Robin McKinley
Ordinary Heroes
More about Robin Hood

I was a military brat and an only child, and grew up moving house every year or two. Early on I decided that the unstable so-called real world was less satisfying than the world of books, and my special favourites (other than horse stories) were folk- and fairy-tales. My own first novel is a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, but at the time I wrote it I hadn’t realised how many versions of the story existed. When I came to retell Robin Hood I had some notion already that the path had been trodden many, many times. What I wasn’t expecting was how contradictory the tales about Robin were. He was, after all, in some measure based on a real, historical figure—wasn’t he?

The Robin Hood I grew up with was Howard Pyle’s. When I was nine or ten there was nothing finer than Robin Hood and all his merry men having adventures in the greenwood, and I loved all the fancy language (‘ "Now busk ye, my merry men all," quoth he’) and the glorious drawings. I didn’t like the ending, with Robin murdered by the wicked prioress, his cousin whom he had ‘done much to aid’ and dying in the arms of the despairing Little John. I learned to deal with this by not reading the epilogue. But the memory lingered, with the memory of how little Maid Marian had to do, except be admiring, and how Alan-a-Dale’s fair Ellen surfaces long enough to be a damsel in distress and, once rescued, disappears forever from the tale of interesting adventures. I was a girl, and I wanted interesting adventures. I didn’t want to be rescued, and I didn’t want my chief function to be that of admiring someone else, and I certainly didn’t want to murder a kind and honourable friend (just what had Robin done for the prioress, anyway? Why was she so horrible?).

I can remember beginning to tell myself proto-stories when I wasn’t much more than a baby—before I could talk very well, certainly before I could write. By the time I discovered Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (in which the Nine Walkers—the Fellowship of the Ring—who represent the Free Peoples of the World, contain not one female), a year or two after the heat of my Robin Hood phase, the stories I was telling myself all contained active heroines. They were not necessarily the centre of the story (I always loved Little John best, not Robin) but they were crucial, and they were valued by their fellows. I also, as I came through my teens, found traditional heroes less and less interesting, those fearless, dauntless, endlessly clever and resourceful people who wouldn’t know a crisis of confidence if it were a dragon and bit them. I was much more interested in ordinary people—men and women both—who rose to the occasions that fate thrust them into. That was real heroism, I came to believe: doing the best you could no matter how frightened you were; and, to me at least, this made a better story too.

I sat down to write what became my first novel expecting it to be a twenty-page short story: my personal version of Beauty and the Beast. It was going to be not much more than a writing exercise, though it sprang from my love of the fairy tale I’d grown up with. I spent some months sitting down at my desk every evening saying ‘Tonight I will finish it.’ Something similar happened after an editor asked me if I would be interested in writing a short, early-reader Robin Hood; innocently enough I said yes; I had a few ideas about Robin Hood, but I didn’t think there was anything like enough material to make a novel.

My first mistake was rereading Howard Pyle. Alas! I still reread Tolkien with love; I can even reread T H White’s The Once and Future King despite his poor sad Guinevere; but I will never again voluntarily touch Pyle’s Merry Adventures of Robin Hood—except to look at the pictures. I was disgusted with the childishly idiotic practical jokes that it now seemed to me many of the ‘adventures’ were, and I was astonished at the way Pyle undercut his own invention by making everybody in Robin Hood’s band supernaturally good at almost everything. What was the point? Where was the challenge? The Sheriff of Nottingham never had a chance. Neither, of course, did Marian, and after all the usual sorts of thuggish dastardliness that came before, I was made very uncomfortable by its being a sneaking female who finally gave Robin his death-wound. Only treachery would do, eh? And only women were that treacherous.

I had, by that time, some shape of the story in my head. Robin himself was going to be one of my ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances. Marian was going to have something important to do. And—other than Marian—there were going to be women in Robin’s band. Alan-a-Dale’s wife wasn’t merely ornamental. Oh, yes, and Little John was going to be as irresistible as possible.... The short early-reader had disappeared by the time I was well launched on the first draft.

Meanwhile, I was actually doing research for the first time in my writing career, and very heavy going I found it, too. For an overactive imagination like mine, fantasy and fairy tales are safer: you have to stick to your own rules, but you do get to make them up. I have a joke I tell audiences, that for me there are two kinds of facts: there are boring facts, which I can’t remember because they are too boring; and there are interesting facts, which I immediately start making up stories about and then lose track of what I’m reading. Great chasms of credibility are liable to open up in any fact-dependent text of such a writer. I was quite bruised and weary of climbing out of a whole succession of them when I read J. C. Holt’s terrific book on Robin Hood. An organising theme (if not, perhaps, fact) of his book is that the tales of Robin Hood have always reflected what the teller and the audience needed him to be at the time of the telling.

I did, still, try to make my story, as I say in the Afterword to my The Outlaws of Sherwood, ‘historically unembarrassing’. I had a crucial plot device come to bits on account of this; six months’ work, poof! But my ideas about my characters remained steady to the end. Some readers have been outraged by my ‘ordinary’ Robin, and by the particularly crucial role Marian plays; but there are also readers who have found him and his band of merry men and women just what they needed them to be.

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