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Books Review: The King Raven Trilogy by Stephen R. Lawhead

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I've always been a fan of myth and legend. In the days when I fancied myself a scholar, I read as much ancient material as I could get my hands on. Interest and academics drew me towards the King Arthur stories, but I gradually branched out into the Celtic, Icelandic, and even Finnish traditions (If you don't think the cold does strange things to people, try reading the Kalevala sometime). One character, though, in whom I never took an interest in was Robin Hood. Maybe I was ruined by Disney and Errol Flynn, but the prince of thieves never held much interest for me. Thankfully, Stephen R. Lawhead can't say the same.

Lawhead's King Raven Trilogy is one of the finest reimaginings of a classic story I have ever read. Rather than molding the tradition to suit some philosophical perspective, or focusing on some ancillary character, Lawhead starts from scratch. He rebuilds the Robin Hood mythos from the ground up, setting it in an unconventional place and time, but all the while easing it towards an ending which satisfyingly joins the familiar.

Hood (2006) opens the story in England and Wales about a generation after the Battle of Hastings. Bran ap Brychan is the no-good son of a murdered Welsh lord. After his father’s death, Bran is forced into hiding and must find a way to accept his fate, becoming the only thing which can face the Norman Conquerors: King Raven. It is a little disconcerting to get most of the way through a book supposedly about Robin Hood without actually seeing the name. Instead, Bran takes on the mantle of this half-bird/half-man character, which in Welsh is called Rhi Bran y Hud. In that name is a microcosm of the talent and intention Lawhead brings to this trilogy.

"Rhi Bran" means "King Raven," and "y Hud" translates roughly as "magician" or "sorcerer." When you throw it all together and rush through the ethnic bits (as English speakers have done for centuries), it's not much of a stretch for it to become "Robin Hood."

Lawhead has made a career of historical fiction, but his blending of myth and history in this trilogy has created something literary and elegant. He freely admits that setting the Hood story in Wales, rather than Sherwood Forest, may "seem strange to many readers, and perhaps even perverse." Nevertheless, he hits upon a connection between the tale's outlaw focus and the gritty determination of the Welsh, especially in the generations following the Norman Conquest of 1066. In doing, so he tells a story which has fresh legs and can also be connected, with few intellectual leaps, to Errol Flynn's green tights.

The second book, Scarlet (2007), is even better than the first. If you want a primer on writing in convincing voices, this is your book. The narration is passed back and forth between third person and the first person voice of Will Scatlocke, or Will Scarlet as he prefers. The separation between the two is so good it’s breathtaking. There is no doubt as to who is speaking when Scarlet has the story. His voice is so clear, so immediately recognizable, that the reader feels an intimate connection to the character, like reading a letter from a friend.

Scarlet is an English forester who has lost his job thanks to Norman intervention. His wandering takes him into Wales, and it's not long before he joins Bran’s band of outlaws. The fight to regain Bran's cantref (his Welsh kingdom) grows more brutal as the enemies become more concrete. The corrupt Abbot Hugo has been sent to civilize the land, bringing in his wake Marshal Guy Gysburne and the King's cruel Sheriff, Richard de Glanville. This sequel has much more of the rollicking, fighting adventure such a Robin Hood series promises, and is totally enthralling from beginning to end.

Tuck (2009) picks up within heartbeats of Scarlet's end and brings the story of Rhi Bran and his Grellon (Welsh for "flock", aka Merry Men) to an end. Events turn darker as the seemingly invincible forest dwellers learn the hard way just how devious the English King and his nobles can be. The Welsh have been desperately outnumbered the entire time, but their guerrilla tactics will hold out only so long, as King William Rufus turns his full attention to subduing this troublesome country.

Throughout the series, the classic Robin Hood characters all make an appearance in one form or another, but in Tuck it is some of those secondary characters who are the difference between life and death. Good old Friar Tuck has been around since Hood, but now moves more strongly into the role of adviser and confidant. Mérian, too, enters the spotlight and shows herself a determined and passionate companion to Bran. Their relationship remains largely unexplored, which is the one failing I felt strongly in the series. In the third book, she is a conflicted and interesting character which I think deserved to be more thoroughly explored. The reader also meets a new character, Alan a'Dale the troubadour, who becomes the line connecting Rhi Bran y Hud to Robin Hood.

In its complexity and thoughtfulness, the King Raven Trilogy proves itself to be a worthwhile series of historical fiction. Above and beyond that categorization, though, it is a lovingly told story. You have the strong sense that these are characters which Lawhead cares deeply about, and thus you as a reader can easily share that sentiment. It is a retelling which has gone largely unheralded, but one which Robin and his outlaw band richly deserve.

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About Chris Bancells

  • becky bodnarchuk

    I just finished Hood! Bittersweet too as I do not have a copy of Scarlet handy to start!
    Stephen Lawhead weaves an intricate, magnificent story. He is a true wordsmith who works with silver and gold, not iron…

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