The Outlaws of Sherwood by Robin McKinley. Not recommended.
As Robin McKinley hints in her Afterword, she has taken many elements associated with the Robin Hood legend to turn him into a hero for today — which makes him reluctant, pragmatic, and prosaic. As Marian tells him, “That’s why we need you. You’re a pessimist and a good planner.” While McKinley states that she tried to be “historically unembarrassing,” on occasion language fails her, as when one character mentions what Robin is “going through,” as though they are stock characters in a daytime drama.
The Robin Hood legend fascinates different people of different personalities, time periods, locations, and preferences for different reasons. For example, young boys may like the bravado of a fearless hero, while young girls may adore his courage and the romance implicit in the tale. Those who have felt oppressed (if only by an unlikable boss) may appreciate his initiative and his flouting of authority. To yet others, the outlaw band that steals from the rich and gives to the poor may serve as affirmation of justice in an unjust world. Others may simply enjoy the fantasy elements that many tales set in medieval times seem to have. For myself, I like the idea of an outdoor life, in the deep, truly untouched forest, away from the noise, crowding, stresses, and obligations of modern life.
That said, McKinley’s Robin Hood is none of the above. He becomes an outlaw accidentally and outlaw leader and legend only through the persuasive skills and stubbornness of Marian and Much. Physically, he is average. He is a good fletcher, an average fighter, and a poor archer. While his followers (like the reader, drawn to a character who doesn’t exist) boldly seek adventure and Norman purses, Robin is hesitant and fretful. He stays awake at night, watchful, worrying about practicalities such as feeding and sheltering the growing band, ensuring their Greentree haven deep in the heart of Sherwood is protected, and seeing to it that there are enough privy holes dug for the group’s needs. McKinley reduces Robin to what he really may have been at one time — a real human (or combination of humans) who, like a rock collects snow as it rolls downhill, has collected a variety of improbable elements as he passes through time. McKinley melts the snow until Robin could have been a real person — even if he was not. McKinley clearly feels this has appeal to modern sensibilities. She may be right, since this is a popular youth book. Perhaps, however, part of its popularity is due to the accessibility of its language to modern youth, for whom Pyle’s work is stilted and awkward.
Unfortunately, McKinley manages to rush through her plot while making it drag. While she elaborates about why the Chief Forester hates Robin, which indirectly leads to his crime, McKinley provides no context for the Norman oppression of the Saxons; it suddenly appears as a reason for Robin to lead a band of outlaws, but is not supported other than through a few tales of high taxes and lost holdings. In other words, the reader feels the villainy of the Chief Forester, the sheriff, and other select Normans, but not the cruelty of the people as a whole — yet the outlaws are fixated upon it. The reader is never brought in emotionally. The sheriff’s role is never defined; American readers will likely think he is simply a law enforcer rather than the king’s administrator (shire-reeve). Although the sheriff “is a cruel and greedy fool and lout,” it is never clear who appointed him — the absent and negligent Richard Lionheart or the Regent, vaguely alluded to a few times. It’s also not clear where Lionheart is — fighting the Saracens in Palestine or, as mentioned at one point, imprisoned in Germany.
Meanwhile, the plot plods along, with effort expended to build up a sense of danger around Marian relationship with Beatrix (a relation?) that falls flat and abruptly disappears. A gratuitous romance is introduced between members of the band for no apparent reason. Halfway through the novel, the perspective shifts inexplicably from that of Robin, Marian, and Much to that of Little John and Cecil — a shift necessary in one or two chapters to move the plot, but which detracts from the investment the reader has made in Robin and Marian.
One wonders how McKinley chose names for some of the lesser outlaws — are they hers, or do they come from previous retellings? While some (Rafe, Cecil) are English, others (Eva and Simon — Hebrew, Humphrey and Matilda — German, Marjorie — Greek, Sibyl (Cybill) — Latin, and the male Jocelin — French (female!) have non-English origins, which seems unlikely, nor have I encountered them in my medieval readings. Like the continual feminist approach, the names are so out of place that they detract from the sense of realism — as do the many wounds that never turn gangrenous and are well on their way to healing within a week.
Most of all, The Outlaws of Sherwood lacks suspense, perhaps because the plot is weak and disjointed. McKinley wastes opportunities, as with Marian and Beatrix as well as Robin’s uncertainty about the unknown Cecil. When Robin commits a crime particularly embarrassing to the sheriff, that official finally shows interest. After a climactic battle with Guy of Gisbourne told in anticlimactic detail (even Tuck feels time is endless) and a tedious focus on the weeklong aftermath (during which the sheriff is mysteriously absent), The Outlaws of Sherwood finally drags to an anticlimactic end, with Lionheart droning about fealty, the king’s whim, reward, and punishment and doling out judgments. Despite the attempt to make Robin realistic, he and Sherwood are even less alive and less vibrant than in the improbable legend. If you are a Robin Hood fan, as I am, by all means read The Outlaws of Sherwood; it has some interest, if only for the subject matter.
9 April 2004
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf