Lisa Croll Di Dio, Sherwood Forest (PublishAmerica, Inc., 1999)

In the tradition of The Mists of Avalon, Lisa Croll Di Dio offers Sherwood Forest, an ambitious retelling of the Robin Hood legend. In DiDio's story, Robert Chaltham is not a political rebel but a religious heretic. Married to the Maid of England -- the spiritual leader of those who follow the Goddess -- he practices the Old Ways at rites deep in the forest, hidden from the rising antipathy of the Catholic Church. The Sheriff of Nottingham, who is married to a secret priestess, becomes Robin's friend and supporter. It's the Bishop and his followers who are the villains, demanding unconditional support for the Church and burning dissenters at the stake. This is the antithesis of Kevin Costner's Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves, in which Robin was a loyal Crusader and the brutal Sheriff dabbled in witchcraft. Here the priestesses and their husbands are the heroes, while (with the exception of Friar Tuck) the Christians plunder the lands and souls of everyone they touch.

At the beginning of the tale, the widower Robert Chaltham wanders into Sherwood Forest on the eve of Beltane and stumbles into a ritual where he falls in love with Marian, who has just come to power and needs a sworn consort. Accepting that responsibility, he becomes Robin of the Green, pledging himself to Sherwood Forest and to the group of pagans who protect it. But the Bishop suspects that there is witchcraft afoot in Nottingham and blames Chaltham for failing to drive the heathens from his lands; he offers an ultimatum, demanding that Chaltham build a church on his property and swear fealty to it or sacrifice all his lands and titles.

Though Robin tries to balance his responsibilities as a nobleman trying to protect the folk in Nottingham and as the consort of the Maid of England, he finds increasingly that he must choose his battles, drawing the ire of those in authority and causing a strain in his relationship with his beloved Marian. The others in Sherwood Forest find themselves under similar scrutiny. At first they choose to go deep into hiding, but when the Bishop's men begin to invade their rituals and persecute their friends, they realize that they may soon have to decide whether to leave Sherwood, taking the Old Ways with them, or to stay and perish for their beliefs.

This reinvention of the tale has certain appeal for Wiccans and anyone interested in feminist spirituality. Despite living in an historical era not known for empowerment of women, Marian and her fellow priestesses wield considerable force during rituals and are treated as superior beings by their husbands. Rowan, who is Robin's unknown sister and Will Scarlett's consort, is a particularly intriguing character -- she can use glamour to change her appearance into that of a crone, and her pregnancy does not prevent her from riding and fighting alongside the men.

The Bishop stirs hatred against those who follow the Goddess by inciting fear of midwives and women who know medicinal arts; as one character states, he preys on the "desire among men to lessen what small power women still have." The Church tries to blame local disasters and famines on the sins of the folk, but in the face of waning popularity, the priests choose instead an easier scapegoat -- witches, the very people traditionally credited with understanding and protecting the land. As it becomes dangerous to cultivate a garden or to be seen picking herbs, the strife afflicting the villagers grows more intolerable.

Unfortunately, the novel's lush descriptive passages often become overly flowery, and its romance novel sensibility gets very annoying by the middle of the book. Nearly every section begins with a dramatic event like a death or kidnapping, moves into action with a ritual or counter-attack, then dissolves into silliness as all the major players rush off to make love under the trees in the name of the Goddess. The love stories are comically one-dimensional, the lovers interchangeable. Men and women bonded in the name of the Goddess never so much as look upon another with desire or jealousy. Characters experience the sort of sexual ecstasy wherein they see bursts of flower petals and rainbows at the moment of completion (always mutual, of course). Sherwood Forest is a much more passionate story than traditional tales of Robin and his chaste Maid, yet the florid prose becomes overkill and makes it impossible to believe in this version of the legend any more than the conventional one.

The moral, too, grows rather didactic. Robin makes blunt statements about how men should live peaceably by keeping to their own ideas and letting their neighbors keep their own. Characters contrast Friar Tuck with the rest of the Christians with statements like, "Most in your office would argue anything heretical which swayed from the accepted truths." Marian insists that in their little community, all magic must be done with integrity and respect, else it be bane, and of course no one even suggests breaking that rule even when their lives are in danger. Coming as they do in between bouts of romance and fighting, the restated concepts from the Rede don't seem deeply-enough felt. Some more ambiguity on the part of the pagans would ironically serve to make them seem stronger and more plausible than these illuminated paragons of virtue.

Still, there's a real sense of magic in Sherwood Forest, including appearances by the Fairy Queen and the terrifying presence of the Morrigan when several witches are captured and tortured. The story also creates space for spells, poetry and ballads, which gives it a folksy feel and prevents the ponderous discussions of pagan ethics from becoming too much like lectures. For readers who don't mind romance-novel clichés and a certain amount of historical license, Di Dio's version of Robin Hood and his merry men and brilliant women offers many intriguing characters and a fascinating opportunity to explore Wiccan lore.

[Michelle Erica Green]

A Web page devoted to Sherwood Forest is here.