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Thursday, August 07, 2008

The Outlaws of Sherwood, by Robin McKinley

I recently read The Outlaws of Sherwood, by Robin McKinley (Ace, 1989). This is a re-telling of the legends of Robin Hood, who is best known for robbing the rich and helping the poor with the takings.

McKinley says that she was influenced by the version of Robin Hood, The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, written and illustrated by Howard Pyle. I first read that book myself when I was a boy. She also used other sources. In her "Afterword," McKinley says:
Scholars disagree about when the stories were first told; the earliest hints of an historical Robin Hood date about 1260. The first literary reference to him is from the Piers Ploughman in 1377. But the retellings through the centuries have echoed concurrent preoccupations -- not those of a possible historical precedent that existed, and may or may not have been a person called Robin Hood. (p. 277)

So what were McKinley's "current preoccupations"? Well, there seem to have been several. Robin Hood, for her, was a Saxon, fighting Norman oppressors. (There is precedent for this, in some of the old versions of the story.) Another one is that Robin is introspective, and, if not fearful, extremely cautious. In Pyle's version, there are scores of outlaws. McKinley's Robin Hood doesn't seem to ever have more than twenty or so, and sometimes less than that. McKinley's Robin Hood is not the finest archer in his band. In fact, he may be the worst.

An important preoccupation, the most important, I would say, is the emphasis on women in The Outlaws of Sherwood. Marian, who loves Robin -- and the reverse -- does not live in Sherwood Forest, but her role is critical. (Pyle scarcely mentions her.) If there is a Christ figure in the book, she is the one. There is an archery contest, and Robin doesn't attend, because he believes it is a trap (which it is) and because he isn't a superb archer. But Marian believes that belief in Robin Hood's ability, and in his power to evade the Sheriff of Nottingham, is so important that someone must represent him. So she dresses in the costume the outlaws use, disguises herself as a male, and wins the contest. Then she is openly attacked by Guy of Gisbourne, who believes her to be Robin Hood, and nearly dies, for Robin's sake. She does recover.

That's not all Marian does, and she isn't the only woman with a prominent role. Marjorie, a pampered, sheltered young woman, becomes quietly competent in making do in what passes for a kitchen in Sherwood, and even plays a crucial role in the rescue of Robin's band from Guy of Gisbourne. Another woman, Cecily of Norwood, brother to Will Scarlet, becomes as good at woodcraft and fighting as the men around her, and she isn't the only such woman.

Marian, Marjorie, and Cecily all find husbands, life companions. All of them are aware of some flaws in the men they have chosen, but they have chosen well, and they have made the choice themselves. Marian and Marjorie come to the book already in love, but we get to experience Cecily's thoughts (and that of her eventual husband) as they come to realize how they feel about each other. All three of these women have rejected prospective husbands chosen for economic or political reasons by their fathers. Robin Hood's band removes the chosen groom from the wedding ceremony, substituting Marjorie's true love. Marian's father is unable to enforce his choice on her. Cicely runs away and joins Robin Hood's band, disguised as a boy.

Is this a feminist version? Perhaps so. It is a version which emphasizes the common humanness of both men and women. In other words, it is as much, or more, a version about character than about setting or plot. McKinley is good at portraying character.

What about worship, and the role of the church? There are, as in other versions, corrupt Bishops, traveling through Sherwood Forest bearing wealth, ripe for the picking. Friar Tuck is an important character, and he is a good man, but quite a bit is said about his healing ability, and next to nothing about his priestly duties, or his worship habits. Not much is said about anyone else's devotional life.

I enjoyed the book. McKinley's preoccupations are interesting.

Thanks for reading.

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