WHAT IF I told you that Robin Hood and Nottingham were not inseparable? What if I redefined the mythos of the legend, painting in broad strokes the story of a Welsh freedom fighter in an unwinnable war against the French, and did so while retaining the moral and thematic ideas of the source material? Well, I won’t have to, because Stephen Lawhead has. His King Raven trilogy recaptures that initial spark of excitement so many of us felt hearing of Robin Hood’s valiant deeds for the first time, while reinventing the character as radically as Casino Royale did James Bond, or Batman Begins did for its titular character. The whole thing is a strong bit of pop history that’s, for the most part, a well-crafted ride.
King Raven—made up of three novels, Hood, Scarlet, and Tuck (Thomas Nelson)—reimagines the Robin Hood legend in three movements. Life in his father’s castle engages the first, as Robin takes on the responsibility of the kingship and gets swept away by the gravity of politics. In the second, he organizes a band of “less than merry men” in a campaign against King William, leading to, in the final installment, a tumultuous“great battle.” Along the way, Merian, Friar Tuck, and other familiar faces get revamped in an attempt to parallel the political climate of our world at large with the legendary fable. Robin himself exists in the form of Rhi Bran, who toggles between stereotypical hero and genuinely conflicted protagonist.
At times, Lawhead’s prose is lyrical, his imagery evocative. Depictions of the Welsh countryside, for instance, come to life in vibrant colorsBran’s youthful trek through the forest in the first novel’s prologue is set amidst a backdrop of rich greens and misty ambers, an almost fantastical environment that Lawhead details specifically and faithfully. (He spent some time exploring the last remaining Welsh forest in preparation for his fictional representation of the Wild, and it shows.) Lawhead isn’t nearly as wordy as Tolkien, but his prose doesn’t lack for flourish. His tone shifts as his eyes drift from character to character, associating a specific voice and feeling with each.
Better yet, these feelings can change, and often do throughout the trilogy as characters grow and evolve. No one is static: Bran is a vulgar, morally unappealing rogue, defined by the loss of his mother and shaped by his father’s violence. His introductory moments find him attempting to woo his way into the bed of Merian, the only woman he seems to respect—likely because her stubborn character and sense of self-worth remind him of his huntress mother.
Lawhead never reduces morality to cookie-cutter French and English stereotypes, though the opening novel’s first scenes move so quickly that it seemed the story might compromise on ethnic nuance. But when those initial broad strokes are laid down, Lawhead takes a look at motivation and the emotional—not just military-industrial—politics of the nation torn apart by a ravaging enemy. Typically, “action” is not enough to grant historical fiction a sense of value, and Lawhead turns what could very easily have been chess pieces on a bloody board into vibrant beings who express the full range of human emotions. He is not afraid to laugh at these creations when they deserve it, further confirmation of his extraordinary talent.
Where the novels succeed on the strength of setting or their emotional tablet, they often falter when describing action. The prose loses its poetry during military engagements, and the author’s approach moves somewhere in the realm between the cold calculations of military non-fiction and the cheap thrills of a mass-market paperback. The only genuinely disappointing element of these books is the way the violent passages lack human resonance—if not for the already established characters, we simply wouldn’t care who lives and dies.
Lawhead isn’t afraid to barrage the reader with material that might be considered “offensive” compared to the rest of current Christian fiction. More than one “bastard,” “whore,” and “hell” crops up, used not as descriptors but simply as a derogatory comments (curses, in other words), and he’s not afraid to depict unwed characters either in bed together or “fooling around.” His spiritual themes are visible and potent (one being the connection between faith and fear, and the religious system’s affect on both the political process and social reformation), but he approaches obliquely, wisely choosing neither to pander nor preach.
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