The Outlaws of Sherwood by Robin McKinley
Robin Longbow, a lowly apprentice to the forester of Nottingham Forest, is on the way to Nottingham fair when he is waylaid by bullies. After he accidentally kills one of them, he is forced to flee and go into hiding. If he’s discovered by the sheriff of Nottingham, he’ll be hung by the regent who is sitting in for King Richard the Lionheart while he’s away fighting in Palestine.
But Robin’s friends Much and Marian see Robin’s exile as an opportunity to strike back at the regent and his Norman allies. They convince Robin to gather and lead a band of ragtag Saxon rebels against their enemies. Thus, Robin Hood becomes a symbol and a rallying point for Saxon resistance against Norman tyranny.
The Outlaws of Sherwood is a strong contender in the overstuffed Robin-Hood-legends genre. Robin McKinley’s version is beautifully written and, as it’s set in the context of the Norman-Saxon conflict and the Crusades, it highlights the historical issues of the day. (Interestingly, while McKinley deals with the topics of faith and justice in this novel, these qualities aren’t considered in relation to the Crusades.)
The Outlaws of Sherwood features many likeable characters including Robin, a reluctant hero who struggles to meet the physical and mental demands of his role, and Marian, a strong (stronger than Robin) half-Norman young woman who doesn’t seem totally out of place in her historical time period. There are other competent women, too, and the rest of the usual cast including Will Scarlett, Little John, and Friar Tuck. Each has his or her own reason for joining Robin Hood’s band of outlaws.
The ending of The Outlaws of Sherwood was unsettling (view this spoiler if you like: As a reward for excellent service, King Richard allows the outlaws to go fight with him in the Crusades …. um… yay?). But, other than that oddity, I enjoyed the story.
Tantor Media has recently produced an audio edition of The Outlaws of Sherwood which is nicely performed by Justine Eyre. She has a pretty and suitable English accent and does a good job with both female and male characters.
I’ve owned a paperback copy of The Outlaws of Sherwood, a retelling of the Robin Hood folktale, for ages, dating back to the days when I was auto-buying everything Robin McKinley wrote. It’s a very different type of book for her: a straightforward historical novel — no fantasy elements at all — telling how Robin came to be the leader of a band of outlaws in Sherwood Forest, and how several of the key members of his group came to join him. The focus here is on the different personalities in the group and how they interact with each other.
Robin has led a downtrodden life since his father, a far more gifted archer than Robin himself, died under rather suspicious circumstances. His boss, the Chief Forester, hates him as the son of the man who married the woman the Chief Forester wanted for himself, and his cronies have been bullying Robin. In their attempt to take Robin down, he strikes back with an arrow that kills one of the men (Robin was aiming at the man’s leg; his lack of archery skill backfires on him in a deadly way here, though it may have saved his life). Robin plans to run away, but Marian and Much, the miller’s son, find him and eventually convince a deeply reluctant Robin that forming a band of free men in Sherwood Forest is a better idea. He’ll be a symbol of Saxon freedom against the Norman oppressors.
Robin’s group of outlaws gradually grows, with names both familiar (like Little John, Will Scarlet and Alan-a-dale) and unfamiliar (including several women who join their group). Marian remains in her father’s castle but uses her position to secretly supply the band with food and other necessities and spy for them. Robin decides to learn how to use his father’s longbow (an unusual type of bow at this time in history) and trains others in his band to make and use them as well, giving them an advantage over the sheriff’s men.
Interestingly, Robin himself is more of a beta hero in this story — as far from the Errol Flynn mold as can be imagined — and initially he’s more driven by events that happen to him than affirmatively taking action himself. As mentioned, he’s not much of an archer; Marian is the one with the real archery skills. This makes for an interesting twist on the famous archery contest story.
Robin McKinley has a gift for creating well-rounded characters with realistic problems and flaws, and an engaging writing style with a dry wit that periodically surfaces. Like the original Robin Hood tales, The Outlaws of Sherwood is an episodic type of novel, with a series of adventures and conflicts, and several twists on the original legends. It’s mostly a pleasant and enjoyable read, but there’s an extremely violent and bloody battle toward the end that is rather harrowing.
I agree with Kat about the oddness of the ending, and it’s not the most memorable of McKinley’s novels. But when I picked it up again for the first time in a couple of decades to refamiliarize myself with it before writing this review, it was difficult not to get lost in the pages of this book. If you’re interested in the Robin Hood legend, The Outlaws of Sherwood is worth checking out.