Sunday, March 18, 2007

Robin Hood

Title: The Outlaws of Sherwood
Author: Robin McKinley

Robin had no memory later of taking to his heels. He ran, his traitorous bow still clenched in one hand, till he could run no more; and then he walked till he caught his breath, and ran on. Once or twice he fell. He did not know where he went or where he was going; as he lay on the ground the second time, the wind knocked out of him, the ragged ends of the broken arrow in his belt digging into his flesh, his foot aching from the root that had tripped him, he thought, I will run till it kills me, for I have killed a man, and my death is demanded by the king’s law. And he got up, limping a little, and ran on. He ran till he was blind with running, till he thought he had lived his entire life running, one foot pounding down in front of the other endlessly, till his bones were on fire with it, and every time either foot struck the ground his whole body cried out against the jolt. He set his teeth and ran on.

~ Robin McKinley, The Outlaws of Sherwood

There are as many versions of Robin Hood as there are tellers of tales. But this version – The Outlaws of Sherwood, by Robin McKinley – is my favorite.

In some ways, McKinley’s Robin Hood doesn’t depart all that greatly from Howard Pyle’s classic tale. The bare bones of the plot will be recognized by anyone who has a passing familiarity with that beloved book. Little John and Robin battle with staves on a bridge over a stream; the lands of Sir Richard of the Lea are bought out of debt by outlaw gold; and Guy of Gisbourne makes a late appearance as the sadistic mercenary more terrifying than the paunchy Sheriff of Nottingham ever could be. Purists will find many of the things they’re looking for.

But the similarities end there.

McKinley completely revitalizes the legend. For starters, her Robin is a terrible archer, who can only hit the side of the barn “if it’s not walking too fast away from [him].” Indeed, he’s not much of a fighter at all. Nor is he particularly merry.

Rather, this Robin Hood is – as he himself admits – a pessimist. He doesn’t chose outlawry, but is forced into it when he accidentally kills a man. He frets constantly over the safety of his people, and would far rather spend his time digging privies than dreaming up the Saxon revolt against the Normans. He’s pragmatic. Rain falls on him when he sleeps, and he has no interest at all in going to Nottingham town to win the archery contest and the golden arrow that the sheriff has set for him as bait. After all, what would one do with a golden arrow? He’d far rather have a sheep or a cow. As one of his followers cheerfully remarks to him, “You are the most pessimistic killjoy a band of honest rogues ever had to bear with.”

But I’m afraid this all sounds rather dull so far. A Robin Hood who can’t shoot? A leader more dour than dapper? No thanks. I prefer Kevin Costner flying off a catapult, or Cary Elwes dancing in tights.

Well, the incredible thing about The Outlaws of Sherwood is that McKinley writes a “realistic” Robin Hood while somehow maintaining all the romance and magic of the legend. Her Robin is a reluctant – and rather accidental – hero, but he is still a hero. By the end of the book, you’ll be in awe of him. Not because he’s superhuman, but because he’s an ordinary man who did something extraordinary without even realizing it.

Robin’s band of merry outlaws is equally impressive. McKinley is a master of affectionate characterization, and each individual gets his or her chance to shine. The personalities of Little John, Will Scarlet, Much the Miller’s Son, and Allan-a-Dale are all deepened and expanded in completely believable ways. They become their own individuals, and not merely appendages to the big man in green.

And then there are the women.

McKinley’s books are known for their strong female characters, and Outlaws is no exception. Several female outlaws find their homes in Robin’s band, and nor are they “token” appearances either. Sibyl, Eva, Marjorie…they all leap from trees and fight alongside the men. And then there’s one whom I can’t name here for fear of spoiling the story for you, but she’s…amazing. And, of course, there’s Marian.

McKinley’s Marian, a nobleman’s daughter, is no damsel in distress. She’s strong, intelligent, and – surprise surprise – a brilliant archer. She climbs trees with the boys, comes and goes as she pleases, and saves the day more than once. Indeed, it is upon Marian’s shoulders that the burden of “burnishing a legend” ultimately rests, and it’s a burden she feels heavily before the book ends. Robin doesn’t love her merely because she’s there and she’s pretty. He loves her because he needs her – even as he tells her to go away, fearful that her association with him puts her in danger. It’s a great romance.

Finally, I should mention that Outlaws is heart-wrenching and bittersweet. The climactic battle between Robin’s band and Guy’s mercenaries isn’t a battle of glory and derring-do. It’s a slugfest complete with blood and dirt and tears. The outlaws, after all, are fighting for their lives. But it’s not offensively gory, nor is the violence cheap or gratuitous. It’s merely real. When a character gets sliced with a sword, they do not grit their teeth and continue with superhuman strength. They fall. Sometimes they die. Wounds don’t swiftly heal. They fester, and make their recipients fearful of future maiming.

But I don’t mean to frighten readers away. For me, a book can only show heartbreak after it’s shown joy. And there’s lots of joy in Outlaws. There’s also humor and adventure and love and – most important of all – comradeship. Indeed, it’s the fast friendship among the outlaws that is ultimately the most compelling and memorable aspect of Outlaws. The characters all rely on each other some way or another, and their loyalty lasts through laughter and hunger and the fear of death.

If you haven’t realized it yet, I love The Outlaws of Sherwood. I’ve read it many, many times over the years, and was just as amazed re-reading it this past weekend as I’d been when I was a mere lass of thirteen. Indeed, I was probably more impressed, because now I realize how rare books like McKinley’s are. It would be wonderful if I convinced one of you to read it, although I do realize that not everyone is as infatuated by McKinley as I am. Still, if one of you picks it up one day and gets some moderate enjoyment from the reading of it, this would be enough for me.

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posted by Elizabeth at 10:35 PM


Blogger Elizabeth said...

Oh, curses. Searching the internet last night for other Outlaws of Sherwood reviews, I came upon this one. And it's incredibly annoying, because it's better than mine. Grr.

But I'm a begin enough person to recommend it to you folk, as a review that's a little more...action-packed and intriguing. *looks glum and yet admiring*

3/19/2007 6:01 AM  

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