August 28, 2009

Retro Friday Review: The Outlaws of Sherwood by Robin McKinley

I have a thing for Robin Hood. Specifically Robin Hood retellings. I love Robin, Marian, Little John, Will Scarlet, Much the Miller, Alan-a-Dale, and the whole merry crew. I read Ivanhoe cover to cover just for Robin Hood's periodic appearances. And when I went on study abroad to England, I dragged my best friend all the way to Nottingham and Sherwood Forest as well so I could walk around in the woods and soak it all up. It's still one of the happiest, most golden days I can recall, that one. My first encounter with the tale itself was no doubt the Disney animated version (which I still love watching with my son), but I'm pretty sure the first actual novelization I read was Robin McKinley's The Outlaws of Sherwood. And it remains my very favorite to this day. Admittedly, I seem to possess the McKinley gene. I love her writing. I love the unexpected, twisty paths she takes, the obstinate characters, and the wry humor. True to form, her Robin is not the typical Robin of legend. If you cherish the strapping, dashing, swashbuckling hero a la Errol Flynn, then this version is probably not for you. But if you like an unusual, but beautifully wrought, take on a classic then you really ought to give this one a shot.

The story opens with the following lines:
A small vagrant breeze came from nowhere and barely flicked the feather tips as the arrow sped on its way. It shivered in its flight, and fell, a little off course--just enough that the arrow missed the slender tree it was aimed at, and struck tiredly and low into the bole of another tree, twenty paces beyond the mark.
Robin sighed and dropped his bow.
Robin is on his way to Nottingham Fair to meet his childhood friends Marian and Much and have a bit of well-earned frivolity. As an apprentice forester in the King's Forest, Robin barely scrapes by and his days off are few and far between. Unfortunately, while on his way he is ambushed by a few of the Chief Forester's men who have had it in for Robin for years. No one is more surprised than Robin when he wins the resulting archery contest and the skirmish ends in an attempt on his life and Robin's arrow buried in his attacker's chest. From this point on Robin is a wanted man. His friends convince him to go into hiding while they work up a plan to keep their friend alive and prevent the Norman overlords from raining down punishments on all the Saxons' heads as a result of Robin's "crime." Against his better judgement, Robin goes along with Much and Marian's plan and, in the process, he becomes a hero--albeit a reluctant one.

There is so much good in this book and it all centers around the characters. Either you will fall in love with Robin or you will not. And if you love Robin, then you will love all of the characters for they gather around him despite his adamant refusal that he is no hero because they need him. Marian and Much, his old friends, see this. They understand it and they try to help Robin understand it. Their love for him, their need to believe in him, and their willingness to walk away from their homes and their lives to follow him into hiding in Sherwood Forest reflect the desperate nature of the times and the ways in which this good man is able to inspire and take care of other good men and women like him who have been caught in the ever-tightening vise of Norman justice. I love watching this transformation, this coming together of such a motley band of comrades. Every time I read it I savor each one. And, as with any McKinley book, if you're a fan of strong female characters who do not do what they are expected to do, then this book is for you. Marian is awesome. It's Marian who is the excellent shot. It's Marian who has the vision and who knows Robin's potential before he does. It's Marian who risks more than anyone else to create the legend and keep it alive. There is one other standout female character, but I can't tell you any more than that as she is so excellent she must be discovered entirely on her own. Along with Deerskin, I think this is the most emotional of McKinley's works because it is as grounded in reality as any retelling I've read. The Outlaws of Sherwood is an emotional, subtly humorous, visceral take on the legend and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

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20 comments:

  1. Thanks for the reviews. I love getting new recommendations to check out.

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  2. Now I want to go back and re-read my favorite bit of this book. I bet you can guess which bit I mean!

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  3. Brodi, thanks for stopping by! It was lovely to meet you last week. I hope you do find something you enjoy.

    Charlotte, ooh. I bet I can. Does it involve an injury and a hidden enclosure?

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  4. Deerskin is one of my favorite of McKinley's too. Will have to check this one out!

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  5. Lenore, I'm happy to hear that. People generally have strong feelings about DEERSKIN and it's one of my very favorites. Hope you do get a chance to read OUTLAWS. As you can see, I love it to pieces.

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  6. I love the Disney version too. It's one of my favorites. I'll have to check this book out. I love fairy tale re-tellings. :)

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  7. Yes! (I think--I don't remember the hidden enclosure quite; other things are more vivid).

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  8. I read Robin McKinley's books when I was very young, probably 9 or 10, and all of them had a big, big, big impact on them. But for some odd reason this one, the Outlaws of Sherwood, I could never finish! I'll have to try again now.

    And I'm currently reading The Laurentine Spy, which I think I picked up because you reviewed it :)

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  9. Amee, it's a good 'un. And aren't retellings wonderful? I do hope you try OUTLAWS out. It's full of win.

    Charlotte, LOL! They really are... I love that scene.

    Emily, I hear ya. She's just one of those authors that had a hand in shaping who I am and why I read. OUTLAWS really is different from her other stuff. Historical, non-magical or fairy taleish. And I know several people who weren't wowed by it. But her trademark understated writing and self-deprecating heroes are there and so wonderful. Hope it works better for you now.

    Ooh, I hope you're enjoying THE LAURENTINE SPY. I certainly did. So much longing and PERIL! :)

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  10. I've never read this one, but you've convinced me to give it a go!

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  11. Thanks for the review. I love all stories of Robin Hood (well...except for the new season of the BBC show). I saw this book on the shelf the other day, and now I know I'll have to go pick it up

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  12. Janssen, yay! It's oh so worth it. And there are a few absolutely breathtaking scenes. *happy sigh*

    Lizzy, you are welcome! I love meeting other Robin Hood type people. :) I only saw a few episodes of the first season of the BBC Robin Hood. Sounds like it went downhill then? Hope you do pick up OUTLAWS. Be sure to let me know if you do.

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  13. This one has been on the top of my TBR pile for quite awhile now. I really really NEED to read it! :)

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  14. Suey, yes, yes you do! *grin*

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  15. Huh, I've read lots of McKinley, but none of the ones you mention. Your review is such that it makes me want to get out and READ these - a mark of a very good review!

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  16. melissa, thank you! I'm very glad it was effective. Which are your favorite McKinleys?

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  17. Oh, how I Love Robin McKinley and especially this book!! Marian was such a standout - I was totally jumping up and down when it turned out she was the crack-shot.

    Have you seen the recent BBC series? Richard Armitage as the Sheriff - yummy.

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  18. Michelle, yes! I'm so happy to hear you say that. This one really seems to have flown under the radar and, as you know, it is so much more awesome than people know. Marian is simply the best ever.

    I saw the first couple of episodes of the BBC Robin Hood and that was it. I've heard good things about the sheriff. Should I keep watching?

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  19. I have no idea why I haven't read this, as I love McKinley and have read most of her books. Sounds like I need to get to this one soon. Thanks for the review!

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  20. Darla, you are welcome. As you are a McKinley fan there's no doubt in my mind you'll enjoy this one.

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