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The Outlaws of Sherwood
by Robin McKinley

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted August 22, 2023

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There have been countless numbers of books, films, and other adaptations about Robin Hood, just as there have been countless debates about the historicity of the characters and events depicted. Most have been set during the reign of Richard I, Richard the Lionheart, even though he is absent from the stories until the end. He had been off to the Crusades, his Regent being his brother John. Most sources say the first references to Robin were not until about 200 years after Richard, and he was variously identified as a nobleman in some, a yeoman in others. Robin McKinley's version has him as one of the king's foresters, taking over the duties after the death of his father, Robert Longbow. McKinley also goes against convention, saying Robin was not a good archer, and the only thing he knew about the sword was not to hold it by the sharp end. The event that turned him into an outlaw was sheer (bad) luck, considering he was not a master of the bow. A rival forester had tormented him in the past, mainly because he hated the fact Robin's mother had rejected him and chose to marry Robert instead. On his way to the Knottingham Fair, Robin is accosted by his rival and several others. He tries to run away, lucky in ducking just as an arrow passes by him. He quickly turns and fires his own arrow, which finds the other man's heart.

He runs away, and hours later, near twilight, he finds himself at a place where he played often as a child, and his good friend Much, the miller's son, finds him after hearing the news. Marian finds him too, and all three go deeper into Sherwood. Marian is a character that wasn't added to the legend until sometime in the 1500s, but here she had been a childhood friend of Robin and Much, even though she was from a more noble family. She also knew Will of Norwood, but Robin didn't meet him until Will heard the story, and having wanted to run away from his life for years, came searching for Robin. He takes a name that had previously been a nickname, Will Scarlett. Slowly but surely other familiar names enter the story; John Little, Friar Tuck, Alan-a-Dale, along with some who are McKinley's fictional creations. I haven't read many of the stories, having picked up more from the various films, even though I've only seen a small percentage of them. I don't recall women, other than Marian, being part of Robin's band of outlaws, but there are several here, including one who had disguised herself as a boy. I was sure that was the case even before her true identity was revealed. Marian also dressed as a man on occasion, and later is mistaken for Robin when she wins the archery contest at the fair a year after Robin's ordeal began.

There aren't any surprises in this book, even if details differ from other versions. Robin is considered to be the leader of the outlaws, even though he would rather not be, and he relied on the advice of others on many occasions. Little John was the only other one of the band to have a price on his head, other than by association with Robin. The reason for so many to join the group is consistent with other versions of the story, the resentment of Saxons to their Norman oppressors, and the heavy rents and taxations imposed. Robin began to feel guilty for the plight of those who chose to join him, and no matter how many times he told Marian to stay away (while at the same time hoping she would ignore his pleas), she proved as loyal as anyone. Several of the other women proved just as brave, and as capable as the men. There are times when Robin's ultimate decisions go against previous statements, others when his followers choose differently, and ultimately more wisely than their leader. So, a familiar tale with only minor changes, an enjoyable story that doesn't gloss over the heavy burden Robin carries. I'm pretty sure the term "merry men" was never used, and yet the outlaws of Sherwood were content being where they were, in spite of all hardships. I can't give this a strong recommendation, but it is satisfying enough, a welcome addition to the vast legend of Robin Hood.


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Robin McKinley

October 15, 1988

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