The Sunday Section: Book Review - 'Sherwood' and 'Robin and the King'

Visiting Battle last weekend reminded me of a couple of good books I’d read a while ago, by Parke Godwin. 

A mention in the 12th annual collection of ‘The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror’, to do with his books, ‘Sherwood’ and ‘Robin and the King’, was the first time I’d heard of him.

The Robin Hood story has always been one of my favourites, but it got to the point where any version of it, be it novel or film, ended up being samey.

Not so Mr Godwin’s version.  For starters, he’s set it, not during the Crusades, but in 11th century England, from the Norman Conquest onwards.  The main character, Edward Aelredson, was given the nickname, ‘puck-Robin’ as a child; he isn’t a highborn lord, but a Saxonthane, a minor noble who suddenly finds himself responsible for his father’s lands and the people who work them.  He’s a practical, down-to-earth man, who holds tightly to the notion of ‘simple justice’, and he’s more than willing to get his hands dirty, working alongside his people.

The familiar characters are here – Friar Tuck, Little John, Marian, Will, the sheriff – but all portrayed differently, more realistically.  The women aren’t there simply to make the men ‘look good’; they’re as strong in character and principle as the men, from Robin’s mother, to Marian, to his cousin, Judith.

Godwin doesn’t just touch fleetingly on the characters of King William I and Queen Matilda, he gives them pride of place, almost, and fleshes their characters out as much as the other characters.  As for the Sheriff of Nottingham, Ralf Fitz-Gerald, he ended up becoming my favourite character!  Unlike the usual portrayal of the almost-pantomime bad guy, Godwin’s Sheriff is a fascinating, many-layered man, who, like Robin, is both loyal and brave.

The sequel, ‘Robin and the King’, is set 8 years after ‘Sherwood’, with Robin and Marian more settled, and raising a family.  Robin still has dealings with King William, and his story becomes closely entwined with the known enmity between the king and his sons, namely Rufus, who would become King William II.  The main bad guy here is Ranulph of Bayeux, keeper of the Chancery seal.

Such is Mr Godwin’s superb storytelling skills, you could easily believe that he must have lived in 11th century England, such is his attention to detail, and his realistic, no-frills portrayal of how life must have been then.  His depiction of the different characters makes it easy to believe that, surely, they must have been real people, and that this is their true story.  In his own words: “Robin Hood … is very likely a composite of a number of men who ran afoul of forest laws over several centuries.  The essence of the legend is common men defying unjust laws and the abuse of power.”

It’s interesting that generally speaking, the Saxons are viewed as ‘backward’, and the Normans are seen as the more cultured, more fortunate ones.  Yet, in his ‘afterword’, Godwin explains: “The Normans conquered and imposed feudalism on a people much more socially complex than themselves.  Among the Saxons a man’s place in society was measured for legal purposes by the money value of his holdings.  The title ofthane designated a man who owned at least five hides of land.  Ahide consisted of between 100 and 120 acres … To call such people democratic would be inaccurate, but they were what democracy evolved from, an instinctively legalistic, contentious, profit-minded folk who already had a massive body of written law and civil custom where their Norman conquerors had none … The Normans transformed England, probably for the better.  They had an energetic genius for organization and efficiency, the English for law and political progress.  William, probably illiterate himself … ultimately left the Saxon legal machinery intact.

I found the way the English used the bow particularly fascinating – it’s usually assumed that the bow is held steady, while the string is drawn back; if I remember correctly, that’s how it’s done in most cultures.  But the Englishman was taught “to bend the bow not by pulling the string, but pressing his whole body forward into stance and draw.  Not easy, though once learned, the method took advantage of the whole strength of a man’s back and shoulders rather than putting all the strain on the shooting arm.  The result was greater range and accuracy, more endurance over a day’s shooting.”  It was a long process, for it would take the bowman at least a couple of years to properly master the technique.

Godwin's description of battles, and the 'stealth attacks' used by Robin and his men, are full of unflinching realism.  He's paid close attention to detail in describing the different techniques the Saxons, who fought on foot, had to think up to fight the mounted Norman soldiers.

Personally, I was a little disappointed with the way the story ended in the second book, but that’s just my own feeling.  At the end of the day, that’s a minor quibble, for the whole story is brilliantly told; a masterclass in expert storytelling.