I’ve always loved the legend of Robin Hood. Countless books, TV shows and films have been dedicated to the most beloved of England’s heroes, so I was more than happy to read this novel. The legend of the swashbuckling hero has been rewritten by Lauren Johnson from a refreshingly different angle. By happy coincidence, I met Johnson at the University of Leeds when she was giving a paper about live historical interpretation. Johnson is the Research Manager for Past Pleasures, a company that does live historical interpretation at Hampton Court, The Tower of London and Dover Castle. Her passion for breathing life into history, her attention to detail, and commitment to historical accuracy is evident throughout her first book, The Arrow of Sherwood.
The History Behind the Legend
The legend of Robin Hood has been disputed by scholars for many years. There are ballads dating to the 15th century recalling his exploits; there are court records of a “Robert de Lockesly” and a “Robert Loxley”. There are theories that Robin could have been the Earl of Huntingdon, Robin Hood of Wakefield, Robin Hood of York, and even the suggestion that “Robin Hood” was an alias commonly used by medieval outlaws. The name “Robin Hood” (in various iterations) appeared as early as 1228 in court rolls. He was loosely tied to several centuries in the Middle Ages but then the Victorians had their way with Robin and his mythology was firmly entrenched as the Crusader, outlaw-hero of the poor and downtrodden during the reign of Richard the Lionheart. Folklore, myth, legend, sprinkled generously with a bit of history and heroics make for a fantastic story. Johnson banked on this and managed to tell the tale behind the myth with a serious dose of historical accuracy. Johnson even went to the trouble of explaining her research, and what liberties were taken in the creation of the novel.
It’s 1193, and Robin of Locksley has returned home from the Third Crusade. Robin finds much has changed in Nottingham during his 4 year absence. His father and sister have died, his mother has remarried the sheriff who has taken up residence in Robin’s home, and to add insult to injury, his former fiancèe, Marian, is now betrothed to the the son of the new Norman lord, Eudo Vipont. To make matters worse, Robin was presumed dead due to a false rumour while on Crusade so he lost his lands to the new rulers, the Viponts. The Viponts are close friends of John the Count of Mortain, later to become the notorious King John of Magna Carta fame, and will do anything to curry favour with King Richard’s younger brother while Richard is locked away in an Austrian prison. Robin had to suffer the indignity of being “allowed” to live on his former estate under the sheriff’s charity. Not the quite the welcome home a Crusader expects. Robin decides to go through the proper channels to regain his estate, so he can marry the beautiful Elaine Peverill (Marian’s cousin) and leave his sordid past behind. Unfortunately, this is not an easy task as the new lords are loathe to relinquish their interest in his land, or their hold on his nephew, Jocelyn. Undeterred, Robin sets out to make his father proud by attempting to become the lord he always wanted him to be, by staying within the confines of the law, and avoiding his former lowborn friends. Robin finds, however, that he can’t abandon his friends or his tenants to the rapacious, predatory, and cruel Viponts. The Norman lords have imposed extortionate and unfair taxes, starved the tenants, and arrested people in Nottinghamshire on trumped up charges so they can pocket their livelihoods and fill their already overflowing coffers. Robin realises he doesn’t want to be a lord, but knows the best way to help his family and friends is by playing the system and keeping up appearances so he can stay one step ahead of the Viponts.
What makes this book brilliant is that Robin chooses to fight back as a lord. He doesn’t run off into the forest with a band of Merry Men and hijack passing wagons laden with coin at every chance he gets, (although there is some of that later on) initially, Robin tries to work with the system. He plays the system and exploits his position and power to try and undermine the crooked Viponts. Doesn’t sound exciting? Well, it is. This is where Johnson shines. She gets to showcase her attention to detail and vast knowledge of medieval history. She has every minute detail down – from daily peasant life, to religious rites and holidays, to the changing of the seasons on a manorial demesne, to the complexities of medieval English law and the political conflicts raging between John, the Normans, and the common people. Everything is in the details and this book is comprehensive and well researched. Johnson brought the real twelfth century to life and managed to create fascinating characters, humour and an exciting plot. The best parts of the book are the moments when Robin is able to work the system to his advantage and make fools out of his oppressors using his smarts, not brawn. Sherwood forest and his “Merry Men” do emerge but not in the typical form we’re used to seeing from Hollywood or other less thoughtfully researched books. This book was far from a “Disneyfied” version of the Middle Ages.
Robin of Locksley is a complex character and you don’t fall in love with him right away. He has a troubled past, he’s not the nicest hero at first, and his reasons for going on Crusade were far from altruistic. Robin’s a flawed character, chivalry is definitely not his forté, but it makes him a realistic and interesting. The same can be said for the other prominent characters of the book: Marian, Will Scarlette, and John Blunt (who would be “Little John”). Even the Viponts aren’t typical two-dimensional “bad guys”; Guy Vipont, who is betrothed to Marian, shows a kinder side than the rest of his family and opposes them where he can. Marian and Robin’s relationship isn’t a starry-eyed romance, far from it, in fact, it was a pleasant change when Robin was given an alternate love interest in Elaine Peverill. The characters are well rounded, interesting and authentic. Their struggles and reactions are believable and perfectly blended with the history behind the legend. I have read many takes on Robin Hood over the years but this book has been, by far, my favourite. It pleasantly surprised me and I could not put it down, I was completely engrossed. It’s a unique blend of legend, history, genuine characters, and page-turning storytelling. If you are a fan of this English outlaw and you’d like to read a realistic take on this magical myth, Arrow of Sherwood definitely won’t disappoint.
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