Robin McKinley
The Outlaws of Sherwood: Interview

There is a very nice (not only because he likes my work) man who runs a web site, chiefly about Puck (as in Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill, and oh very well, if you insist, that Shakespeare fellow who wrote A Midsummer Night's Dream) and Robin Hood. He sent me some questions about my Outlaws, and the resulting interview is as follows. But go look at the rest of his web site.

—Robin McKinley

You've mentioned in a few places that as a child you loved the Robin Hood legend. What things about the legend appealed to you the most? And do you think that would still be true of children today?

I think the main thing that appealed to me forty or more years ago is the same thing that must appeal to most ordinary middle-class, developed-world kids with indoor plumbing, TV, and homework, reading Robin Hood today: a simpler, freer life on appealing terms. It's not unlike the attraction of Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons or Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows, a kind of uber-playing house, with the excellent addition of fighting bad guys and being on the side of justice and generosity. Even taking out the garbage— if you're the kind of kid who realises that you're still going to have to do this one way or another, which I was— must be more interesting in the greenwood, when you could be eaten by wild boars on the way or something. I don't think you really appreciate the excellence of hot showers and washing machines till you're old, and when you're a kid a cold, lumpy bed made out of tree branches seems like a perfectly fair trade for an absence of algebra tests. Most of the stuff grown-ups make you do when you're a kid is, if not quite pointless, its point is at least a long way off, after you're eighteen or twenty and out of school (and/or doing your own laundry). Robin Hood is also a dream of being the kind of grown up you're already pretty sure at heart you're not going to be, partly because there aren't any forests left that are suitable for it, but partly because you're uneasily aware of being successfully indoctrinated into the system. After all, there was a lot less to keep Robin Hood at home. No TV. No computer games. No pizza delivery. Maybe you can live without the joys of pulling the sheriff of Nottingham's nose after all. But it's a lovely fantasy, and I wouldn't have wanted to miss it.

As you mentioned [in Outlaws], JC Holt has said that Robin Hood is whoever the audience and the storyteller needs him to be. Who is Robin Hood for you?

He's the fellow who pulled the sheriff of Nottingham's nose and got away with it. He's the fellow who bucked the system successfully. He's the little guy who took on McDonalds or Microsoft and won. He's also another version of one of my biggest preoccupations— the ordinary hero. I talk about this at every opportunity: I personally think that fearless, flawless heroes are a snore. Heroism is something that takes a lot of energy, and the only heroes I'm really interested in are the ones that have bad nights sometimes, lying awake at 3 a.m. and wondering if they're doing the right thing. Heroism costs, if you're a mortal, and we're mortals. (Seven-league-striding type heroes who laugh at death and lop off the heads of wicked despots before breakfast aren't going to be lying around the house reading wussy fiction.) Legends— and fairy tales— are exciting and thought-provoking, with their stereotyped characters representing good and evil, virtue and vice, good mothers and bad stepmothers, good kings and bad wizards, but when I get down to it, I want to flesh them out and make them human. Andrew Lang's Beauty and the Beast or Child's Robin Hood and Guy of Gysborne is only some of one version of the story. The Robin Hood I grew up with was Howard Pyle's, and the big thing I had against it is that all the merry men seemed to be extraordinarily tall, extraordinarily clever, extraordinarily brave, extraordinarily good at everything. Booooooring. The concept was great, but the characters needed a little work.

Many versions of the legend focus solely on Robin himself. But The Outlaws of Sherwood wonderfully develops the other characters in the band. In your "Ordinary Heroes" article, you said that Little John was your favourite character. What's the appeal of Robin being part of a team as opposed to being a solo hero?

Another important aspect of Robin Hood for me— an aspect that was important when I was a kid and stayed with me even as I grew up and lost patience with Howard Pyle— is that he is a leader. And you can't lead unless there is someone else around for you to lead. The ordinary-hero business applies to leaders as well: the finest, clearest-seeing, most worth paying attention to leader is also lying awake at 3 a.m. occasionally, wondering if he's doing the right thing. He better had be, or he's got a problem, something that seems to me has gone wrong with a lot of charismatic human leaders, now and throughout history. They start to believe their own hype, and stop worrying. Deadly error. In Outlaws I tried to write a story about a reluctant leader, a leader who inspired, who brought out the best in people, who made them willing to risk danger and discomfort for something they believed in— and who didn't abuse the tremendous power this gave him.

Obviously, Marian was an important figure for you. Often in the legend, she's a very strong character. But in the children's books of the last few hundred years, she's become a damsel in distress. How did you come to craft your Marian — one of the strongest and most interesting ever? And you've mentioned coming under some criticism for your Marian. How do others see Marian versus how you see Marian?

I'm not a scholar, and there are lots of Robin Hoods out there I haven't read, but I've read quite a few, and I'm startled at your statement ‘Often in the legend, she's a very strong character.' Not in the legends I know. (According to Professor Holt ‘Marian only made her way into the legend via the May Games and that not certainly until the sixteenth century.' I suppose it also depends on how old a story has to be before you start calling it a legend.) There's one reference in one reasonably elderly ballad that I've seen that makes a passing reference to her out there having adventures with the boys (where you'll find an excerpt from Poly-Olbion by Michael Drayton, published in 1622) but generally speaking, up till pretty recently, she's been at home knitting or grilling the venison steaks or something, if she's there at all. Marginal Marian would be a better name for her than Maid Marian. As for where my Marian came from, she's a very straightforward progression, given my shape of mind. I wanted a self-doubting imperfect inspirational-leader hero, and I wanted him to have a sweetheart whom he honestly needed, and who was— equally honestly— a full person, and a fully important member of the band of outlaws, in her own right. Again— for my shape of mind— given that I wanted Robin to be a genuine leader, someone whom people wanted to follow, and who took responsibility for what this meant for both himself and his followers, I kind of had to take his marksmanship away from him, because being a brilliant marksman too would start taking him toward that too-good-to-be-true, bored-now place that I as a reader object to. Who better to give that marksmanship to than his true love, who needed something to do/be anyway? Mind you, it was nowhere near that calculated— or that rational. My Robin turned up the way he turned up, and so did my Marian. I'm just not in the least surprised.

In your afterword and elsewhere, you've mentioned the shortage of women both in the traditional legend and especially in Howard Pyle. You've added several female Merry M-er, Women to Robin's band. What went into creating these characters, particularly Cecily?

Again, I didn't set out to do it deliberately. It was inevitable, if I was going to tell a Robin Hood story, that my story would have important women in it. If there's ever a book published with my name on it that doesn't have important women characters in it, call the police. I've been kidnapped, and someone has stolen my name.*

I can't give you much more than that for Cecily, either.

(For anyone who is reading this who hasn't read Outlaws yet but might, stop reading now. and skip to here.)

But I went in to writing this story, as I go into writing any story, with some ideas about how I'm guessing the story may go (I am frequently wrong), and two of them in this case came together in Cecily: that Will Scarlet, the runaway aristocrat, had a rebellious sister whose fate was mysterious; and that it seemed very likely that a young woman might, to improve her chances of being accepted into a band of mostly merry men, present herself as a young man. It's important to my concept of the story that Cecily, when Cecil is finally unmasked, is right, that she wouldn't have been accepted— not to the extent she has been— if they'd known she was a woman. If Robin Hood is what each reteller needs him to be (pace Professor Holt's thesis in his excellent Robin Hood), one of the things I needed him to be was embroiled in an ongoing argument about the place of women in society, which is very alive to me in this society.

In the legend, there's often a feeling of anti-clericalism running through the tales. Robin plunders corrupt bishops and abbots. In your novel, you make Sir Richard's debt owed to a secular landlord, as opposed to the traditional abbot, and also have Robin caution against robbing the clergy. Why did you choose this direction?

This is a very mild attempt at historicity on my part. I have a problem with all large, administered systems, and so I have a problem with the Christian Church, but our society doesn't have the problem with an oppressively all-powerful Christian Church the way the society that produced the first well-known gush of Robin Hood stories and ballads did. I feel that the anti-clerical thread in Robin Hood is pretty worn out. I'm sure that you could do an ends-to-middle, like thrifty households used to do with old sheets, and revitalise the Christian Church's importance either for good or ill within a framework of a Robin Hoodish retelling, if you wanted to, but that wasn't anywhere my story wanted to go.

What was the hardest thing about writing The Outlaws of Sherwood?

Probably balancing my basically bleak notion about what happens to idealistic rebels against my desire to have a satisfying story that comes to some facsimile of a partial happy ending. There are few things I dislike more than a story whose author has obviously been determined to make it end badly, whatever the story wants; on the other hand there are some stories which thunder, or even walk softly, toward an entirely earned and inevitable appalling conclusion, and that's fine, but I rather hope I'm never forced to write one. I hated getting through the Guy of Gisbourne stuff in Outlaws and killing almost everybody off. I knew it was coming, I knew that was what the story wanted (and would demand, if I tried to get bolshie about it), but didn't it just half kill me, writing it. At the same time... it always was going to end in tears. That's one of the both glorious and heart-breaking things about Robin Hood as I understand him (whether he's one of the ones who shoots well or one of the ones who doesn't): he knows this. He does it anyway. He has to.

I have occasional fantasies of writing Outlaws Part Two but it would probably end even worse, so chances are I will contrive never to get around to it. (I can tell you my Robin isn't going to die by female treachery, however. It might almost be worth thrashing myself through Part Two just to make this point.)

For you, what's the most defining moment in the book?


Here's another place where anyone who hasn't read Outlaws yet shouldn't read any more of this reply, but should skip to here.

My defining moment is when Cecily's badly thrown knife distracts the exhausted Guy of Gisbourne just long enough to give the equally exhausted Robin the one last chance he needs, so our few remaining heroes win after all, even at the colossal cost of the preceding battle— and while Marian may or may not be dying in Friar Tuck's secret sanctuary. This is also the scene in the book that most often renders traditional-Robin-Hood-lovers the most rabidly incoherent (and, I might add, abusive) with rage. Robin Hood needs help to defeat Guy of Gisbourne! And he gets it from a girl!!!!! To me it's far more interesting, far more poignant, far more satisfying, to have that battle won at the last possible moment, balanced on a knife-edge— literally in this case— and won, furthermore, from an unexpected source, and a badly wounded, half out of her mind with blood loss and fear, source, at that. One of the things Outlaws is about— let me repeat— is that of a group with a leader; if the leader can do it all himself, if he doesn't need the group, why does he bother? This comes back to ordinary heroes again too: Robin Hood and his band have, in fact, overcome enormous odds to win at all. They shouldn't have. In the ‘real world' they wouldn't have. Even in my pseudo-medieval never-never land, if the story is going to have any of the shock of the real in this one, it had better feel real. And in this case this means death and pain and exhaustion and despair. And doing what you have to do anyway, however wretched you're feeling. That's heroism. That— let me also repeat— is one of the things the book is about.

It also makes me pretty nuts that the people who get bent over the fact that Robin needs some help seem to think that by the mere fact of his needing help his honour or his leadership has been impugned or something. Robin— all his folk— have proved many times over that they're worth three or a dozen of any ordinary mercenary thugs, like Guy and his band. Robin is betrayed at the end by nothing that he does— his staff breaks! I was very careful about this, because I didn't want to undermine either his courage or his authority: he's standing there challenging Guy to do his worst when Cecily throws her knife. (I hadn't thought of this before, but I dare say it's also my poke in the eye to all those genderist thugs that have used and passed on the treacherous-prioress version of Robin's death.)

Is there anything you'd like to add?

I said at the end of the afterword in Outlaws ‘My Robin Hood is meant to be neither absolute nor definitive— nor historically satisfying. But I hope my readers may find him and his company persuasive and congenial.' I think it would have been a little churlish to put it this way in the afterword, but rationally that should have read ‘I hope some of my readers may find him and his company persuasive and congenial'— and my thanks to all of the readers who have told me in the years since the book was published that they find him so. I will add to that (adapted from my answer to What single thing would improve the quality of your life? in the ‘Imaginary Interview' on my web site), that for those of you who do not, please remember that there is a crucial difference between ‘this book doesn't work for me' and ‘this book sucks dead bears'. It's always disheartening to read a letter from someone who hated something you've written, but it's fairly maddening to be told that you're wrong. Outlaws isn't wrong. It's a particular take on an old tale that works for some people, and not for others. Like all stories. Hey, I have it on excellent authority that there are even people who don't like The Lord of the Rings, astonishing as that may sound....

*Having said that, I am now, a year or so after I wrote these interview answers, writing a story that does not have any important women characters in it. Sort of. That is, the narrator is a guy, and the two other main human characters are guys. Emphasis on the human. The only other truly central character besides the narrator is female. She's just not human. The third most important character is also female. She's not human either. Hey, it's easier to write from the human point of view . . . okay, so I am a lazy, slovenly, unimaginative poor excuse for a fantasy writer. Noted. But that's the way this story is going.

This situation is not entirely my fault, if anyone wants to think in terms of blame. When Peter and I wrote the first of our Elementals series, Water, more than one reader remarked that it's a little overwhelmed by girls. You can get away with this kind of thing novel by novel, and people may write you letters (and the occasional meditative, or possibly snippy, magazine/review article) about it, but as a novel writer you're allowed to have, um, preoccupations. One of mine is Competent Women. There are still too few of them out there, and I know where I choose to throw my professional weight. But when you start writing groups of short stories around a theme, if you have preoccupations also the whole business threatens to tip over and land with a splat. And as it happens (one of the reasons I love him, of course) my husband has a rather, ahem, girlish bent as well. Only one of his stories for Water has guys in the central roles (and, arguably, they're the villains, although they're sorry about having to be villains), and none of mine do. That's five to one. Oops. I have previously written one, count 'em, one story with a man in the central role (also from a collection of short stories, The Door in the Hedge); it's obviously just not something I do. But for the sake of an Elementals collection that looks more like an Elementals collection rather than an Elementals Women collection, well, I do see the point.

There's an up side to this torture however. One of the reasons that the second volume of Elementals is taking so long to get put together is because I keep starting short stories and they keep turning into novels. (Sunshine, due out this autumn, started life as a Fire story, as I've said elsewhere. And I have two Air stories I've put aside because they got too long, and I'm starting to panic.) There is no way that I'd be able to stay inside a male narrator long enough to write a novel. I think. I'm pretty taken with his female friends....

—Robin McKinley

Back to top.