Search This Blog

Friday, May 6, 2016

Elvish Outlaw: A Review of Nancy Springer's "Tales of Rowan Hood" Series

     As most of my loyal readers know by now, I have long had a love affair with Robin Hood since first watching the Disney cartoon at the tender age of six. This love gave rise to my love of England, and from there, the whole of the British Isles. If you ever come to my humble abode, I will happily show you the abundant array of fan-girl memorabilia lovingly arranged on my display shelf, including Robin Hood books, videos, DVDs, puppets, lunch-boxes, etc.

     Hence, when I went to the library one day and stumbled across Tales of Rowan Hood in the Young Adult Fiction section, my interest was piqued. The author, Nancy Springer, had evidently written about a certain daughter of the famous outlaw, with some of fantasy elements woven throughout. At first, I hesitated. These things could be teeth-pulling-ly painful, especially if too much pixie dust and girl-power was tossed into the medieval soup. And yet, I decided to be bold and checked out Tales all the same. Ultimately, I wound up reading all five of the books in the series: Tales of Rowan HoodLionclawOutlaw Princess of SherwoodWild Boy, and Rowan Hood Returns.

     Obviously the series wasn’t bad enough to turn me off entirely; in fact, it was good enough to keep me hooked (at least to some extent)! Nancy Springer writes in a flowing, lyrical style, weaving words like a poet with an almost musical quality. She also has a clear handle on how to create colorful characters and vibrant settings, as well as balancing suspenseful pauses with exciting action sequences. As a result, her Tales prove to be page-turners from the beginning of Ro’s journey to find her father, “The Prince of Thieves”, to her climactic encounter with Guy of Gisbourne, “The Man with No Soul.”

     Springer also utilizes an original combination of the traditional Robin Hood legends and fantastical, pseudo-Arthurian elements. Some parts of her stories are direct take-offs from the legends of King Arthur, including the incident of the brother knights slaying each other in battle. In certain ways, the creativity behind this blend is appealing, and is sure to introduce a whole new generation of fantasy lovers to Robin Hood for the first time. But in other ways, I personally feel some of the glitz and glitter undermines the charm of Robin Hood that first captured my heart as a child. Perhaps it was the whole concept that it was real enough to have really happened.

     One of my biggest issues with the plot has to do with Robin’s liaison with an Elf-woman in the woods, completely refusing to even introduce Maid Marian into the stories as a character. For this wanna-be-girl-in-Lincoln-Green, this is a near-unforgivable assault. Marian is far too established in the legends at this late date to simply write her out of the script and expect to retain any credibility for it. Furthermore, the Elvish interference in the plot turns Rob into a wood-side womanizer, having flings with mythical creatures at random and throwing away his traditional Catholic morality.

     To make matters worse, the reason given for Robin’s uncanny ability to avoid capture in his outlaw career is that his elf girl-friend in the wings has cast a spell to prevent him from being recognized! This is totally ruinous to the character of Robin Hood, who has always stood out as something of a self-made-man. In undermines his foxy cleverness, his talent for disguise, and all the things that make him a swashbuckler of note. Here we see hearty realism being exchanged for easy-fix, cop-out magical solutions.

     To be fair, Robin is portrayed positively to some extent. We do get to see his tender side, both with his daughter Ro, her assortment of companions, and the ill-treated son of the Sheriff of Nottingham, young Tod. Torn between his own mistreatment and remaining undercurrent of loyalty to his father, Tod is probably one of my favorite characters in the series. He shows strength of character that is unexpected, considering how hard-core rotten his father is, and Robin Hood goes the extra mile to affirm that and become a true father-figure to him. It goes to show that even a bad man can have a good son, and no one should be judged by the previous generation.

     On the subject of the main character, I do wish that Ro’s character had been more deeply explored. Much of the time she is so absorbed in her quest to avenge her mother’s death, or live up to her father’s reputation, her own identity remains blurred and brooding. Her relationship with Robin Hood seems tinged with a sense of competition, and R.H. comes off as being unsure how to properly relate to his daughter or be a leader of men in a convincing way. Somehow, his whole persona seems limp, lax, and uninspiring. He’s gone from an Outlaw Prince to a Sugar Daddy Pushover.

     This follows suit with the constant push to create a female equivalent of R.H. I’m not opposed to a female compliment for him, specifically in the person of the spirited Maid Marion. But then she was never trying to take Robin’s place. Rowan Hood, like Gwen in Princess of Thieves, is there to out-shine her father as opposed to complimenting him. Also the whole plot gimmick of Rowan doing “one better” than her Robin by teaching the peasants how to make money belies the main point of the original tales: the people were being brutally over-taxed, and Robin was in essence stealing their hard-earned pay back for them.

     Another pet peeve I have has to do with Princess Etarde and how she supposedly comes from some “petty kingdom” in or around England. Okay, this is supposed to be King Richard’s England; there were no “petty kingdoms” in that territory. Either she is supposed to be the daughter of a chieftain from Ireland or a petty prince on the continent. But it doesn’t seem that Springer is at all concerned with historical accuracy or explanation. She is using a fantasy gimmick, taken out of the Arthurian Cycles or The Lord of the Rings. Hence, the crux of the matter is that the setting of the story is not so much “Merrie England”, but a mythical fantasy realm, complete with elves and witches and magical spells.

     Another factor to mention is that Christianity hardly plays any part in the series and the characters often seem to be more or less to be generic nature-worshippers. I certainly don’t mind the inclusion Pagan elements in traditional stories with legitimately Pagan influence, such as King Arthur, which welded together Pagan and Christian themes and symbolism. But in this case, we’re dealing with medieval England, which was a Christian society. As opposed to an emphasis on “The Lady of the Wood”, Robin would have been praying to the Blessed Virgin Mary, to whom he is shown as being staunchly devoted in even the oldest variants of his legend. Again, this garbling of the predominant religious beliefs in Europe during the Middle Ages seriously damages the realism of Robin Hood and the down-to-earth style of the legends. I love the relatable Robin, the man of folk songs and tavern tales, but not mythic embroidery and complexity akin to the Arthurian Cycles.

     But on the positive side, the author does do a good job with character contrasts, and I appreciate how each book is written from a different character’s perspective. This enabled it to be much more diverse and engaging than sticking strictly to Ro’s point of view. We are also given the chance to see through the eyes of Lionel, the mystic minstrel whose father believes him to be illegitimate; of Etarde, the philosophical princess whose sadistic father has locked her mother in a cage; and of Rook, the “wild boy of the woods” who is on a quest for vengeance after his father is left to die in a forest trap by the Sheriff of Nottingham. All of them are commendably multi-layered and sympathetic. I am rather disappointed that Springer ended the series before going into more detail about Beau, the faux-French-accented Gypsy with a mysterious past. Perhaps that will provide ample material for some future sequel.

     Out of all the books, I would have to say the final volume, Rowan Hood’s Return, has the most going for it in the way of a meaningful analysis of life and spirituality. The concept of Guy having “no soul”, thus preventing the elves from helping Rowan confront him, is a fascinating concept…although according to Catholic theology, even the most hardened sinners do have souls, and thus all human beings have the capacity to be redeemed, even if that redemption never comes about. Beyond that, however, I appreciated how it was shown that Ro’s obsession with revenge actually causes her lose contact with her Elvish ancestors who she has often communicated with in the woods.

     Furthermore, as she continues on her journey to track down the men responsible for killing her mother to administer vigilante justice, her legs weaken to the point where she can barely walk.
After various encounters along the route that open her heart more and more to her own humanity and calling to be a healer, the conclusion (warning: spoilers!) results in the restoration of Ro’s soul and the healing powers she inherited from her mother, the herbalist wood-wife adept in Elvish magic. I was also  pleased how, in the final confrontation with Guy of Gisbourne, Robin Hood does finally do something overtly heroic and saves his daughter life in a manner very congruent with the original source material. (That’s-a my boy…better late than never!)

     All in all, in spite of its various foibles and discrepancies, I am glad to have read Tales of Rowan Hood. The main themes of the series are the importance of familial relationships (whether by blood or emotional bond) and the power of forgiveness, as well as ostensibly “every teen’s search for self.” Perhaps that’s a bit of stretch, but still, I would say some interesting concepts about maturing are explored in the series. Even though the father-issues that the characters have to deal can become a bit redundant (which makes me wonder if perhaps the author had paternal difficulties as well), it does enable them to grow in new ways. Indeed, even though I may not be a fan of Ro, she certainly does come off as a more well-rounded and sympathetic character before the curtain finally closes.

    So overall, I give the series 3 out of 5 stars, and would recommend it as a fairly entertaining and occasionally profound non-canon fan-fiction-esque romp through the greenwood…in spite of my allergic reaction to the excessive amount of forest pixie dust, Elvish interlopers, and dead-beat dads!


Rowan Hood: Outlaw Girl of Sherwood Forest