CSFF Blog Tour: Cleansing Legends

These past few days, as the blog tour has been reviewing and debating Merlin’s Blade, I have been reminded of Walt Disney’s Sword in the Stone. I don’t know what that tells you about my frame of reference, but there you have it.

Merlin’s Blade and Sword in the Stone are vastly dissimilar; any exhaustive treatment of their differences would turn exhausting. But there are a few, interesting similarities, arising in large part from the fact that, in both works, Merlin is a straightforward hero.

Anyone who wishes to make Merlin the hero of Arthur’s story must first face that, in the old legend of Arthur’s conception, Merlin was – to put it in legal terms – an accessory to rape. Also to adultery. It’s a disagreeable story that, if kept, sullies Uther and Merlin alike, with a stain that can be dealt with only by an epic redemption story or an enormous disregard for sin.

Naturally, then, Sword in the Stone and Merlin’s Blade discarded it. The former made it clear that, however Arthur came to be hidden, Merlin had nothing to do with it. (Remember Merlin explaining to his owl that he didn’t know who was going to drop through the roof, only that whoever it was would be important?) Merlin’s Blade also began after Arthur’s birth, absolving Merlin of all involvement in the event.

As both stories avoided the unpleasantness of Arthur’s conception, so they avoided the unpleasantness of Merlin’s. In an interesting paradox, Merlin’s Blade humanizes and Christianizes Merlin, and Sword in the Stone does neither. Disney made Merlin good; it took no pains to make him Christian, and it skipped entirely any question of how he acquired his powers. Merlin was a wizard, in the sense so often used in modern culture – another being, his power independent from the devil’s and from God’s.

In all this there is a cleansing of Merlin and the old myths of King Arthur – Sword in the Stone to an innocence, Merlin’s Blade to a more positive goodness. I consider both works creditable pieces of the sprawl of Arthurian legends. I also consider Disney’s Robin Hood – you know, where everybody was an animal – a creditable piece of the Robin Hood legendarium.

CSFF Blog Tour: The Myth of Arthur

Say, have you thought what manner of man it is
Of whom men say “He could strike giants down”?
Or what strong memories over time’s abyss
Bore up the pomp of Camelot and the crown.
And why one banner all the background fills,
Beyond the pageants of so many spears,
And by what witchery in the western hills
A throne stands empty for a thousand years.
– G. K. Chesterton, “The Myth of Arthur”

Arthur Pendragon holds a high place in the culture of our civilization – universal, always recognizable and yet always changing. In this – and in how he walks the boundary of myth and history – the king Arthur is like the outlaw Robin Hood.

Robin Hood is a more human figure than Arthur, whose birth and death were marked by magical intervention and who was always entangled in otherworldly things. The outlaw is merrier than the king, happier and freer in the greenwood than Arthur was in Camelot.

Arthur is dated several centuries earlier than Robin Hood, which may account for the paganism in the Arthurian legends. Robin Hood certainly never consorted with fairies and half-fairies, nor did he owe his bow to another world, or his life to enchantments. Neither, for that matter, did he ever go on a holy quest. The Merry Men never sought the Holy Grail.

There is, in the vast web of stories around Arthur, a tension between paganism and Christianity. In the tales of Robin Hood, pagan Britain has surrendered to Christian Britain, and new ambiguities creep through the stories. The villains, in the ancient ballads, will take Christian oaths; “by the rood” Robin will swear, and so will, on occasion, the sheriff of Nottingham. Robin Hood casts in his lot with some men of the church, and robs others; to the unmerciful Bishop of Hereford he declined to show mercy.

The greatest commonality between King Arthur and Robin Hood is the fascination they have so long and so widely enjoyed, and the consequent endless retellings of their tales. Anyone may tell his own version of Arthur or Robin Hood, and many people have. Today the CSFF tour begins a review and a discussion of one of the latest versions – Merlin’s Blade, by Robert Treskillard.

It may be that these fields of legends grew up from the seeds of lost history. No one really knows if Arthur ever ruled Britain or Robin Hood ever rebelled in it. But I think that most of us hope they did.

Review: Tuck

Blood is thicker than water. That’s why you can’t get rid of your relatives. It’s also why you can generally expect certain things from them – like a place to spend the holidays, or rent when you absolutely need it.

Or, maybe, troops to fight your guerrilla insurgency. Maybe.

In Tuck, the long war has exacted its price from rebel and conqueror alike. Now the sheriff in his town is as desperate as Bran Hood in his forest. And desperate men do desperate things.

Tuck is the concluding book of the King Raven Trilogy, and it was probably wise to send characters on adventures away from the greenwood. It allowed new characters and new places to freshen the story. At the same time, the old characters are not left to stagnate, and Bran himself fills and finally outgrows the Robin Hood legend.

In this book Stephen Lawhead shows again his capacity to surprise. He also shows his limitless attention to history, both its small details and broad realities. History makes impressive scenery for his books, but it is more than that. Here, as in other novels, Lawhead turns it to fine and sometimes startling uses.

After reading so much of Scarlet from Will Scarlet’s perspective, it was interesting to experience him in Tuck entirely from Lawhead’s omniscient viewpoint. Will was still enjoyable, yet he never reached the charm and brightness he had in Scarlet. Readers have sometimes complained that Lawhead’s characters are distant and hard to connect with. Maybe he should write more from the first-person.

As a telling of Robin Hood, the King Raven Trilogy is unorthodox, but credible enough for its purposes. Lawhead brilliantly retained the concept of Robin fighting for the true king while appearing to throw it away. He did justice to the characters of the Robin Hood legend, with the exception of Little John. Iwan (as Lawhead renamed him) was a missed opportunity.

The one complaint I will enter against Tuck is that it had a death for, I think, no other reason than to make us feel bad. Aside from that, I enjoyed the book. The characters were satisfying, and consistent even when they changed; some were appropriately likeable, others appropriately despicable. The long journey of the King Raven Trilogy came to a rewarding end, all the different elements woven together.Tuck proved a fulfilling book and a fulfilling conclusion.

And my review would not be complete if I did not add that the epilogue was a masterstroke.

Review: Scarlet

When Will Scarlet’s thane was exiled to Daneland, the king took his land. Deprived of his home, and his living, and his community, Will sought refuge in the forest. But the English crown laid claim to the forests, too. After being left hungry when the king destroyed his old home, Will was forbidden under penalty of death to satisfy his hunger with the king’s deer.

This is what is called being “between a rock and a hard place”.

Hearing rumors of the Raven Hood, Will traveled to Wales to find him. And there, in the ancient forest, Will Scarlet joined the band of outcasts who lived by capital offenses against the crown.

This is what is called “out of the frying pan and into the fire”.

Scarlet is the second book of the King Raven Trilogy, following Hood and upping the overall quality of the series. Despite my disappointment with Hood, I was interested enough to open the second book. It began in the first person, as Will Scarlet gave his confession to a priest in a dungeon. By the end of the first chapter, I was ready to read the book all 450 pages through.

The moments in the dungeon were written in present tense. When Will told his story, the tense became past. Will’s account was interspersed with chapters in the third person, relating things he did not know. This is not an ideal story structure, and it will inevitably be confusing to some readers. But ultimately it worked.

And it gave us Will’s narrative. The first-person style was remarkably well-done, with a distinct and appropriate tone. Will Scarlet shines brightly through, a sympathetic and charming character. He was at once cheerful and fatalistic, once saying, “Well, that’s Will Scarlet for you – doomed beginning and end. Oh, but shed him no tears – he had himself a grand time between.”

Through Will Scarlet the King Raven Trilogy gets, at last, a measure of the merriness of the Robin Hood legend. Bran himself is more likable than in the book called after his name. This is partially because he is seen, for much of the book, from Will’s viewpoint – with that perspective and that distance. But it is also because Bran, having finally taken up his responsibility, shows a better side. A flawed hero he may be – but a hero.

The villains, too, come into their own. Count Falkes, who never had the heart to be a truly great villain, is increasingly supplanted by worse men. The sheriff, here introduced, is a far more vicious and more dangerous enemy.

The deep historical milieu remains the same. Scarlet‘s pace is quicker and its plot more interesting than Hood‘s. The story drooped a little in the third act, but it ended in a powerfully-done cliffhanger.

Religion is a very present element of Scarlet, as it was of that time and place. In the King Raven Trilogy, as in old Robin Hood ballads, God is invoked by villains and heroes alike. Stephen Lawhead is, I think, realistic in writing a bishop concerned only with worldly wealth and power. Yet there is genuine religion in the book, and help as well as harm in the church.

Scarlet is more history than myth; at the same time, a mystical element roosts in unexpected corners of the story. This is not so much a re-telling of the Robin Hood story as a transformation of it. Complex, beautifully written, and filled to the brim, Scarlet is a worthwhile read.

More Than a Thief

The legend of Robin Hood is so old no one knows how old it is. Nearly a thousand years is a good, if imprecise, guess. Over the years, and all the stories, Robin changed.

First a yeoman, then elevated to a dispossessed aristocrat; once living under King Edward, then firmly and far more famously attached to Prince John and Richard the Lion Heart; sometimes more of a scoundrel, sometimes more of a hero; at one time primarily concerned with his own wild and merry life, and at another mainly concerned with defending the oppressed and ransoming the rightful king.

Although it’s fallen out of most modern re-tellings, Robin Hood used to be a solidly religious man. True, he robbed churchmen, but he robbed them because they were rich. He attended Mass at the risk of his neck – going into Nottingham, or holding a secret Mass in the greenwood and then refusing to flee when the sheriff came hot on his trail.

In one of the earliest stories Robin vowed himself a “true Christian man”. In part this was the ingrained forms of that day, and even the villains would swear by “the God that died”. Yet he was meant to hold it truly. One of the oldest ballads told that every day, before he would eat, Robin heard three Masses:

The one in the worshyp of the fader,
The other of the holy goost,
The thyrde was of our dere lady,
That he loved of all other moste.

Robyn loved our dere lady;
For doute of dedely synne,
Wolde he never do company harme
That ony woman was ynne.

G. K. Chesterton, at the beginning of his own poem about Robin Hood, quoted a translation of this last stanza:

Robin loved Our Dear Lady
And for doubt of deadly sin
Would never hurt a company
That any woman was in.

Another ancient song repeats the same sentiment:

Roben Hood was the yemans name,
That was boyt corteys and fre;
For the loffe of owr ladey,
All wemen werschep he.

In the Robin Hood movie starring Errol Flynn, the chivalrous respect for women lives on, but the reverence for Mary, from which it came, is lost.

But whatever changes were ever made to the legend of Robin Hood, some things are always the same. His boldness and his archery are constant through centuries of story-telling. More vitally, Robin Hood is always a rebel – whether against good authority or bad, or only for his own free life in the greenwood. His robbery is another inalterable element of the tale.

And despite that, there is a strain of goodness in Robin Hood that is never quite chased out. In some of the stories Robin’s nobility was little more than an ember in the ashes, in others it was a blazing fire ; in all of them you knew he was more than a common thief.

And all this was changeless because it, and not King Edward or King Richard or any social position, made Robin Hood himself.

Review: Hood

hoodThere have been many stories of Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest, with his Merry Men and his noble thievery. But I would venture that there has been only one story of Robin Hood in Wales, with his flock and his raven hood.

In Hood, Stephen Lawhead tells again the story of Robin Hood. Initially, you couldn’t tell. Hood begins as Bran, prince of a small kingdom in Wales. In England, William the Red was king – and reaching out his hand to gather all of Wales into his kingdom.

Lawhead roots and grows his story in history. He doesn’t only borrow a few names, a few circumstances – he recreates a whole time. Every part is multidimensional – the villages of England and the forests of Wales, the strange Ffreinc and the wild Welsh, the grasping barons and the Church with its ancient, holy rituals and slow rot.

Hood is rich – rich in detail, rich in language. The story unfolds at a pace in keeping with Lawhead’s gradual unveiling of his world in all its texture and layers. Political intrigue courses through the whole novel as powerful men jockey to pluck Wales for their own basket.

And behind it, older and so much deeper, ancient Britain – the Britain of Arthur Pendragon – stirs in the secret heart of the forest. It touches Bran, urging him on as he becomes Hood – becomes a hero.

It’s a long journey, and by the end of the book, it’s still not complete. Despite some glimmerings of nobility, Bran is – I’ll be blunt – a jerk. There were times when I rooted for him to choose the right thing. There were times I wanted to say, “Let him lose. Who cares?”

To have a lousy person for a protagonist is unbearable only when the author doesn’t seem aware that his hero is rotten. Stephen Lawhead, to his credit, makes it a point of Bran’s arc that he must learn to care for others – not in emotion, but in deed. I don’t complain about a main character who must learn to be good on his way to being the hero.

But if that is what a writer chooses to do, he must build up characters his readers can like. And such characters do exist in Hood. Lawhead’s fault is that he did not invest enough in them to overcome the dearth of likeability in his main cast.

The book has other flaws – principal among them some disturbing moments.

The odd thing is this: Both Hood‘s merits and its faults – its slow, grand sweep, its historical intricacy, its vision of legends, the gradual unfolding and the morbid moments, the unlikeability of Bran – all of it makes Hood seem not, well, Robin Hood.

Remember the Robin Hood stories? Sometimes he was a rogue, sometimes he was nearly hung, but he usually gave the impression of being on an interrupted lark. His men were a colorful crew – literally so, in the case of Will Scarlet; they were on a lark, too. Stealing from the rich to feed the poor had its merry side. Even the villains were on a chase, even if it was a wild-goose chase; they may have been bad hunters, but they were hunters. It was fun.

In Hood, it’s not fun anymore. The villains are not hunters, good or bad; they’re politicians. The Merry Men aren’t very merry; Bran’s way of robbing the rich is remarkably grim.

I don‘t want to appear too harsh. Hood had its merits – even as a story of Robin Hood. It was interesting to see Robin Hood becoming instead of just being, interesting to see Stephen Lawhead transform the old stories. But if we’re talking about versions of Robin Hood, I prefer Disney’s. That was fun.