Old Stories Made New: Robin Hood

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The opening page from “A Gest of Robin Hode,” one of the oldest tales from that period that survived through the ages

I’m closing in on the final edits as I polish my novella, “Arrows Fletched with Peacock Feathers” for submission to Less Than Three Press’s anthology call, “Fairytales Slashed, Volume 7.”

I think all of us writers are really hard on our own work, I know I am. My edits are usually followed by much wailing and gnashing of teeth while I castigate myself on how much it sucks and drag the story, kicking and screaming, into something better. Now that I’m nearly holding the finished product for submission, I don’t know if it’s right for the place I’m submitting to! This happens sometimes, where I start out thinking I know what the editor might want, and then reach a place of confusion and disarray where I can’t be sure any more of what is good and what is not. Oh, the weary writing life!

Sometimes you can doing nothing more than keep trudging on, because how we feel about a written piece doesn’t reflect the reality. We might feel terrible about it for reasons unknown, poor self-esteem, a bad day, a crushing rejection — only to discover others absolutely love it! The writing life is filled with this contradiction, so above all else — soldier on!

“Arrows Fletched with Peacock Feathers” also came about amid weird synchronicities. For instance, only a month before Alan Rickman died, I decided to write on the Robin Hood myth and for fun, I sat down to watch Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. I first saw it when I was 12, and my mother took me to the theater because of her great love of all things medieval, and the Robin Hood myth — and her huge fangirl crush on Kevin Costner no doubt helped drive us to the theater.

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A lot of women in the generation before me love them some Kevin Costner, but I’ve never been able to see the attraction.

Alan Rickman, on the other hand, with his dark and venomous portrayal of the Sheriff, was probably my first introduction into a dark eros, an attraction to the bad-boy archetype that is so pleasing to many adolescents — despite the usual consequences that result from bad boys (or as my husband griped while watching yet another “bad boy” presented as a teen heart throb on television: “There he is, playing Billy Bad-Ass.”)

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Rickman, channelling Snape

Rickman stole the show with a performance that was so clever he managed to flirt with campiness without going too far. In some ways, the Sheriff of Nottingham is nearly over-the-top with his villainy, but Rickman’s pitch perfect comedic timing — when he passes the vandalized statue meant to edify his narcissistic ego is one example — steals the show away from Costner. Rickman won an award in England for his performance that year.

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I defy anyone to make this pronouncement with Rickman’s mix of smarminess and dead seriousness

Now that I’m adult, watching him with adult eyes, I find he’s a far more complex and interesting character than what we were given with Robin Hood. Even though they are all, in their own way, a bit cartoonish and one-note, Rickman’s gorgeous darkness made me wonder how  much more depth the character could have had, given a better screenplay, a more gifted writer. I was already well on my way to formulating the story and the character by that time, having already spent hours reading original variations of the mythos, but watching Rickman perform gave me a face to pin complexity to — suddenly, the Sheriff was not a two dimensional cardboard cut out, but a deep and restrained person who sacrificed his desires to serve a higher purpose, and was striving hard to keep the forces of the state from destroying the good people of Nottingham. What if his veneer of strictness and evil was merely a sham to hide a more vulnerable, sensitive heart beneath? And what pleasure might give way in conquering such a passionate, fragile heart?

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Given this, and Robin Hood’s propensity for disguises and trickery, and Maid Marian thrown into the mix, I could think of no better arrangement of elements for a story featuring characters whose sexuality is complex, and their expression of that sexuality complicated in a medieval world that hasn’t yet framed questions of sexual identity other than to scorn anything outside what is condoned by the Church. I desired to showcase these characters as bisexual and fluid, and their internal struggles with duty and obligation at war with desire, as universal questions we all face. Do we give in to our hearts, even if it costs us responsibilities elsewhere? Which is more important? And are our responsibilities worth anything at all if we cannot have what our heart’s desire?

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All this was poured into “Arrows Fletched with Peacock Feathers” which pulls much of its plot from “A Gest of Robin Hode,” which is where most people are familiar with the Robin Hood mythos. So I’ll close this post with the opening lines:

“LYTHE and listin, gentilmen,

That be of frebore blode;

I shall you tel of a gode yeman,

His name was Robyn Hode.”

 

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