It’s September, and once autumn rolls around I always getting a craving to read something medieval, some epic fantasy or legend. It probably started when I found a large, hardcover, beautifully illustrated copy of The Adventures of Robin Hood** as a child at a fair. Every year since, I crave something medieval in September, and usually around this time I’ll try to find a new Robin Hood retelling. By now, I’ve read probably a dozen. In 2013, I read Lady of the Forest by Jennifer Robinson, and although I have read others since then, none of them quite did it for me like this one. Published in 1992, Lady of the Forest has got a taste of Ursula K Le Guin and Marion Zimmer Bradley – that second wave feminist meets ren-faire vibe.
Pushing a female figure into the limelight of a story usually dominated by their male counterpart can often feel forced. Many of the Robin Hood retellings I have read try to turn Marian into a more engaging or proactive character by turning her into a female Robin Hood. But Lady of the Forest tells Marian’s story in a way that is true to the heart of the legend. Marian is the title character of Robinson’s novel, but all of her strengths and character are her own. She is not a female Robin Hood. She is a lively, interesting, deeply unsatisfied woman, trying to hold her place in a male-dominated world after the death of her father.
Jennifer Robinson’s story begins earlier than the traditional Robin Hood tale with Robin’s return from the Crusade. With Marian’s father recently deceased in the same battle Robin came from, the novel opens with a country at war. King Richard is still abroad. England is deep in the conflict which leads the country to the desperate place in which the traditional tales take place in. Although Marian is the title character, Robin, the Sheriff, and Guy all have chapters from their perspectives, which builds a well-rounded world for Marian to live in, as well as an interesting perspective into the Saxon versus Norman conflict that still stung in the everyday lives of the English.
Marian is set to marry William DeLacey, the Sheriff, in an agreement between him and her dead father. Her father had recently died by Robin’s side in battle, so when he returned to Nottingham, Marian seeks him out to learn more about her father’s death, as well as a way to escape the marriage proposal of DeLacey. Robin himself is painted as a much more troubled character, as opposed to the jolly forest dwelling of so many iterations. Suffering from PTSD from the Crusades, Robin is obsessed with freeing King Richard from his captors, and single-handedly redeeming his time fighting the Saracens.
When Robin realizes that Prince John’s money-raising efforts for Richard are not actually going to the ransom, Robin endeavors to steal that money and reroute it to the King. After learning that Marian has not only refused to marry him, but is also fraternizing with traitors, DeLacey locks her in Nottingham castle. She is left with the option of marriage or being tried for witchcraft.
Robinson weaves elements of the classic tale into her novel, like the archery contest, but she sets up her story in a uniquely realistic way, till it has you believing that events must have really happened like her version. Robinson said of her novel: “I wanted very much to write the story of how the legend came to be; the tale of how seven very different people from a rigidly stratified social structure came to join together to fight the inequities of medieval England.” She also manages to weave in some historical rumors that don’t make it into the legends, such as the sexual orientation of King Richard, as well as his selfishness, and the perhaps not-so-noble ideals behind the Third Crusade.
All that being said, Lady of the Forest is still fiction. Robinson tells the story in her own way, full of the melodrama. It’s quite sexual – one Goodreads reviewer even called it “crude” – but I found Robinson’s style to be what kept the story unique and fun. Many Robin Hood retellings are dry and removed, written in a way to evoke the feeling of legend instead of a personal relationship with the characters. Jennifer Robinson definitely doesn’t have that problem. From start to finish, Lady of the Forest written for the reader – grounded in reality, but not tied down by it.
Sarah V Diehl
** Cover photo