that are treated with any amount of levity are themes, specifically death – death in the war going on in Thursday’s world, the possibility of losing literary characters, of losing whole stories – and fiction, specifically the ability of story to truly live: an interesting juxtaposition of topics that is brought to the forefront amid the humorous situations and the puns, and all the more so because everything else is funny. Some elements of Jane Eyre’s story are inserted into Thursday’s own story in a comical way, especially pertaining to her love life, but overall Fforde seems to be less interested in the story that Brontë tells for itself. What’s important to The Eyre Affair is Brontë’s impact, which, in turn, provokes several interesting questions. What would happen if we lost Jane Eyre, or any of the great works? If one of our favorite characters ceased to exist, or never existed? And why isn’t literature taken as seriously as it is in this book by the public at large today? Does it deserve to be? Fforde’s world, humor, and passion for literature may have been why I fell in love with these books – but it’s the exploration of these questions, and questions like these in subsequent books, that keep me coming back to the series for more. I highly recommend it to all grammarians, librarians, bibliophiles, science fiction and fantasy enthusiasts, amateur detectives, creative writers, Bronte fans (of course) and everyone else in between.

“On Fairy Stories” by J. R. R. Tolkien

The Tolkien Reader

Today’s guest post is by our frequent contributor Denise.

Take Away Lessons for the Writer

Tolkien addresses three big questions in this essay: What are fairy-stories? What are their origins? And what is the use of them? Generally speaking, many see this essay as a defense of fairy tales and the fantasy genre as a whole, and, in many ways, it is. But when I read it, I often find myself coming across little jewels of wisdom about how to write a story – fantastical or no, so I hope you won’t mind too much if I give less of a review of the essay in this post, and more of a reflection on some of those jewels. This is, by no means, an exhaustive list – and I encourage any serious writers to read through the essay on their own and share your own thoughts!

Know what you want to write – and why you want to write it.

This is probably the most general impression that I take away from this essay. He takes the time to truly reflect on the kind of writing he invests in, both in reading and in writing, and to differentiate it from other types of writing that may be ‘gray areas’ for others. How is a fairy-story not a traveler’s tale, or a dream tale, or a beast fable? Can I as a writer understand what my writing is, what I want it to be? Can I articulate why what I’m writing matters?

In writing, you become a ‘sub-creator’ building a ‘Secondary World’.

First off, I think this is true of all writers – not just the fantasy author, though the fantasy author arguably has the taller order of the two. Tolkien uses the terms Primary World to refer to the world as we know it, ‘reality’, and the Secondary World to refer to the world within the story – a world created by the author that is believable enough to seem real. The rules have been set and are consistent. If you are writing a story meant to align more closely with the Primary World, you and your readers already know many of the rules by which the world being created operates. I’m not sure Tolkien would call realistic fiction Secondary Worlds, but I think it is useful to see them that way as they are, at best, a reflection of the author’s view of the Primary World. The fantasy author, though, has to combine imagination and art to create a world that functions in a way that readers can understand and want to invest in. Which leads to the next point…

You must believe in what you are writing.

In a similar vein to the previous point, this applies to all authors, but especially fantasy authors. There are many ways that Tolkien makes this point for me throughout the essay, from the importance of not counterfeiting the fantastic to being sure to take the magic seriously and not make a joke of it or explain it away. It’s not about truly believing that what you are writing is in the Primary World. If you believe that, it’s not fantasy. Nor is it about believing in the physical existence of the Secondary World. It’s about making that Secondary World ‘real’ in a way that makes it easy for the reader to suspend their disbelief and immerse themselves into the story. If you don’t believe in it as the writer, how can you expect your audience to be willing to suspend their own disbelief for it?

Think about how what you write truly affects your audience.

Anyone who has taken any type of writing course already knows that considering audience and whom you are writing for is key to writing anything well – stories, essays, truly anything. But I think Tolkien takes the exercise a step further in this essay, when he thinks about how fairy-stories have come to be associated with children. He is not, after all, giving in to the idea that if you are writing a fairy-story, you are writing for children, as many writers – and literary critics – have. He looks at what it is about the fairy-story that makes it particularly palatable to children – what it is exactly that makes many adults shy away from the genre and relegate it to the realm of juvenile literature. All while simultaneously making the point that it does not have to be this way. There is much for the adult to take away from the well-written fairy-story.

Be careful what you take from the ‘Pot of Story’.

The concept of the ‘pot of story’ comes from the examination of the second question on the origins of fairy-story. It’s essentially the idea that story begets story – that characters and plots find themselves boiled into the same stew and authors pick their ingredients from the pot carefully as they craft their stories. Writers who choose to use other characters/plots in their own stories need to be aware of the past and use those characters and plots appropriately. That is not to say they must stay exactly the same. I think it is more to say that writers need to be aware of where the character/plot has come so that they can craft their Secondary World in a way that will still seem ‘real’ to readers who may also recognize those characters/plots from the other stories in which they may be found.

It is not enough for a story to be possible; it must also be desirable.

At one point in the essay, Tolkien talks about how fairy-stories don’t even try for possibility. They are more concerned with desirability, giving readers something for which they long – whether that’s escape, consolation, recovery of things past. (Note: Tolkien uses these words later in his essay to describe the use of fairy-stories; I think I am using them in a similar way here.) But again, this is something that can apply to stories at large as well. A story must mean something to a reader and tap into intrinsic desires, otherwise it falls flat. And readers will be able to tell the difference.

Overall, for me, it’s a message of pushing yourself. Pushing yourself to truly create something ‘real’ and to recognize the tools you are using to do so. Pushing yourself to connect with an audience, no matter what type of story you choose to present, and create a story that ultimately allows that audience to deal with something they’ve been longing to deal with. And pushing yourself to really reflect on what it means to create a story – to make all of that possible – especially if fantasy is what you choose to write.

Tolkien Talk: Denise

Tolkien 2014

As part of our Tolkien Reading Celebration, we’ll be interviewing a different blogger each day about their love for Tolkien and what makes his works so special for them.  Today, we’re featuring Denise: librarian, bookseller, and frequent guest contributor to our blog.

1.) When and how were you first introduced to Tolkien? What did you read first?

I was first introduced to Tolkien when I was pretty young – I don’t remember the exact age. My dad started reading The Hobbit to my siblings and me. I must confess though, I couldn’t sit through the whole story. The spiders terrified me and I think I stopped going to family reading time after that, and didn’t actually read The Hobbit in its entirety until I was much older and had already read The Lord of the Rings.

2.) What attracts you to Tolkien’s writing?

I think first and foremost, I’m attracted to Tolkien’s writing for the amazing world that has been created. It’s impressive on a literary level – there is so much to find and study, inspiring on a practical level – it has been a jumping off point for many of my own creative works, and enthralling on a recreational level – the world does not let me go, once I’ve truly entered it. There aren’t many books that are like that in the world. I wish there were more.

3.) What would you say to those who haven’t read any of Tolkien’s books yet?

If you like fantasy at all, if you liked the movie adaptations, or if you just like a good book – you have to pick them up. And it’s okay to skip some of the poems, or the descriptions, the first time around – just more to discover the second read-through. Or the third.

4.) What is your favorite Tolkien book? What makes it special?

I have the best memories with The Lord of the Rings, especially The Fellowship of the Ring, so probably that one. Though I do still cherish my dad reading The Hobbit to us when we were younger, even if I couldn’t sit through all of it.

5.) Can you share one of your favorite Tolkien quotes with us?

I had a hard time with this one. Partially because I was disappointed to learn that my all-time favorite Pippin-quote was a line from the movie that did not come from the books. (“The closer we are to danger, the farther we are from harm. It’s the last thing he’ll expect.”) But the bigger part of it was because there are so many good ones! I think I’d have to go with this one, though:

“Not all those who wander are lost.”

The Doomsday Code by Alex Scarrow

Denise, today’s guest reviewer, is a librarian and avid reader.  This is one of several guest posts she has contributed to the blog.

Doomsday CodeGoodreads: The Doomsday Code
Series: Time Riders #3

Summary: Maddy, Liam and Sal are three unlikely friends – unlikely considering the fact that they all come from different times. And they all have one thing in common: they are supposed to be dead. Now they function as Time Riders, traveling through time and space to protect the world as we know it from those who would seek to change it – and in this adventure, they find themselves unraveling massive changes during the Middle Ages. During the reign of Richard the Lionheart, to be exact. In Nottingham. Yes, even in Sherwood Forest. With the Holy Grail at the center of all the chaos.

Review: This book is actually the third in the Time Riders series, and I have not read the other two. That being said, while I am sure going back to read the other two would produce many ‘aha, that makes sense now!’ moments, I felt able to follow the characters and the plot fairly well. I read it, of course, because I had read that Robin Hood was involved and it sounded different and interesting – most of which proved true enough.

Let me be quite frank in saying that I would not label this book a Robin Hood retelling exactly. Is there an outlaw band running around Sherwood Forest, with someone called Hood as their leader? Absolutely. How about a Sheriff of Nottingham, mistreating the good people he governs? Well, yes, for about five minutes, before one of our main characters elects to become the Sheriff in his stead and begins to do things very differently. And Richard is King and on the Crusades! With Prince John ineptly handling England in his absence. But you will not find any of the familiar scenes found in most Robin Hood retellings and you will find no Little John or Will Scarlet or even Maid Marian among the outlaw band. Hood himself is changed beyond all recognition as a character, but I will not say much more than that, so as not to ruin the story for you. This book is not trying to retell the legend of Robin Hood – it is playing with it, at best imagining an alternative explanation for who Hood was and why he did what he did. He becomes a much more sinister character, the author playing with the readers’ desire to see a Hood they can sympathize with, as they so often have in other retellings. It also reimagines both John and Richard as characters, turning their traditional characters on their heads and creating a John who is not quite wicked and a Richard who is not quite noble. On this level, I found the book very interesting, indeed, especially when I found myself confronted with a competent Sheriff of Nottingham with whom I was clearly meant to sympathize.

This book clearly integrates the legends of Robin Hood, but is bent on telling its own story, which is an interesting one. It was clear that much about the characters and the relationships among them had been developing over time, but their development is well done, in my opinion, and makes me more inclined to pick up the previous books to read about the other adventures that they had that put them where they are in this book. The time travel element was not something I focused too much on as I read, but there were times when I was a little confused with how it worked/did not work in the story. Considering I missed the initial explanation of time travel (I’m assuming, anyway) and its rules in an earlier book though, and considering that time travel is a complex plot device for authors to pick up in the first place, I did not have much of a problem suspending most of my confusion about it to enjoy the story and let it enhance the tale. I have even less experience reading books that incorporate clones, but Bob and Becks – the clone characters in this book – are well done and are a lot of fun to see in action as well.

Robin Hood Button

The World Above by Cameron Dokey

Denise, today’s guest reviewer, is a librarian and avid reader.  This is one of several guest posts she has contributed to the blog.

The World AboveGoodreads: The World Above: A Retelling of “Jack and the Beanstalk”
Series: Once Upon a Time

Summary: Jack and his sister Gen have never known their father – have never seen the place their ancestors called home. In fact, Gen is not quite sure she believes it even exists – and besides, she rather likes the World Below, despite the hard times facing her family with crops failing left and right. But her belief is shaken when Jack trades their family’s cow for a bunch of speckled beans and, instead of scolding him for his stupidity, her mother cries with joy. Suddenly, practical Gen has adventure thrust upon her, as she and Jack plan to take back a throne, rightfully theirs, and set foot for the first time in the land of their parents – the World Above.

Minor Spoilers

Review: My feelings about this book are complicated, to say the least, so bear with me. I enjoyed it very much, but I haven’t been able to shake a feeling of disappointment, even after having read it a couple of times now.

First off, if you couldn’t tell from the summary, this book attempts to retell the story of Jack and the Beanstalk. That’s how it has been marketed too: a retelling of “Jack and the Beanstalk.” I like the Once Upon a Time series – I’ve read most of the retellings in it, and when I learned of this one, I must admit I was curious. How do you retell “Jack and the Beanstalk?” All fairy tales are relatively simplistic, and far be it from me to insist that a tale be too simplistic to be able to retell – but I had never really thought of Jack’s story as one up for retelling. I think this was the first retelling of the story I’d even heard of. This interest is probably what set me up for my first disappointment. Oh, the makings of the “Jack and the Beanstalk” are certainly there – we have Jack, we have a bean stalk. We have the magical items – the goose that lays golden eggs, the ever replenishing sack of gold coins, the harp that sings – and Jack even steals [most of] these things from a giant, sort of [if being given two of the three by a giant counts as stealing]. Jack is still curious and that curiosity is at least part of the reason he goes up the beanstalk in the first place. But then we have the fact that Jack is not from the world as ‘we’ know it, he has another motivation to go up the beanstalk: to go home and overthrow a usurper, and he has a twin sister, not curious but practical, with the wits to make him successful. He is not stupid for taking the beans for the cow in this book – it is the best thing that he could have done. He befriends giants and is successful and all of this sounds like the makings of a pretty good retelling of “Jack and the Beanstalk,” in my opinion. And yet, on this level, I find myself rather disappointed with Dokey’s work. Why? Have you yet asked yourself why a retelling of “Jack and the Beanstalk” is being reviewed during a “Robin Hood” read-along?

By the second half of the book, “Robin Hood” takes over… which is confusing to say the least. Potentially even misleading. Sure, perhaps readers should be able to see it coming — the World Above is very green, after all, and throne usurpers are a common “Robin Hood” trope – albeit usually of the throne of a king. (But perhaps we are expected to take a ducal throne in the World Above to be the same level as a kingly one in the World Below: there was no mention of a higher authority. But I digress.) We have greenness, and usurpers, and the usurper’s name is Guy! Guy de Trabant, presumably instead of Guy of Gisborne – and Gisborne is usually not the first arch nemesis people think of, when they think about “Robin Hood.” Maybe the author was just trying to be subtle. Once you get Robin Hood on the scene though, she is not subtle at all, and it makes me wonder how much Dokey was trying to create a retelling of “Jack and the Beanstalk” in the first place, given how well the background she creates for Jack and Gen lends itself to the Robin Hood tradition. When I first read it, it felt more like Dokey had hit a creative road bump in trying to retell the “Jack and the Beanstalk” story – like she had lifted a tale from the “Robin Hood” tradition, because she didn’t know where else to go or how to finish out the story she had started in an interesting way… Perhaps the story would be more successful if I had considered it a retelling of “Robin Hood” that happens to incorporate “Jack and the Beanstalk” as opposed to the other way around.

But, I mean – Robin Hood! As much as I didn’t like his story being used in this way, I must admit I greatly enjoyed the “Robin Hood” bits for the sake of their being “Robin Hood” bits. On the most basic level, he is the Robin Hood everyone knows – stealing from the rich, giving to the poor – excelling in archery and besting everyone in archery contests to save some poor fellow (read: Jack)’s life. It isn’t complicated to see who his Marian will be by the end of the story either. (A fact that makes me question even more the purpose of her addition to the “Jack and the Beanstalk” story in the first place…). And his story is changed, mostly on a basic level – no Little John here, just an older fellow named Steel – in fact, no allusions to anyone in his little band, though he does have a band at least. Dokey, on some level, seems to think the best way to change Hood’s story is to change a few names, though I believe the fellow that is second to him in archery kept his first name, from at least one of the earlier tales. Granted: she is not telling the whole story of “Robin Hood.” That was not her purpose in this book. But for someone so good at altering previously told tales, this incorporation of Robin Hood was as much a disappointment for me, as it was a pleasure. The biggest change she made was the reason for Robin’s outlawing and the way he becomes an outlaw no longer, both of which only partially made sense, largely because no time is spent really fleshing out the character of Guy de Trabant – yet he is the character who is the most dynamic over the course of the story. So I don’t really feel like this book fully works as a retelling of Robin Hood incorporating “Jack and the Beanstalk either,” though I’m sure Dokey could retell Hood’s story better if she made that the goal of one of her retellings.

Really, I feel like someone needed to ask Dokey one crucial question before she finished this book: Whose story is this? Is she trying to retell “Jack and the Beanstalk” or “Robin Hood?” If she was trying to do both, I think this story would have been better off making that clear from the beginning. As it was, the two tales aren’t brought together very well. The way she tries to mesh the plots can work, I think – but her characters aren’t developed enough to make them work – especially in the “Robin Hood” storyline. And yet – I did enjoy the book, the second time just as much as I did the first – if not more, because I knew what was coming and could view it as an attempt to merge the two tales better. Maybe I am just that much of a sucker for a “Robin Hood” tale. But I do see a lot of potential in the story that Dokey tells. I just wish someone had marketed the book better, because the “surprise” Robin Hood really doesn’t work – or that someone had pushed Dokey to make it work a little better if she wanted to keep that element of surprise.

Published: 2010

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Robin Hood: a Brief History

Denise, today’s guest reviewer, is a librarian and avid reader.  This is post is based on research she conducted for her undergraduate thesis.

At the very beginning of the Robin Hood tradition, we have – well, no one really knows for sure. What we do know is that the stories of Robin Hood were being circulated by word of mouth to a very large audience before they were ever written down. There is an old Robin Hood proverb that states, “Many men speak of Robin Hood, who never drew his bow” – and I think it is just as true now as it probably was back then. Everyone knows something of the legendary hero, regardless of their level of familiarity with the “actual” character, through the stories or through interaction with the real person. Yes, there are some who believe that Robin Hood the man actually existed and have dedicated their lives to trying to figure out who he was. I’m guessing that, since this is a read-along, most of you will be more interested in the literary Robin Hood though, and so that history is the one on which I’ll focus for the rest of this post.

What are recognized as current staples to the narrative of the Robin Hood story is really a collection of attributes that has built up over the years. Today’s Hood is an outlaw known to live in Sherwood Forest, with his band of merry men, stealing from the rich to give to the poor. His archery skills are unsurpassed and, along with them, he uses his wit and cunning to survive and fight against the corruption of local authority, while remaining loyal to the ultimate authority, usually the King. His story is often set during the reign of King Richard the Lion-Heart and the Lady, Marian, has become Hood’s love interest, often forsaking her own noble upbringing to join Hood in the forest. While some of these characteristics can be traced all the way back to the original ballads – like the fact that he is an expert archer and fights corruption while remaining loyal to the King – many of them were added later, most notably the historical setting in the drama of King Richard’s reign and Marian’s very existence in the story, as well as her ever-changing role in it. One of the most shocking characteristics that cannot be traced back to the original ballads, however, is the charity that is the modern trademark of Robin Hood. There is very little in the original ballads to suggest that Robin Hood specifically robbed the rich to give to the poor (Knight 1). In the early ballads, Hood is a thief, to be sure, but much of what he stole went to supporting his small band of followers and himself, helping others solely at his discretion – rich and poor alike.

The narrative of the events of the life of Robin Hood – and the character that he is – has been presented in many different forms over the years. In Medieval times, ballads were the presentation of choice; during the Renaissance, playwrights like Anthony Munday took up his tale. In more recent years, novelists, like Howard Pyle and Stephen Lawhead, and film producers have seen the potential in his story. In fact, the story of Robin Hood has survived largely on creative retellings. Stephen Knight was one of the first scholars who really began to study Robin Hood in an academic context, and when he started in the 1970s, he found the available criticism to be rather lacking (Knight xvi). And, as a side note, if you are interested in the longer story, I highly recommend his book Robin Hood: a Mythic Biography.  Much of my own knowledge of the tradition, outside of specific works, comes from there.

And now, let me leave you with a (very) brief representative survey of the tale over the years.

A Gest of Robyn Hode (Medieval poetry)

First off, let me make it clear that A Gest of Robyn Hode is by no means the first Robin Hood story; it is not even the first that was written down and published. It was, however, published soon after the earliest known ballads and Knight speculates that it was actually constructed from those earlier ballads (24). Scholars have described it as an “encyclopedia of the medieval Robin Hood,” and it has had a major influence on later creative retellings (Knight 22).

In this work, Hood’s enemies are the “bisshoppes” and “archebishoppes,” as well as “The hye sheriff of Notyingham” (ll.58-61). While modern audiences can certainly relate, the villainy of both the church and the sheriff is understood now very differently than it would have been then. In more than one modern retelling of his story, the sheriff is more of a fool than a cruel and corrupt authority; in many, the wrongs of the church are eclipsed by the wrongs of the law or are excluded completely. Likewise, in the Gest, religious values and rituals are much more a part of Hood’s identity than they are in many modern retellings. So too, the other values evident in this story – like loyalty; archery for display, not combat; and reverence of the king (Knight 25) are the kind of values that one would expect a Medieval people to hold.

Thematically, Hood’s moral code complicates the audience’s understanding of right and wrong. Though he is well known as a master of disguise and deception, Hood is, ironically, very concerned about exposing falsehood and finding out truth – that goal, not charity, is the main reason he thieves throughout the Gest. His victims are presented with the same opportunity to reveal what they have, and the same terms are presented regarding their answer: if they are honest, they will keep what they have – and potentially gain more, if they have need of it; if they are dishonest, Hood and his men make them honest by taking from them all except what they claimed to have in the first place.

The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon – Anthony Munday (a Renaissance play)

Renaissance society was an incredibly social society – a society that liked to know exactly where each individual stood on the social ladder, simply by looking at what that individual wore. Going to the theater was one of the most popular forms of entertainment at the time – and, sure enough, the Robin Hood story found an outlet through this form. Not only was Hood featured indirectly in plays such as Shakespeare’s As You Like It, but playwrights like Anthony Munday also attempted to directly retell his story for the stage. The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon, printed around 1601, is the first in a two-play series that tries to tell a comprehensive version of Hood’s story. Some situations in the play can clearly be traced back to the Gest, but Munday also incorporates new characters and changes situations to better suit a Renaissance audience’s understanding and interests.

In his play, Munday creates the character of an earl named Robert who becomes an outlaw and then takes the name Robin Hood as a reflection of his fallen social status. Because Hood has actually been given a high social standing, this play has been called the beginning of a gentrified Robin Hood (Knight 31). At this point in the tradition, the story is clearly open to this change. In the Gest, for example, there is no story of Hood’s life before he became an outlaw – his former social status is left open to interpretation. By recasting Hood as a gentleman, Munday had created a character that higher Renaissance social classes would understand, and might even respect. Another change meant to appeal to Renaissance society was the change in Hood’s historical context. He coexists with King Richard and Prince John, instead of the King Edward who reigns in the Gest. Prince John was of special interest to Renaissance society, especially when his portrayal ignored the cruelty for which he is well known. For Munday’s play, he is a lovesick Prince John whose primary quarrel with Robin is that of a lovers’ rivalry. Through him – as well as Hood’s changed social status – Marian is given an elevated, and even feasible, role within the Robin Hood tradition.

Robin Hood (2010) – Russell Crowe (Modern film)

The story of Robin Hood translates very easily to film — for much of its life, after all, it has primarily been a performance piece. The most recent film retelling is a story very different from most people’s understanding of Hood’s story. Like Munday’s play, it seeks to give Hood a past; but, unlike the play, the movie does not go into Hood’s life as an outlaw, as many people might expect a movie entitled “Robin Hood” to do. It does, however, set itself during the drama of King Richard and King John’s reigns, and involves a pseudo-gentrified Robin as well as Marian, in a love triangle.

Politically, it seems to be a very American film. Robin is not outlawed for the traditional poaching deer: he is outlawed for his attempt to curb the tyranny that is King John. The main political conflict is no longer with the Sheriff of Nottingham and other abusive authorities (like John before he becomes King) but is with the King himself. And the political ideology being advocated in this movie – the idea that people like Robin have the right to fight against, and ultimately change, an unfair government – is one upon which America was founded. Finally, linking Robin directly to the creation and therefore the ultimate signing of the Magna Carta has a direct parallel in American sensibility to the creation of the Constitution and its verification that all men are created equal.

Likewise, Marian’s place in the story has been notably modernized, as she takes on distinctive feminist qualities. In the beginning, she fights unfair authority through means more accurate to those women of her time would have held: through prayer and requests for aid from the village priests. For much of the movie, it is Robin who actually has the most ability to enact changes. Despite this, Marian does more as the movie progresses. She is shown helping out in the fields, staging boycotts, and, by the end of the movie, she is quite literally fighting for the protection of both herself and her country, putting herself in a position clearly outside her time that many modern women would recognize and applaud.

Further research:

  • Knight, Stephen. Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003.
  • Holt, J.C. Robin Hood. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd, 1982.
  • And check out the Library at Rochester’s Robin Hood site: http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/rh/rhhome.htm

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Robin Hood by Alexandre Dumas

Denise, today’s guest reviewer, is a librarian and avid reader.  This is one of several guest posts she has contributed to the blog.

Robin Hood

Goodreads: Robin Hood

Review: I have been captivated by the writing of Alexandre Dumas, from the very first time I read The Count of Monte Cristo in 8th grade (Thank you, Mr. P) and fascinated by the story of Robin Hood for even longer. It is difficult, therefore, to even begin to describe my glee at discovering the great Mr. Dumas had written his own version of the ballads of Robin Hood – it probably reached similar heights as when I discovered that Tolkien had written about King Arthur. Because I am not sure I could think of a more perfect combination of story meets storyteller, for either tale. That being said: on with the review!

As far as I can tell, this book is an amalgamation of many of the older ballads, into a prose narrative. The tone stays close to those found in the old ballads – the translation I read, at least, did not focus on swashbuckling action, though some of the stories certainly have their share of it. It seems that Dumas focuses more on morality/ethicality – why Robin Hood does what he does – and on love. It is this focus on love that is the largest change from what I remember of the earlier ballads – and is the biggest difference from many of the later retellings I’ve read. Maid Marian usually doesn’t come into the picture until later, and ends up marrying Robin with King Richard’s blessing. Not so here – she’s there from the beginning, wooed and married before the story is even half over. And many of Robin’s men make matches over the course of the book as well. (Can you imagine Little John married? He has always been a permanent bachelor in my mind, though I’m not upset that he finds love in this book.) In fact, one chapter marries something like 7 couples at one time! (Double or even triple weddings are clearly only for the faint of heart.)

What Dumas does best, in my humble opinion, is handling the inconsistent nature of the Robin Hood story. He has clearly done his homework. As mentioned earlier, Marian is not in original ballads – the other women likely not either – yet he manages to incorporate them, while still maintaining a similar tone. They aren’t obtrusively modern, in other words. Likewise, there has long been an issue regarding the time period of the story – in the earliest ballads, Robin operates under a King Edward; while Richard and John take the stage during the Renaissance, and reign in the most well-known version today – and Dumas manages to incorporate them all in a way that was interesting enough for me to suspend my disbelief that Robin Hood manages to live through three of England’s kings (and the impulse to go check out when/how long each king actually reigned).

I have to say though, for a book being written by Dumas, I was incredibly disappointed with one thing: aside from dealing with internal inconsistencies, he does not seem to try to piece together the stories into a more coherent plot. It often reads with disjointment, more like a series of short stories – Dumas, literally retelling the ballads as they were, with little to link them together in terms of plot. One of the biggest reasons I love Dumas’s work is his ability to handle complicated plot lines, linking almost any situation – surprising, while keeping reader confusion to a minimum. If anyone could have taken the varying threads of the stories of Robin Hood and woven a masterpiece, it would have been him. And yet he clearly opted not to do so in this work. All of his links are more subtle thematic similarities from chapter to chapter. That being said, I still loved this book. I love it for the tale that it tells, for the themes it chooses to focus on (love, along with the classic ‘take-from-the-rich-give-to-the-poor), for the fact that Dumas took the time to retell the story of Robin Hood in the first place. For the changes that he did make to already well-known characters. Even for the fact that he was able to recreate the ballad-like feel, while putting his own focus on the tale – and for the attention that he did pay to the numerous versions of the story out there, in clear attempts to bring them together to create a more coherent tradition. Scholars of the Robin Hood story should not pass up this retelling and it is a must-read for Robin Hood enthusiasts!

Published: 1863

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Guest Post: The Story Girl by L.M. Montgomery

Denise, today’s guest reviewer, is an avid reader and is currently studying library science.

Goodreads: The Story Girl
Series: The Story Girl #1

Summary: Beverley and Felix King have never been to the place that their father grew up, though they have visited time and time again through their father’s tales. Then one summer they are sent to live with their cousins and soon find themselves immersed in the stories in a way only the Story Girl could manage, stories of childhood, family and friendship – a bonding of past, present, and future remembered and retold with the unabashed delight of a child.

Review: Sara Stanley, or the Story Girl as she is known throughout the small town of Carlisle, has been described as “L.M. Montgomery’s most enchanting heroine since Anne of Green Gables,” high praise as any Montgomery devotee knows. And indeed, there is much in the character of the Story Girl that recalls Anne Shirley – from her love of romanticizing and telling stories to her stubborn temper and her preference for dramatic penance. Indeed, The Story Girl could very well be the story of Anne’s childhood had she a family to go to when her parents died, though the Story Girl’s father, at least, is alive and well despite his lack of physical presence in the novel.

In a similar stylistic choice to that of Anne of Green Gables, the story is told through a series of vignettes, held together by the simplicity of time passing as it is wont to do. Structuring the novel this way allows Montgomery to highlight the beauty and fascination that the everyday – the mundane to some – can hold if we but let it. The story is undoubtedly about the Story Girl, but it is told from neither her point of view nor that of an omniscient narrator. Instead, Montgomery chooses Beverely King to be her narrator, an adolescent boy captivated by the world he discovers in Carlisle. Undoubtedly this was a deliberate stylistic decision, perhaps to further differentiate Sara from Anne. At one point in the novel, though, Sara expresses a preference for using spoken word to tell stories for she is much more eloquent that way as opposed to her attempts at writing, so perhaps this decision was an attempt to stay consistent with the character of the Story Girl. Choosing Beverely as her voice also places the reader in the position of experiencing the story from a perspective lodged between the fascination of childhood and the acknowledgement of the adult, a perspective that would have been much more difficult, if not impossible, to have established through an omniscient viewpoint. This was the first Montgomery novel that I have read in which a boy is narrating, though to be quite honest, the story felt no different from others written from a feminine viewpoint.

All in all, The Story Girl is a brilliant work in its own right and brings to its reader an appreciation of the slowness and simplicity of a time past, easily overlooked in a society like ours today. It reminds readers to take time to enjoy the daily pleasures and laugh at the daily tragedies, to be present in a life only too willing to propel us forward at the risk of being left behind.

Published: 1911