Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Pulp of the Week - Robin Hood: King of Sherwood

Robin Hood: King of Sherwood
by I. A. Watson
From Airship 27 Productions, Published by Cornerstone Books

So you think you know the story - the bandit king that steals from the rich and gives to the poor - but do you really? What do you really know?

Why did Robin i' th' Hood take up arms against the King?
Where did he come from?
How did he become the King of Sherwood?

Who is Maid Marion?
What drove her to join Robin?

I. A. Watson answers these questions and many others in his "Bold Retelling of a Classic Adventure." (That's what it says on the cover, and it's true.) Watson researched the countryside where the tale takes place as well as the history of the legend.

Watson picked through the literary history and blended the best parts into an exciting, surprising (really!), and romantic tale. The characters you know are all there: Robin, Marion, Little John, Will Scarlet, The Sheriff of Nottingham, and Friar Tuck along with several you don't. He also puts the story into historic context so that the reader understands why Robin had to be.

Under King John (while his brother Richard the Lionhearted was off fighting the crusades) an oppressive serfdom got even worse. John put the screws on the landowners who in turn clamped down on the peasants. The people were taxed into poverty and despair. The people needed a champion and due to a series of circumstances, Robin answered the call.

How Watson ties all the characters together and ends up with the ending we expect is nothing short of astonishing, but at the same time it all feels so right that I don't know why we haven't seen or read this Robin Hood before. The book is utterly charming and nicely graced with a beautiful Mike Manley cover. This Hood is more than worth a read. I give Robin Hood: King of Sherwood a 9 out of 10.

Fortunately, Watson is planning further books in the series. I look forward to them.

I had the opportunity to interview I. A. Watson and ask about the story and his interest in the Robin Hood legend.

Savage Tales: Can you tell us a little about where you grew up and what your reading and pop culture history is?

IW: When I was around seven, growing up in England, going on a family holiday, I bought a second-hand hardbound comics annual called “The Fantastic Four”. It reprinted Lee and Kirby’s FF #84-87. This story blew my mind.

Not only was this the first superhero story I’d ever read apart from Super-Goof, it also featured the coolest villain in the history of cool villains. Victor von Doom ruled a whole country! His own people both loved and feared him! He had a terrible secret in his ruined face, and when he wasn’t villaining he played haunting beautiful music alone in his gothic but high-tech palace! And stunningly, he always kept his word, so that even his enemies the FF trusted him when he gave it, and he let the good guys go at the end because they’d helped him.

I realised then and there what my own future inevitably had to be. I would grow up to be Doctor Doom.

 But wait… Even before that I was sat on my father’s knee watching a grainy black and white TV showing the adventures of a man who travelled in time and space in a police phone box. And wherever he want he battled evil not by shooting with big guns but by being smarter, and funnier, and more eccentric than they were. That was a very important message for any kid who got picked on because he knew the answers in class and who wouldn’t back down from bullies but kept mouthing off as he got beaten up.

So maybe I’d grow up to be Doctor Who.

Comics and Doctor Who novels got me reading, and once I’d discovered books there was no stopping me. Before I was fifteen I’d read everything published by Tolkein, I had a complete collection of Leslie Charteris’ Saint series and Baroness Orcy’s Scarlet Pimpernel and the complete Sherlock Holmes and most of the Conan books; but back then I read virtually anything and that’s served me well later because it’s given me a huge fund of techniques and information to draw upon as a writer.

As I student I discovered Lovecraft and M.R. James and Moorcock and McCaffery and so many others, just at the time I was starting to write as an adult. Years spent trying to write like them helped me to learn how to write like me.

In the end, disappointingly, rather than being Doctor Doom or Doctor Who, I grew up to just become Ian Watson. Ah well.

Savage Tales: I have seen countless movie adaptations of Robin Hood and yet reading your book I feel like all of them missed the boat. I didn't know what they had all missed until I read your book. There is an organic progression of the characters meeting and developing that I certainly hadn't seen before. How much of this did you make up and how much was always there, but just not put together so nicely?

IW: One of the obsessions caused by being a fan of serial fiction is “continuity”. So when I come to do stories based on existing characters I like to try and get my “continuity” right.

People have been telling stories about Robin Hood for a very long time. Long before even the earliest surviving published ballad about him in the 15th century he was mentioned in other works. Piers Plowman, a poem written around 1370, mentions him. Even before that there’s a recorded court case where somebody was accused of being “like Robin Hoode”. His stories were told in “Robin Hood Games”, acted folk pageants. He was the subject of Elizabethan stage plays that competed with Sheakespere’s works. He was certainly one of the very earliest characters of pulp fiction.

There’s a body of early writing that establishes the characters and main stories as we know them. I drew on one of the earliest, “Robin Hood and the Knight”, for the character of Sir Richard. His financial plight and his son’s legal problems come from that ancient story. Maid Marion wasn’t attached to Sir Richard’s family until the Elizabethan playwrights got to work.

I live quite near to Sherwood and Barnsdale Forests so my kids and I had a pleasant time going round to check that the geography of the story I wrote made sense. I tried to use as much genuine history as I could without making the book a lecture.

But the first thing that strikes anybody who reads that early material is that Robin isn’t an upper-class hero. Forget that Earl of Huntingdon stuff – that was added in later when Robin stories became an entertainment for the rich, and was perpetuated by Hollywood because America seems to love noble titles. Robin was subversive. He was blue-collar to the bone, and he stood up for ordinary people at a time when the law was there to keep them down. The heart of Robin Hood is that he’s the people’s champion against the rich bastards. Once a writer gets that idea then he’s on the right track.

What I set out to do was to tell a story that was consistent with the best of the ancient material, that avoided any modern gloss – especially things which were copyrighted - and that captured the “legend”. But I also wanted to offer something more than a reworking of what had come before. And remarkably, I couldn’t find any lengthy account of how Robin Hood came to be.

The old stories usually start with Robin in place, there in Sherwood, robbing the rich and giving to the poor. There are tales of how he met Little John and Will Scarlet,  brief tales about getting outlawed for poaching or killing a gamekeeper but that’s it. No meeting with Marian. No motivations for Tuck or Scarlet of Much or his other followers. No reason why he should have become a hero rather than just another bandit. So I tried to offer those things in Robin Hood: King of Sherwood, and filled in the events of Robin’s youth to explain how he could go from being a jack-the-lad trickster to being the people’s last hope, fighting for justice when the law failed.

Savage Tales: Have you had a long interest in the characters or did you develop the interest researching the book?

Having grown up with tales of him, I’ve liked Robin Hood well enough, but I never expected to write a set of novels about him. That came from correspondence with Airship 27 books, who had previously published some short stories of mine in their popular Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective anthologies and have subsequently also included some of my work in Gideon Cain: Demon Hunter.

Publisher Ron Fortier sent me a list of properties they were interested in considering books about. King Arthur and Robin Hood were on that list, along with a series of 30’s pulp fiction heroes. At first I considered turning in a King Arthur book – I’m a big fan of the Matter of Britain and I’ve got four Arthur novels on my hard drive right now that I’ve never got round to submitting for publication. But Airship 27 specialises in pulp fiction, and as I said Robin Hood is really one of the first pulp heroes; so the idea of writing a Robin Hood story in a “pulpish” style and format caught my imagination.

I really only intended to do one book, but as I plotted and then wrote the story I wanted to tell it became clear that a trilogy was required to recount the tale properly. Robin Hood: Arrow of Justice is due out in March 2011.

Savage Tales: In the notes in the back you talk about visiting the locations of the story. Where there any surprises in this process?

I had a very pleasant visit to Nottingham castle. The modern castle is often a disappointment to tourists since the old medieval pile was demolished a couple of hundred years ago and replaced with a splendid ducal palace. But the location is spectacular, since the castle was built on a high rock looming over the town. The old tunnels beneath the castle are still there, including the secret route by which young King Edward III crept into the fortress to arrest his mother and her lover who had usurped the crown (complete with swordplay in her bedroom), and the cell where King David II of Scotland was held prisoner for years and carved the walls with religious images. One of the oldest pubs in England, dating back to Robin’s time, is carved into the cliff beneath the castle. The staff at the castle were very helpful and gave me a tour of all the underground bits they could legally let me into these days.

There’s a massive tree in Sherwood called the Major Oak where Robin and his men allegedly camped. That was a bit of a disappointment really. It’s a venerable old tree, so old it has to be held up by scaffolding, but although ancient it’s not old enough to date back to Robin’s day. The nearby tourist attractions failed to attract me. What did surprise me out there was how bleak and cold the forest was in winter. There’d have been very little shelter for outlaws and not too much cover to avoid detection. I imagine it must have been a harsh, hard world for outcasts back in that time.

Another thing that struck me as I was visiting places and reading up was how different the country and the mood of the nation must have been in Robin’s time. He’s usually placed around the reign of King Richard I, 1189-1199, or just before. That’s only 125 years after the country was conquered by the Norman invaders. Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire were subjected to “the harrowing of the North”, which we would nowadays call ethnic cleansing. There were people still alive in Robin’s day who grandparents had been slaughtered by the Norman overlords. Previously free Saxons now became serfs – slaves in all but name, bound to the land where they worked. The majority of inhabitants of England did not have the right to own possessions, to marry without permission, or to leave their home village. They were cowed and powerless, kept in their place by a brutal soldiery and a Norman-dominated state church. Rebels could be flayed in this life and damned in the next.

That realisation helped me to imagine the backdrop for the story. And once I knew that the backdrop was going to be pretty dark in realised that Robin had to burn very bright.

Savage Tales: The repartee between Marion and Robin is wonderful. Did you base them on any particular people, real or imaginary?

With Robin I was trying to blend all the various different portrayals of him, to show him building himself into the man that became the legend. Robin’s been depicted as a rebel leader, as a laughing trickster, as a fervent idealist, even as a forest spirit. I wanted a Robin that merged all the various movie and TV versions of him, especially Fairbanks, Praed (Robin of Sherwood UK TV series), and even the Disney fox. As I wrote the story his voice became clearer in my head – sometimes characters take on their own life and start to suggest dialogue – and then Robin insisted on shining out in every scene he appeared in.

Maid Marion is an old folk character in her own right, with a history in morris plays and rhymes as old as and independent from Robin Hood’s. She was often portrayed as the Queen of May. When she and Robin’s legends intertwined it was the 16th century equivalent of teaming up James Bond with Lara Croft, two established cult figures clashing and joining. I wanted to capture the idea that Marion had as much weight, as much moral force, as much passion, as Robin himself.

Marion was the touchstone for my story. It’s Marion who provides much of our point of view as she’s swept into this strange world of bandits and battles. I needed her to be able to stand her own against Robin and to bring something to the story that he couldn’t, so she had to be strong and clever in ways he wasn’t. Their partnership has to be a meeting of equals.

There’s a very old trope wherein “the king of the people wins the queen of the land”. The lady is a symbol of sovereignty, and the young hero has to win her to complete his quest and attain his final victory. That was very much in my head as I wrote this romance. Marion is “the people’s princess”. Robin wins her by becoming the people’s hero.

I also wanted to establish that Robin and Marion each completed the other. She makes a brash young outlaw into a champion of right. He turns a dutiful noble lady into a wilful spirited rebel.

I didn’t have any particular models in mind when I wrote the book, but having got Robin’s voice in my head and then finding Marion’s voice too it was easy to just let them bicker on and type as they clashed.

Savage Tales: When did you decide to put in footnotes? I found myself reading them first before reading the page.

As soon as I decided to offer as realistic a background as possible it became necessary to offer readers the option of getting a better understanding of the material I was using. My view is that a story should contain all the information the reader needs to understand and enjoy the narrative, but that footnotes can offer an extra bit of interest or fun for those who care to dig a bit deeper. Also, knowing that the book was to be published in America, where readers can’t be expected to have the cultural and historical context about old England that British readers might possess, I didn’t want anyone to feel “left out”.

Robin Hood’s world was different from ours, and even different from most of the depictions of his age we see in movies. His time was a barter economy; many serfs went their whole lives without owning a single coin. Taxes were taken in chickens or grain or beer. There were strange and complex forest laws, different from those covering the rest of the country. Old customs still prevailed, such as raptio, where an heiress kidnapped and ravished was thereafter considered “married by force” and her lands became her captor’s. There were still three languages, the Norman French of the overlords, the medieval Latin of the churchmen, and the Anglo-Saxon patois of the poor. The church had a massive, pervasive influence over every aspect of life.

I don’t like “writing down” for people and I don’t like being elitist and assuming everyone’s had the time to do the research I have, so footnotes seemed the way to go.

Savage Tales: I know that you are working on the next book. When might we see it? Are you writing more than one sequel?

Robin Hood: Arrow of Justice is due out around March. It starts a couple of days after King of Sherwood ends, picking up with Marion’s return home after her adventures. This one focuses more on events in Nottingham as the wicked Sheriff tightens his clutches on his new subjects and it chronicles the first three months in the growing legend of Robin Hood. Inevitably it leads to a clash between Robin and the Sheriff.

This volume picks up on some more of the “key” parts of the Robin Hood ballads. Alan a Dale’s true love is betrothed to marry the Sheriff of Nottingham. A great archery contest is decreed to trap for Robin in the Hood. It even includes a Douglas Fairbanks-style sword fight on the ramparts of Nottingham Castle.

The Robin and Marion romance progresses too. In the first volume we saw them together, each making the other into a different person. In the second volume we see them apart, each in their own worlds, changed by what they’ve found in each other. When they do come together again near the climax of the story the results are explosive.

The third book in the trilogy – at least I hope it’s just a trilogy, but let’s see how the writing pans out – covers the wider consequences of Robin Hood’s stand. ‘Weaselly’ Prince John still lusts after Marion. He resents outlaws questioning his authority and thwarting his agents. He demands the head of Robin Hood. The final instalment tests Robin as never before. I hope that’ll be out around this time next year.

Savage Tales: 
When did you first see the cover?

There’s a section on Mike Manley’s blog that shows how he  built up the amazing cover image. I can only marvel at the detail and effort that goes into making something like that.


I think these days its hard for artists to capture the motion of archery. There’s a dynamic to it, a special pull of the muscles and position of body that we don’t see in any other physical motion. That’s why I was impressed that Mike chose to use a live model to get the stance right.

Remarkably, I didn’t see the cover until the book was virtually published. I’d seen the interior art by Rob Davis on his own website but not Mike’s stuff. My initial reaction was that it was a shame it had to have titles and writing all over it to spoil the central image.

My main regret about the first book was that the map showing the various locations was accidentally omitted. It’s available online.

Savage Tales: Is this your first novel? Do you have any others (published or unpublished?)

This is my first published novel, and indeed the first time I’ve ever sent off a novel for publication.

For many years writing was my hobby, a very different pastime from being a hustling project-manager and businessman. I never submitted my stories for publication on the basis that when your hobby becomes your job it’s time for a new hobby. Then some articles I’d written about the Avengers comic were included in the factual book Assembled and Assembled 2. That led to me being invited to pen a short story for Van Allen Plexico’s Sentinels anthology Alternate Visions, and subsequently to contribute stories to the Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective series. I got sucked – or suckered – into this world of publication before I ever realised it.

But as you can imagine, decades of writing have left me with vast quantities of stuff. I once calculated that I had enough material on hand to publish a novel every month for three and a half years (although I think I’d want to proofread and update some of it first). My favourite story, The Last Days of Atlantis, weighs in at well over a million words.

At the moment when I write I’m dividing my time between authoring short stories I’ve been asked to do for some anthology magazines, proofing and polishing Arthur Alone, my first King Arthur volume, and writing St George and the Dragon, another novel. I hope to take a month’s holiday in February and complete the third Robin Hood book.

Savage Tales: Has the book gotten any press in the UK?

There was a bit of minor controversy in the local press and local radio that I hadn’t expected.

Robin Hood: King of Sherwood chronicles the very earliest days of Robin Hood, his origin. Now, the earliest chronicles we have about Robin place him and his outlaws in Barnsdale Forest, a very specific bit of woodland within the vast three-hundred-mile tract that was once loosely called Sherwood Forest (there was a specific legally titled royal forest called Sherwood within this larger area, near Nottingham). Later stories specify Robin as being in the woods around Nottingham, and indeed Sherwood once stretched to a bowshot beyond the castle itself.

So I thought it would be a good idea to place Robin’s initial adventures in Barnsdale and have him graduate to the woods around Nottingham for volume 2. However… Barnsdale isn’t in Nottinghamshire, but in Yorkshire, which borders that county to the North. “Yorkshire tries to steal Robin Hood!” screamed the correspondents to local papers, outraged that the source of their tourist trade might be usurped.

But Yorkshire has as long a Robin tradition as Nottinghamshire. Kirklees Abbey is in Yorkshire, as is Little John’s home village of Hathersage. Robin Hood’s Grave, Robin Hood’s Leap, and the village called Robin Hood are all there. So as far as Yorkshiremen are concerned, Nottinghamshire stole Robin Hood in the first place, and now one of her native sons has properly taken him back.

Ah well, maybe it sold a couple of extra copies.

Fortunately my dinner with the modern-day Sheriff of Nottingham took place before all this came out.

Savage Tales: Tell us about your other writing.

From the ages of sixteen to twenty I wrote, produced, directed, and acted in four stage plays, and at that time I’d have loved to look to the theatre as a career. Lack of acting ability and a need to go to university to get some qualifications rather thwarted that.

In my twenties I wrote a regular column for a local newspaper. I still sometimes meet sweet old ladies who say to me, “Did you used to be Ian Watson?”

My first forays into fiction prose as an adult were bashed out on an Amstrad word processor in the middle of the night as a release from work stress. Unsurprisingly they were horror stories. But I quickly found out that my horror stories weren’t in the modern fashion. I prefer my horror stories to not only establish some terrible thing and show it occurring but to depict heroes, often ordinary people but heroes all the same, standing up to the darkness and triumphing over it. I wrote a series of short stories and three novels based around a Victorian gentleman’s club who tackled that sort of thing, starting with The Monster Hunters Dinner.

My major writing breakthough came when I wrote The Last Days of Atlantis, my attempt at an epic end-of-days type fantasy tale that gathered together the various tropes in our culture about Atlantis and told a definitive story. After all, of the various legends everyone has heard about, Atlantis is perhaps the least formed. Ask people about the myth and they’ll tell you that it was an island, and maybe the inhabitants  did something terrible, and it sank, or was sunk. The rest varies from version to version. That leaves a modern mythographer a wide canvas. Anyhow, it was writing that massive story that helped me to find my own writing style. Of course, it then meant I had to go back and rewrite the whole damn thing again from the start.

And there’s lots more. If only I was famous then my children could earn nice livings after I’m dead publishing my lost works.

Savage Tales: What are your primary interests beyond writing? Do you have a day job? Family? Hobbies?

Ah, now we’re onto the boring bits. By day I’m a management consultant. That means I get to spend lots of other people’s money making projects happen. It’s what, 12th January as I reply to this, and so far this year I’ve spent about half a million pounds. But a good many of the people I work with would be surprised that the hard bastard holding the purse strings moonlights as fiction-writer I.A. Watson; unless they do a really good Google search.

Familywise I’m a single parent with two children still at home, a sixteen year old daughter Rhiannon and a twelve year old son Alex. By the end of the year both will be published authors. My daughter, who’s studying classics, archaeology and English, has now progressed to the point where she can critique my writing with uncanny and uncomfortable accuracy, both on fact and technique.

Savage Tales: Is there anything else you want any one else to know about you, your writing, Robin Hood or your any other topic?

I’m just pleased people are reading things I’ve written. Feedback is really helpful, because it tells me what I’ve done that’s worked and where I’ve missed the mark I’m aiming for. For over a decade now I’ve been part of an online writing community called Tales of the Parodyverse which has offered me valuable, though sometimes painful, critique of my efforts, and I’d advise any writer to find a circle of people who will honestly reflect on their efforts.

It’s also important to listen to unsolicited responses. Standing there screaming to the sky, “Those fools! How can they not understand my genius?!” rarely works as a way of improving as an author. Well, not unless you have a really big lever to pull that will set in motion your global mind control drone implants and make you master of all!

That’s a work in progress.

If I was giving advice to myself it would be not to be so lazy and diffident about pushing things for publication. Because I was lucky enough to be invited to write pretty much everything I’ve ever had published I’ve never developed the drive and determination that separates out the truly successful authors. Maybe tomorrow.

Anyway, thanks for the kind words about Robin Hood: King of Sherwood. If you liked that book you’ll enjoy Robin Hood: Arrow of Justice. If you didn’t like the first one save your money on the next. And if you want to look at something else I wrote try the sampler of my story from the Gideon Cain: Demon Hunter anthology, “The Girl in the Glass Coffin.”

I’ll leave you with my Dr. Doom quote for the day: “Defeat with honor is but victory delayed.”
Thanks, Ian for taking the time to do the interview. I really do urge anyone that is a fan of Robin Hood or adventure stories to read the book.

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