Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Why I Love Sherwood: Courage

Part 4 of 4.

I actually think that this aspect is what brings a lot of the appeal to this outlaw and ties the other elements together.

Robin is an outlaw. A wolfs-head. This means that anyone can kill him on sight and will be rewarded for doing so. Have you ever lived with that hanging over you? In some of the stories I’ve read (Howard Pyle, Robin McKinley), he’s outlawed with good reason--for killing a man (provoked or not, I think we can mostly agree that this is wrong!). In another fair amount of them, he’s outlawed for killing a deer. Yes, this was law. Yes, it looks pretty silly to us today. In most of the ones that I read and enjoy, though, he was outlawed for different reasons--being at the wrong place at the wrong time, in general being on the “wrong side” of authority--usually for doing right, a victim of political expansion by the bad guys, or even as a matter of choice.

Whatever the case, this makes Robin the “criminal” hero, which makes him fascinating--and courageous. In the cases where he is outlawed for either good or bad reasons, he doesn’t take that and go the way of normal outlaws--killing and stealing at will--but chooses to take a stand from his hunted and hiding position for what is right and just. He doesn’t have to do that. If he’d leave alone corrupt authority and hid away in the woods all the time, he’d probably be left alone. Certainly he wouldn’t have 100 marks on his head.

So, underneath the rashness and stupidity of things like eating in the Sheriff’s house under the guise of a potter and going to tournaments to win golden arrows, choosing to challenge that stranger on the bridge, and marching into Prince John’s presence with a king’s deer on your back--there is a thread of true courage, one to be admired. And laughing at yourself? Can you get more courageous then doing what might be laughable and then laughing at it? There are also the more obviously noble enterprises of saving poachers from hangings, gathering the king’s ransom, and rescuing captured friends.

As I said in the Justice post, Robin Hood does what’s right no matter the cost. He shouts to the world what is wrong and unjust. That’s not even just a nice cliché to repeat, because his actions do literally cost him his life. Way at the end, when you think all his political enemies are dead and he’s free and pardoned--one strike, and he’s gone, bleeding to death in an abbey. But he chose that, when he was young and strong--and unwilling to just let evil be.


I'm not sure where I originally found this image, but it's from the 1938 Robin Hood by Warner Bros. (Errol Flynn = Best Robin Hood Evah. Besides mine of course.)

Monday, March 7, 2011

Why I Love Sherwood: Laughter

Part 3 of 4.

I used to say that the most important part of any Robin Hood retelling was that it made me laugh. I don’t quite hold to that strictness anymore, but I definitely say that if the retelling is missing laughter, it is not altogether Robin Hood, and that is sad.

There are several different pieces to this, some deeper than others. I’ll start on the outermost layer which can be summed up in one word: cleverness. Robin Hood is a clever story. The dialogue is fast, witty, and funny. There is often at least one “battle of wits” where two people are set against each other and allowed to spar. Then there are the rather more one-sided moments when Robin takes several good jabs at his “guests” in Sherwood. As I mentioned in the last post, his main source of punishment is mockery. And, as with the nature of mockery, his punishments become amusing. We like seeing the Sheriff tied towards the tail of his horse and a fat abbot dancing because Robin says if he does not he’ll have his men prick his ankles with arrows.

Then there are the cleverness of the disguises and escapes. Robin, in all books and sadly only one film I’ve seen, is the master of disguise, and it is delightful when he dresses up and walks into the very mouth of the lion, oftentimes to have a good laugh at the lion afterwards. And, when he’s caught by the lion, or when one of his friends are caught, we get all disguised again and grandly rescue them. As my friends have heard me mention, my favorite of all is when Robin, dressed up as an old woodcutter, drives into the castle of one of his enemies and manages to almost single-handedly rescue his wife and free the entire dungeons...all with a couple of beehives. From such as these comes my advice to any bad guy: don’t ever try to gloat over a captured Robin Hood. Because the minute you gloat, he’s gone. And he won’t let you forget.

The deeper part of all this is something that makes the laughter in Sherwood so healthy. With all of the horrible things he has to fight against and all the horrible things that happen, Robin does not forget how to laugh. Even more so, he does not forget how to laugh at himself. Whether it’s being bashed into a stream by Little John or buffeted by a disguised king, he sees the ridiculousness of himself and laughs. Considering how people in less precarious situations and horrible times than him often don’t know how to laugh at themselves, this is a great character trait on his part.

Sure, he’s stupid and arrogant enough to fight for the right to cross a stream first, which ends with bruises and perhaps a slightly injured ego. (Don’t worry, it always recovers.)

But he’s also wise enough to laugh at it afterwards.

Image by Harry G. Theaker. I was unable to find information about the copyright, but it was published along with Vivian's book in 1927 by Ward, Locke & Company: London. No infringement intended.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Historical Fiction vs. Fantasy

I’m posting this as means of clarification. I think I confused a few people and maybe even offended a few more in my recent post about what I don’t like about fantasy. I apologize for the fact that I didn’t make my post as clear as I meant to. As such, let me state this very clearly:

I’m not saying historical fiction is better than fantasy.

I like historical fiction better than I like fantasy, but that’s a personal preference. In my post, I hoped not to downgrade the genre, but to push the many other young writers I know to write better fantasy, and thus reach a broader audience (maybe that’s unnecessary, since the fantasy fans are about the widest branch of people right now, but shouldn’t we always focus on telling the best story possible?).

This post and others like it also might seem to imply that historical fiction is also harder than fantasy. I don’t think it’s that either. It’s different. Neither one is harder than the other, they just have different upsides. So, I short escapade into how I see it (and before you ask, I am decently qualified to do this as I have written a fantasy novel).

Why Fantasy is “Easier” than Historical Fiction
Fantasy: No constraint. Build worlds, defy logic, no attachment to history!! Anything goes. It’s your world. Create races, make up names, roll out the landscape, the cities, the towns...

Historical Fiction: You’re in the grid of history. Research. You must know how houses are built, what the clothes look like and were made of, how religion was practiced, and yes, that there are rushes on castle floors. You must know what the possibilities for characters’ nationalities and how their names must coincide with that. You must know the landscape in past times, and everything must match. You have to balance the dialogue between what the modern person will be able to understand and what they will expect from a story set in the past. You spend hours scouring the internet and the library and each small fact is treated like a prize jewel.

Why Historical Fiction is “Easier” than Fantasy
Fantasy: No constraint. There are endless possibilities, and you must start from scratch to create a world that your readers will accept, love, and want to spend time in. You have to figure out how to explain this world to your readers without boring them. You need to create languages and peoples that are foreign and yet still reach your audience in tangible way. You have to figure out what towns and cities look like. You need to make up nationalities and have your characters’ names match, you must create feuds, history, religions--in brief, you must create amazing depth that you will never get to explain completely to your reader.

Historical Fiction: You have a grid. You have a place to start. You don’t have to create the world, you just have to explore it. Most likely, your readers will already understand part of what is going on and what to expect. There isn’t as much to explain, and you’re not tempted to explain as much, because you didn’t create this world. God did.

So. The statement Historical Fiction is easier Fantasy is false. The statement Fantasy is easier than Historical Fiction is false. However, so is Historical Fiction = Fantasy.

They are different. And that’s great. Because if we all liked the same things, this would be a boring world, now, wouldn’t it?


P.S. The "Why I Love Sherwood" series will resume Monday.

Both images from Wikipedia.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Why I Love Sherwood: Justice

Part 2 of 4.

Sherwood is a just place. The outlaw band grows to the biggest force against the rising tyranny of the Sheriff, churchmen, and Prince or King John. It rises from the need for and lack of true justice in 12th century England. The slightly inaccurate byline of Robin Hood is, after all, that he “robs from the rich to give to the poor.” He does what’s right, no matter how hard it is.

Richard is fighting in foreign lands either (depending on the book and your opinion) for a wonderful and holy cause or abandoning his kingdom to corrupt officials because he simply likes fighting better than ruling. Robin, then, becomes the king--the King of Sherwood. In reality, he’s is more the Judge of Sherwood. The point of his band is to help the downtrodden, punish those who trod on them, and have some laughs along the way (more about in a later post)--not to impose taxes, preside over ceremonies, or enjoy a crown.

Robin’s main code of justice is not death, but mockery. Again, it depends on the version, but I’m going with what I have seen more often. He is not truly the government and most certainly is not God--so I like the fact that he does not often take it upon himself to kill those in power. Instead, he steals back what the rich have stolen from the poor--a very important distinction, those of you who assume that he is a socialist--and returns it to them. If his rich guest freely admits his wealth, he is spared the heavy toll. The poor leave richer. He then treats his enemies or friends and evildoers to a meal. The money goes back to where it has been rightfully earned, and all is well.

While the rest of England is overflowing in corruption and evil, Sherwood is the oasis where things are done right, and because of that, we cheer for these outlaws. The feed the hungry, rescue the innocent, and flaunt the guilty. Robin is something that rarely occurs in thousands-of-years history of kings--a just ruler. Not only that, but he is merciful. Enemies often get second, third, fourth chances to mend there ways, as ties in with the fact that he rarely kills them.

And through all this, and his kingship, he still holds to the fact that England does in fact have a king, even if he is neglecting his kingdom at this time. I have never run across a Robin who did not swear loyalty to King Richard, even when it is apparent that he is not really that great of a king. I personally think that in most situations, if Robin wanted to, he could actually gather enough support overthrow King Richard and become king in his place. But he doesn’t. He steps back when the king returns, and does what the king asks of him. He usually doesn’t like London, and doesn’t want to go on the crusades.

He’s a different kind of outlaw and a different kind of leader. He has a heart for the people. That is why he is the true King of Sherwood, and that is more of the reason why I enjoy reading about him.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Why I Love Sherwood: History

Part 1 of 4.

One reason I love the legend of Robin Hood is that it is that--a legend. A legend, unlike a myth or a fable, usually has some basis in reality. The fact that it is rooted, however lightly, in reality makes it intriguing. Being able to visit Middle-Earth would be a dream come true for many LotR fanatics, but it's not a possibility--however, seeing Nottingham and Sherwood is. I won’t go into all of the different theories about who the “real” Robin Hood was--what makes the most sense to me is that there were actually several--but the fact that we have these theories and these names makes it interesting to me. I like reality. And though a legend has overrun and overblown its original roots, it still has roots--and that appeals to me.

Another aspect of this broad “umbrella” of history and the nature of legends is that it is a living thing. The first written stories about the outlaw of Sherwood came from a 14th century manuscript called A Lyttle Gest of Robyn Hode. The latest include Hawksmaid, Russell Crowe’s Robin Hood, and even a graphic novel. A legend is alive. It grows and changes, and that too is exciting.

In this growing and changing there is also the constancy. The characters may take on new faces, personalities, backgrounds, and even names, we know who they are and where they come from. We expect such events as the archery tournament, Robin and Little John’s quarterstaff bout, dramatic escapes from the holds of evil knights, abbots, and a certain Sheriff, money to the poor, and the king’s deer that are fated to fall to outlaw arrows. In all good adaptations, even if most of these familiar events and people are stripped away, there is still something you recognize, that you can point out and say: “oh! I know where she got that from! How clever!”

An aftereffect of this ability and acceptance for change enters another element, especially appealing to a writer: the ability to join in. Everyone is welcome underneath Robin’s or Robyn’s or Robert’s spreading oak tree, to share their tales of adventures, adding their own twist and their own voice to the great canopy of stories.

Image of Major Oak of Sherwood taken from Wikipedia: released to the public domain.
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