The Forest Queen by Betsy Cornwall

Information

Goodreads: The Forest Queen
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: August 2018

Summary

When Silvie’s brother John becomes sheriff and tries to marry Silvie off to a nobleman, Silvie runs off to the forest with her best friend Bird.  Initially, she has no plans other than trying to survive the winter.  But the commoners keep arriving and they seem to think she’s going to rebel.  Can Silvie come up with a plan to save them from the crushing taxes?  Does she even really want to?  (A gender-swapped retelling of “Robin Hood.”)

Review

“John never climbed the trees with us.  But sometimes he would wait on the ground as we climbed, and I could feel his gaze on the back of my legs, watching.”

The Forest Queen is going on my list of YA books so dark I almost could not stomach them.  The threat of sexual violence was ever-present in this book and at some points I was not sure I wanted to continue reading.  It never seemed like there was a redeeming moment and all the talk about simply surviving being heroic did not inspire me.  I spent the bulk of the book feeling alternately disturbed by the content, baffled by the uselessness of the protagonist, and annoyed by the prose style.

To describe the content, I would obviously have to go into spoilers, but, if you are interested, I have included a “Content Note” at the bottom of the review.  Nothing the book contains is graphically described–except, perhaps, the killing of a stag in a hunt.  However, the book really impressed me with the idea that everything was horrible and no woman will ever be safe, and I had trouble with this.  I guess I just want to read more books where the female characters don’t seem always to be reacting to the violence enacted upon them.  I recognize that, of course, discussing sexual violence and its effects is very, very important.  I just also think that it would be nice to represent more woman who are not constantly being victimized and who are strong in and of themselves.

To add to this, the protagonist is one of those useless ones who are constantly told how wonderful and inspirational they are, despite the fact that they barely do anything.  Silvie’s friend/lover Bird is the driving force behind her flight to the forest and he’s the one who gathers supplies and comes up with ways to survive.  (Not surprising–she’s a noble who’s never had to survive in the wild before.)  Silvie’s just in the forest because she is tired of living under her brother’s finger.  She has no long-term plan.  She’s not even sure she can survive one winter.  But the commoners flock to her and make her their leader, because…?  She’s a noble and they’re used to listening to her?  I’d honestly nominate Bird the leader as he seems the most useful, the most knowledgeable, and the most charismatic.  But this is a gender-swapped Robin Hood, so I guess that wouldn’t work.

Finally, the prose style is grating.  You can take a look at the sample quote above to get the general idea.  We get a lot of obscure hinting that tries to make the story feel mysterious and deep.  Layering that sort of thing, however, eventually makes the story sound silly more than anything else.  It’s really difficult to read a couple hundred pages of it.

I was excited to read a retelling of “Robin Hood,” but The Forest Queen disappointed me.  I found none of the charm of the original, none of the wonderful camaraderie, the golden afternoons, the sheer delight in feats of arms and in trickery.  Instead, I felt uninspired by the protagonist, overwhelmed by the darkness, and annoyed by the prose.  I understand some may enjoy this book, but I will not be recommending it.

Content Notes: rape, attempted suicide, threat of incest

1 star

Princess of the Silver Woods by Jessica Day George

Princess of the Silver WoodsInformation

Goodreads: Princess of the Silver Woods
Series: Princess #3
Source: Library
Published: 2012

Summary

A decade has passed since Petunia and her sisters defeated the King Under Stone with the help of a young soldier.  The bonds keeping the evil king’s sons imprisoned, however, are breaking.  Oliver, a dispossessed noble and sometime bandit, wants desperately to protect Petunia from harm.  But webs of magic and treachery lie all around and even true love may not prove strong enough to break them.  A retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood” (with a dash of Robin Hood).

Review

I read the final book in the Princess trilogy years after the first two, which may have been a mistake as it seems written primarily to appeal to fans.  Jessica Day George crams all the old faces into the work, including the old villains, so that it seems almost like a repeat of Princess of the Midnight Ball, except that the characters are less defined, presumably because readers are supposed to remember them.  I didn’t, which meant that I had to rely on the new elements (new setting, new love interest, new fairy tale) to keep me engaged.  Unfortunately, the number of characters the book attempts to balance means that Petunia and Oliver, the supposed protagonists, do not receive as much attention as they ought.  The book simply tries to do too much—set up a romance, reunite old characters, defeat an ancient evil, and restore a dispossessed noble to his property—and fails to do any of it adequately.

The first couple chapters attempt nobly to present Petunia, the youngest princess, as a protagonist in her own right.  According to the timeline given in the book, she was only six or seven during the events of Princess of the Midnight Ball, so George has a lot of room with which to work.  She relies on the usual characteristics given to younger siblings—an annoyance that everyone consistently overlooks her in favor of her older sisters, a resentment against hand-me-down clothes.  She takes that to make Petunia a spunky little thing (her height is constantly referred to in the beginning as a defining characteristic, then suddenly dropped from the story altogether) anxious to prove her daring and wit.  It works, until her sisters appear.

Once all twelve sisters reunite, George clearly has trouble balancing them.  Like most books featuring the twelve princesses, this one relies on giving defining characteristics to three or four, then randomly mentioning the others in contexts like “Hyacinth walked into the room” just so readers know the author hasn’t forgotten them.  One might suppose that George would at least continue to spotlight Petunia—a focus on her would not be amiss in what is her book.  However, Petunia is quickly swamped by the stampede of characters—not only sisters but also lovers and husbands and loyal men and old allies.  When she does appear, she is sometimes indistinguishable from her sister Poppy, whose main trait is also boldness.  I often had to reread passages to figure out whether Poppy or Petunia had been speaking.

Oliver also fails to distinguish himself as a character in his own right.  His character seems to change based on the necessities of the plot.  I have no idea whether I could rightly describe him as brave or daring or honest (he isn’t, but he wants to be?); mostly he comes across as “nice”.  His role in the story has a fluid-like quality, so even that fails to define him—he emerges variously as the wolf from “Little Red Riding Hood,” the woodcutter, and even Robin Hood.

George regrettably does not incorporate elements from “Little Red Riding Hood” or from Robin Hood in a particularly original way and the links are tenuous at best.  Petunia wears a red cloak (and is rather obsessive about it), the thieves in the forest call themselves “wolves,” and at one point Oliver cuts some wood.  Oliver bears a resemblance to Robin Hood in that he has lost his rightful property and now leads some men in the forest.  Often these elements do not emerge in a believable way—Oliver’s story about his decision to rob travelers in order to sustain an earldom simply does not make sense, though a not insignificant portion of the book attempts to make it sound plausible.

The final chapters of the book are possibly the strongest.  The action picks up, the sisters show some great character development in terms of facing their enemy (except for Lily, who apparently used to be really brave and a terrific shot, but now mostly sobs), and even the villains seem more human this time.  The ending is a trifle neat, but I expected that from a fairy tale retelling.

I enjoyed Princess of the Silver Woods as another foray into the world of Princess of the Midnight Ball.  It was good to see familiar faces again and to see how the princesses have grown.  The decision to stop with three books, however, proved wise.

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Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993)

robinhoodMITIMDB: Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993)
Source: owned

Summary (excerpt from the DVD): In days of olde, when men were men, men wore tights. And none wore tights mightieror tighterthan Robin Hood! Aided by his band of merry men, Robin of Loxley wrested power from the evil Prince John, brought humiliation upon the despicable Sheriff of Rottingham and found the key to the fair Maid Marian’s heartand her chastity belt.

Review: Oh, Mel Brooks. Where do I even start? The opening credits begin as you might expect: flaming arrows and fiery letters appear on thatched roofing and proclaim that Cary Elwes, Richard Lewis, and Roger Rees star as Robin Hood, Prince John, and the Sheriff of Rottingham, respectively. But toward the end, it becomes clear that these thatched roofs belong to actual villagers, and they come screaming out of their houses to curse Mel Brooks for being the last in a long line of directors who insist on burning their homes to make a cool opening sequence. It’s safe to say this sets the tone for the rest of the movie.

Robin Hood: Men in Tights is basically a mash-up of Prince of Thieves (the 1991 film with Kevin Costner) and Errol Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, with one or two references to the 1973 animated Disney version thrown in for good measure. At one point, Cary Elwes’s Robin manages to crash a feast with a wild boar (which Prince John then calls “treyf,” the Yiddish word for non-kosher food) and declare his unflagging confidence that the commoners will follow him “because, unlike some other Robin Hoods, [he] can speak with an English accent,” then proceeds to topple a host of armored knights like dominoes. Mel Brooks doesn’t care how absurd his situations get, and in fact deliberately goes out of his way to make jokes and sight gags unrelated to the Robin Hood myths. Everything is done for a laugh, and nothing is taken seriously.

Purposeful continuity errors, multiple fourth wall breakages, ridiculous musical numbers, and anachronistic humor combine to create a very silly comedic take on the classic tale as only Mel Brooks can deliver.

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Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)

robinhoodPOTIMDB: Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
Source: owned

Summary: Robin of Locksley (played by Kevin Costner), recently returned from the Crusades with sworn protector Azeem Edin Bashir al Bakir (Morgan Freeman), finds England and his lands in disarray thanks to the corrupt Sheriff of Nottingham (Alan Rickman). Although his intentions are good, Robin is quickly made an outlaw and forced into hiding in the “haunted” Sherwood Forest, where he meets fellow outlaws and becomes their leader. With their help, he must stop the the Sheriff’s oppression, save King Richard I’s throne, and avenge his father’s murder.

Review: Basically, I love this movie and I have no idea why. Kevin Costner barely tries to hide his American accent (or he doesn’t try at all, and the lines are just that awkward-sounding), Maid Marian starts out as a strong, capable woman and ends up as your typical damsel-in-distress for no apparent reason,  and an explanation for the Sheriff’s creepy basement-dwelling-witch is never given. (Seriously. There’s a scene in which Rickman has to balance on a plank over a swamp in his own castle just so he can talk to this woman named Mortianna who has an entire python just chilling on a rock. I mean, this is medieval England; decent drainage systems haven’t been invented yet. That much water near the base of your castle is seriously compromising to the structure as a whole, and did I mention the giant snake because that’s kind of hard to ignore? To get back to the point, if Mortianna is the reason for all the Sheriff’s evil schemes, that still doesn’t let the writers off the hook—why does she want power over the throne, then? What are her motives? These questions are never addressed.)

Director Kevin Reynolds does a pretty decent job telling Robin’s origin story, but once he’s done with that, his efforts fall apart. He starts out being historically accurate, with Jerusalem in Muslim hands in 1194. He also filmed in the United Kingdom, so much of the landscape looks authentic. Azeem, although not part of the traditional legends, is easily one of the most engaging characters. Guy of Gisborne, Will Scarlet (who has some amazing hair), and the Bishop of Hereford all make appearances and important contributions to the plot. Strangely, Prince John is never mentioned. The Sheriff’s plans seem to be “take the Lionheart’s crown,” but Prince John’s regency is completely overlooked. Apparently the next in line is Marian (I don’t know how that happened), since eventually Nottingham’s plans boil down to, “Marry her and put your son on the throne.” If the audience isn’t busy wondering why he didn’t think of that before Robin showed up and started ruining everything, it is because they are distracted by the logistics he and Mortianna are working with—apparently they believe Marian can conceive, bring to term, and birth a child before our heroes break the chapel doors down.

It’s the second to last scene in a 143-minute movie. I guess if you’re not invested by then, you don’t have much longer to suffer.

But, for all that, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is a great adventure. Robin is more thoughtful and mature than in some legends, but the audience is led to believe that this wisdom is a relatively new development, a product of a harsh and eye-opening war with the Saracens in the Holy Land. His ideals are admirable, if a little anachronistic: he seems to think freedom is a virtue of 12th-century England, and manages to teach respect for both women and other cultures to the Merry Men. I’m unclear as to how much a Crusade can change someone so much in terms of social behavior (not to mention how others who had not shared that veteran experience would adopt the same behavior so quickly), but this film was made with 90’s audiences in mind. It would have been difficult to depict authentic, pre-Magna Carta values in a movie with Kevin Costner rocking a mullet.

Maid Marian is just as mixed up as a character. The very first time the audience sees her, she is a warrior-woman who attacks Robin for no reason one scene and explains to him in the next that she still has her lands and titles because she doesn’t give Nottingham an excuse to take them—i.e., she keeps her head down in public and acquiesces to the Sheriff’s demands, no matter how much she dislikes them. It’s difficult to reconcile those two images. However, her confidence is one of her most attractive features, and it makes frequent appearances throughout the movie. For instance, she kisses Robin first (as a farewell at the end of a visit), and he just stands there looking forlorn when she leaves. He doesn’t gather her up in his arms to kiss her back, or try to outdo her, or make the moment more romantic or anything silly like that. Nobody takes that kiss away from her, and that is really refreshing. But then she makes a stupid mistake and the rest of the film she’s kidnapped and forced into a marriage with Nottingham and basically just screams for Robin to help her. But for about 75% of the movie, she does pretty well for herself.

I’ll be honest, there are a lot of problems with this picture. But there are so many good points that it’s not worth missing. There’s action and romance and love and honor and courage—all the things you need in a good Robin Hood retelling. If you love the stories, you shouldn’t let it go unwatched.

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The Outlaws of Sherwood by Robin McKinley

Outlaws of SherwoodGoodreads: The Outlaws of Sherwood
Source: Borrowed

Summary: Young Robin, the orphaned son of a forester, finds himself a reluctant outlaw after killing a man in self-defense. While he wants to hide unobtrusively in Sherwood forest, his friends seize upon the opportunity to make him a rallying point for the oppressed, over-taxed Saxons barely surviving under Norman rule. As the myth of Robin and his “merry band” grows, the men and women of Sherwood fight to survive and to do whatever good they can for the many Saxons who seek refuge in the forest.

Review: McKinley’s Robin is a reluctant legend. He never meant to kill the man whose death branded him an outlaw. He never wanted old friends – let alone strangers – to follow him into the forest. And he admits repeatedly that virtually every member of his band can shoot an arrow better than he can. He never actively seeks new members for his gang, but expends much time and energy trying to relocate the desperate men and women who seek him out. Essentially, the outlaws of Sherwood are running a covert social service organization for any Saxons plagued by unjust taxes, eviction, or arranged marriages. The funding for these services, of course, comes from unsuspecting rich Normans wandering through the forest.

This was a difficult story to become invested in, at first, especially since Robin himself is not the most interesting or developed character in the book. It became more likable halfway through, however, particularly with the arrival of a new character and the development of more action and excitement Robin was trying so hard to avoid.

One of the most notable features of this retelling is the generous inclusion of women. In fact, the female characters are some of the most well developed in the story. But while some girls might find this a reason to read this version of Robin Hood instead of another, the gender roles in this England might be a bit unbelievable for some, given the time period the story is set in. In this story, Marian is a perfect shot (much better than Robin is) and women fight not only alongside Robin as outlaws, but also alongside the king in the Holy Land. Random women also appear at archery contests, and make it to the last round before trained soldiers. These girls are all likable characters, however, so many readers may be able to forgive them their unusual skill with weapons.

In short, this is a fairly light and enjoyable introduction to Robin Hood, if not one of the most traditional tellings.

Published: 1988

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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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Outlaw: The Legend of Robin Hood by Tony Lee

OutlawGoodreads: Outlaw: The Legend of Robin Hood
Source: Library

Official Summary:

Fast-paced graphic storytelling and stunning full-color illustrations combine in an action-packed retelling of the heroic Robin Hood story.

How did Robin of Loxley become Robin Hood? Why did he choose to fight injustice instead of robbing for his own gain? Expressive and gritty, this graphic novel whisks readers back to Crusades-era England, where the Sheriff of Nottingham rules with an iron fist, and in the haunted heart of Sherwood Forest, a defiant rogue — with the help of his men and the lovely Maid Marian — disguises himself to become an outlaw. Lively language and illustrations follow the legendary hero as he champions the poor and provokes a high-stakes vendetta in a gripping adventure sure to draw a new generation of readers.

ReviewOutlaw is a somewhat darker take on the Robin Hood tale, starring a Robin who is mature and somewhat bitter from his childhood experiences and his role in the Crusades.  He is, however, a complete badass, and will satisfy readers who like their legendary figures tough in battle, witty with their enemies, and suave with the ladies.  The plot offers few surprises, following standard escapades as Robin crosses paths with Guy of Gisburne and the Sheriff of Nottingham and woos the Lady Marian.  Its greatest claim to originality is its medium—the graphic novel.  Readers can see as Robin waylays travelers and breaks into the Sheriff’s home.

When the story does depart from more traditional Robin Hood elements to original ones, the plotlines seems out of place.  The book opens with Robin as a child, in an attempt to build something of a backstory for him.  If anyone ever wanted to know exactly how Robin became good with a bow, or when he first romanticized the idea of becoming an outlaw, the answers are here.   These moments are referenced frequently as Robin experiences flashbacks about them, and they are clearly meant to move the audience.  They also humanize Robin, and he becomes less than legend in this book.

The book further departs from tradition by introducing an element of the supernatural.  Sherwood, it seems, is haunted.  No one can find Robin’s band because they are too fearful to enter the woods and look.  Unfortunately, there is only a single encounter with spirits, near the beginning of the story, and then the matter is dropped.  The subsequent absence of what had promised to be a major component of the book and Robin’s life is noticeable and could leave readers dissatisfied.

In terms of artwork, the first panel is spectacularly immersive, featuring a hooded outlaw perched among the branches of a large tree, seemingly aiming his bow straight at the reader as he demands a toll before he or she can move on.  Unfortunately, this is the illustrator’s most brilliant moment, as the panels following never again incorporate the reader directly into the story or generally add much the text itself could not accomplish.  Most of the panels are dark, making it difficult sometimes to tell which characters are speaking or what is happening in general.  This can build an atmosphere of confusion for the reader that is fitting for a story based around conspiracies, but it also means that often there is not really much to look at.

Mostly, Outlaw stands on readers’ already formed love of the Robin Hood tale.  The artwork has some interesting features, when visible, but readers will probably not be poring over it.  The dialogue vacillates between being sassy and awkwardly phrased.  The plot is fun—but it is standard.  Barring the addition of Robin’s childhood years, most of it has been done before, in greater length and detail.  Outlaw could serve as a fun introduction to Robin Hood, to familiarize young readers with the general idea of the story, or it could be a fun read for those interested in comparing different Robin Hood versions.   In both cases, it needs to be read in comparison with other Robin Hood books because it is simply not remarkable enough to stand on its own.

Published: 2009

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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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Scarlet by A. C. Gaughen

ScarletUS.inddGoodreads: Scarlet
Series: Scarlet #1
Source: Library

Official Summary: Posing as one of Robin Hood’s thieves to avoid the wrath of the evil Thief Taker Lord Gisbourne, Scarlet has kept her identity secret from all of Nottinghamshire. Only the Hood and his band know the truth: the agile thief posing as a whip of a boy is actually a fearless young woman with a secret past. Helping the people of Nottingham outwit the corrupt Sheriff of Nottingham could cost Scarlet her life as Gisbourne closes in.

It’s only her fierce loyalty to Robin—whose quick smiles and sharp temper have the rare power to unsettle her—that keeps Scarlet going and makes this fight worth dying for.

ReviewScarlet takes readers to the beginning of Robin Hood’s band, introducing a group that of yet has only four members, all of whom are young and, though talented, still figuring out how to best utilize their skills.  The story features all the elements readers love in a Robin Hood tale, including the most beloved characters and a central fight between Robin’s men and the sheriff of Nottingham.  Gaughen also includes enough original features to make her version fresh and worth picking out of a lineup of retellings all set in Sherwood Forest England, during the Crusades.  She makes a few relatively minor changes, such as revealing in the first few pages that Tuck is not a friar but simply a man who owns an inn called Friar Tuck’s, and also introduces a second major conflict that runs parallel to the one with the sheriff.

All is told in a first person narrative from the perspective of Scarlet herself—who thankfully comes right out and admits she is a girl disguising herself as a boy.  Most authors using this plot element try to make it a sudden reveal halfway through the novel, which can be frustrating (readers go through the “but are you really the same person?” questioning phase just as much as the characters) and downright cliché.  Scarlet is a plucky girl determined to to carve herself a new life, though she is not always certain whether she wants that life to be with Robin’s band.  The story is just as much about Scarlet’s search for a home and identity as it is about fighting the injustice of Prince John’s government, which gives it a personal and human aspect not found in many retellings.  Annoying, Scarlet relates events in an affected commoner dialect, consistently saying things like, “He were afeared.”  Thankfully, no one else speaks like this, so when other characters are introduced and start talking, readers got a break from the horrendous grammar.  Of course, this also raises the question of why Scarlet speaks like this at all.  Where did she pick it up, if no other person, other commoners included, ever talks like that?  Readers may never know.

Gaughen also adds a swoon-worthy romance to her tale, which will leave readers hungry for more of the action and romantic dialogue in the sequel.  There is an attempt at a love triangle, but it has a rather obvious outcome, due to the characterization of the two men in question. Even so, both men appear to have a decent shot at winning over the girl, at least for a while, so the love triangle does manage to add at least of bit of tension to the book.  Basically, readers know how everything must end, but Scarlet herself appears legitimately torn and both men have enough good characteristics that her attraction to both believable.

The action plot also has a few obvious twists, but they are interesting enough and Gaughen writes well enough that the story is still fun to read, even if readers can hazard a few good guesses at what will happen.  In general, this is the sign of a good writer.  As I have mentioned before on the blog, one of my English professors was fond of commenting, “No one rereads books for plot.”  So if readers can know what happens and still want to keep reading, there must be something really enjoyable or interesting going on.

And there is.  Gaughen takes advantage of the inherent question of the Robin Hood story: What is moral?  Is it right to steal from the rich to give to the poor?  Is it just a lesser evil to steal and help people survive than to watch them starve to death?  Did Robin have any other options?  When threatened, should he turn himself in to the sheriff, or will he ultimately save more lives by continuing to live and give the people money?  I am not sure any Robin Hood tale gives a concrete answer to all or even most of these questions, but a good version explores them instead of assuming This is just how the story goes.  The characters should talk about them, and the readers should be lead to think about them.   Gaughen adds further moral ambiguity with some aspects of the romance plot.  Normally, I am all for characters following the straight and narrow in their romantic endeavors (I cannot, for example, really enjoy any book where the main romance is adulterous, like Water for Elephants), but the ambiguity seems so natural and necessary to a story like Scarlet.  I am looking forward to seeing how it plays out.

Robin Hood retellings, in my opinion, can get old.  They often seem so similar, in ways that retellings of other stories usually do not.  Cinderella, for example, has become a modern day waitress, a futuristic Japanese cyborg, a girl in a fantasy land who literally must obey any order given.  Robin Hood, barring a few exceptions, is always a man in Lincoln green living in Sherwood forest.  There are only so many changes an author can make to that tale.  Gaughen, however, has taken that story and made it seem new.  Instead of focusing on the action (though there is plenty), she highlights deeper aspects of the legend—the morality, the relationship among the band members, the search for an identity and a home when you are a criminal living in the woods—and she gives these aspects a unique voice, that of a tough girl who apparently knows no grammar.

Published: 2012

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The Adventures of Robin Hood by Joseph Walker McSpadden

McSpaddenGoodreads: The Adventures of Robin Hood
Source: Purchased

Review: McSpadden provides a solid addition to the Robin Hood canon.  Those familiar with classic works such as Howard Pyle’s retelling or Roger Lancelyn Green’s will not find much new within its pages; the typical encounters with Little John, Friar Tuck, and more all appear.  Indeed, the generous page length ensures that the favorite episode of any reader faces good odds of being included.

The most notable feature in this work, then, is its mastery of a language that suggests an archaic flavor without ever seeming stilted; readers can believe that Robin and his men would speak the kinds of words McSpadden assigns to them.  Snippets of ballads also intersperse the work, most often appearing as introductions to episodes, but sometimes forming a part of the narrative itself.  This technique connects the book to the earlier legends it seeks to retell.

Robin Hood retellings generally follow the same trajectory so that, for me, at least, the one thing I really want to know about before I pick up a story about the famous outlaw is how Maid Marian will appear.  She, as a character, seems to have received the most reworkings over the years and I tend to favor those tales that do not seem to assume that, in order to be Robin’s equal, Maid Marian must act like Robin.  Howard Pyle’s version of Robin Hood has remained my favorite since childhood in no small part due to Main Marian’s distinct absence.

(Spoilers about Maid Marian’s role follow.)  McSpadden does an excellent job of depicting a nuanced version of Maid Marian in which she fulfills her social roles as a woman with distinct feminine grace, but also possesses the boldness to seek out Robin in the forest dressed as a page.  Though she can handle a sword well, she does not miraculously have the ability to beat Robin or any of his men in an all-out duel.  (Nothing in a Robin Hood retelling bothers me so much as Maid Marian’s ability to outshoot Robin or outfence him when he literally spends his life practicing such skills when she, presumably, is largely engaged in something more “womanly” like needlework.  I can suspend my disbelief enough to believe that her father might have encouraged her to learn such skills, but I have more trouble believing that she spent so much time at them that she can best the most famed archer in all of England’s history.)

McSpadden’s traditional take on the story of Robin Hood reminded me of all the pleasant days I spent as child reading and rereading my own favorite version of the tale.  Although it will never replace Howard Pyle for me, I delighted in following Robin and his band through the shadows of Sherwood Forest once more.

Published: 1891

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