Jennifer Roberson, Lady of Sherwood (Kensington Books, 2000)

Many years ago I was struck by the words of a wise man called Willie Dixon, who wrote, "you can't judge a book by looking at the cover." Ok, I didn't actually read those words, I heard them on a record by Bo Diddley, but I reckon that's as good a source of literary criticism as any.... Anyhow, the cover of this particular book didn't raise my level of expectation to any great heights. I had no problem with the illustration of Marian (her image has become almost a universally accepted archetype), but Robin's long and preternaturally blonde hairstyle definitely triggered some deep-seated instinctive warning mechanism. This, I mused, could turn out to be one of those dumb romance/fantasy novels, as I cautiously sniffed the pages for the telltale odour of unicorn manure.

Thankfully, this book is no such thing, as Roberson beautifully observes in her own author's notes. "Lady of Sherwood," she states, "is a historical novel; that is to say, a work of fiction in which the author has made up huge chunks of a story that never happened." It is, of course, romantic, but it certainly isn't "fantasy" within the dictionary definition of "non-realistic story."

Among her primary sources of reference, she lists "The Ballads of Robin Hood," edited by Jim Lees, and "The Plantagenet Chronicles," by Elizabeth Hallam. Roberson's success lies in her ability to weave the central characters of the broadside romances (the Sheriff, Friar Tuck, Will Scarlet, Much the Miller's son, Gisbourne, et al) into the known historical context of the events of 1199, the year of Richard Coeur de Lion's death.

Both Prince John and Arthur of Brittany lay claim to the soon to be vacant throne of England. Richard, expected to name his successor, instead adopts a policy of "may the best man win." Who, exactly, is "the best man" is a matter of no small dispute among both the hereditary aristocracy (various Earls) and those employed in positions of power (The Sheriff of Nottingham). Consequently, Marian of Ravenskeep (unmarried, but granted ownership of her own estates by Royal decree) and Robin (knighted crusader, escaped captive of the infidel, disinherited heir to an Earldom and pardoned former outlaw), find themselves living in "a house of cards."

As a further complication, Robin's Father, The Earl of Huntingdon, is also nearing the end of his days. Dying without an heir would result in his lands reverting to the ownership of the Crown, in all likelihood a king that Huntingdon utterly opposes. Having gained the knowledge that Marian is infertile, he offers Robin the title on condition that he marries, and continues the Huntingdon line.

Throughout these intrigues, the central cast engages in plenty of the "noble deedes" and "merrie gestes" that we're all familiar with from the old tales. Combat is engaged in, daring rescue missions are accomplished, unfair taxes are imposed, bowstrings are drawn, ale is quaffed and outlaws silently tread the deer tracks of Sherwood Forest. In Roberson's words, however, they do these things as believable, three-dimensional characters who express doubt, fear and remorse, rather than as the "cartoon" figures that they're too often reduced to. Other characters are drawn straight from historical record. Roberson assures us that Robin's former comrade in arms Mercardier "truly was captain of the Lionheart's mercenaries; for my own purposes I transported him from France to England and made him central to this version."

By casting Robin and Marian against the backdrop of history, Roberson's produced an enlightening window through which to view the old tales and ballads, and more than a few reasons to further explore both the enduring popularity of these tales and their particular associations with this period. This reader certainly learned plenty of history along the way, too. While scholarly books about Eleanor of Aquitaine or Arthur of Brittany might not inspire me too much in the way of serious study, discovering those folks while reading a Robin Hood book proved a fascinating "by-product," and left me with a far greater interest than I started with.

Apart from a short story in The Merlin Chronicles, this is the first Jennifer Roberson book that I have read. It certainly won't be the last, as I intend to get this book's predecessor, Lady of the Forest, as soon as possible. Marian Zimmer Bradley called that one "a beautiful synthesis of all the Robin Hood legends and probably the best book I have read all year." On the basis of its follow-up, I wouldn't dispute her opinion or doubt her judgement for a moment.

I recommend "Lady of Sherwood" for anyone interested in folklore, history or a good adventure story, as this engagingly written novel contains all three!

[Stephen Hunt]