I spent this long holiday weekend my favorite way—with my nose in a series of books that let me travel to a far away time and place. My series for this weekend was the King Raven trilogy—Hood, Scarlet, and Tuck—by Stephen Lawhead, one of my very favorite authors. This series absolutely lived up to my high expectations, and I enjoyed every minute of the roughly 1400 pages of the trilogy, losing complete track of time for whole stretches of time as I lived and breathed the action in 11th century Wales.
Lawhead make a very convincing case in the Afterword of the books that the tale we now know as the Robin Hood legend of Sherwood Forest was actually derived from an older tale that described a Welsh king leading a band of Welsh freedom fighters fighting to retain their land and their autonomy after the Norman Conquest of 1066. Many pieces of the tale we now know make a great deal more sense in this setting than they do in their traditional setting a few centuries later in Sherwood Forest. Troubadours of that time period were commonly adjusted their tales to include local places and people on their travels, so it is not a large stretch of the imagination to picture a traveling bard re-writing the already old tale in a new location and a new time with that revised version being the one that managed to be recorded and come down to us.
He writes this trilogy, however, as a re-imagining of his suggested original tale, with the Welsh outlaw king becoming known as Rhi Bran y Hud, or King Raven the Enchanter in English, because of the guise he uses in his guerrilla style attacks on the Normans who are attempting to steal his land and his throne. The usual characters are all here—Marian, Little John, Friar Tuck, Will Scarlet, and the Sheriff—but all tweaked slightly to fit the times and location.
As always, Lawhead’s writing of the story is a work of art. He draws the reader in and keeps her turning the pages as fast as she can with the excitement and pace of the story, the complexity of the characters, and the desire to see justice prevail. And he also does so much more. He manages to portray the times in all of their harshness without it becoming bleak. He thrills us with the courageous exploits of this small band of warriors without ever glorifying war. He teaches the history of the times, the place, the people of both Wales and England, the nobility, the church, and more, without ever stopping the action with long information dumps. I came away with a much richer understanding of how the pressures of the time created so many of the challenges faced by the people, including the nobility, and the role that the church played in daily life during that time. I am reminded again by just how spoiled we are in our modern world with the luxuries that we all take for granted.
Most of all, however, I feel in love with the characters. I wanted to see justice win out in the end. Rhi Bran is a character who is easy to love with his daring, his courage, and his mischief, but he is an imperfect character, as well. He starts the story as one with little honor (for reasons that are soon apparent), and we watch him grow and evolve over the course of the story into someone who has learned the responsibility of leadership well. Likewise with Mérien, who begins the story as one who is rather shallow and spoiled, but she matures and grows as she faces more of life’s hard knocks. They both remain flawed, imperfect people, but watching them grow into the King and Queen they are becoming is a delight.
Ironically, the character that I came to love most was one who is not mentioned in the traditional tale. Her name was Angharad, and she was the banfáith of the tribe. Banfáith was generally translated as Bard in the text—in fact, she was often called the last Bard in Britain—but it was clear from the story that this title was so much more the storytellers I traditionally associate with the word Bard. Although she did play the harp and tell stories, she was more of a shaman using an overlay of Christian stories and words. The descriptions of her are of someone who was ancient and bent and gnarled with age, but who had a spirit that gave those standing close to her a sensation “like that of standing beneath one of the venerable giants of the forest, an oak or elm of untold age … the awareness that he was near something so large and calm and rooted to depths he could scarcely imagine.” I love this description of her and the strength of her character is being so thoroughly herself that people quickly stopped seeing her outer appearance because of the radiance of her inner spirit. I hope as I age to grow into someone with a fraction of the calm rootedness that her spirit offered to those around her. And I loved seeing how the native Welsh spirituality and blended with Christianity in the faith that she portrayed.
This is a marvelous series that completely turns on its head everything you thought you knew about Robin Hood, but it does it in a way that is so convincing that you’ll never be able to hear the traditional versions the same way again. Rhi Bran y Hud will henceforth be for me the real version of the story, with all others pale reflections of the original.
Incidentally, although I have not (yet) had the privilege of listening to Jeff Johnson’s and Brian Dunning’s King Raven CD, they have done an amazing job of creating a soundtrack to Lawhead’s books in the past that blends well with the stories. I suspect this one is also worth a listen as a deeper experience of the story.
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