The Wolf and the Raven
Steven A. McKay (Kindle edition 2014) 190 pages
More than several years ago, for I was a boy of ten at the time, my mother took me on a Cook's Tour throughout Ireland and Britain. That same trip would, more than several years later, cause me to emigrate from Canada to these historic islands, but this is not that story. Along the route we left the Tour for a time in Yorkshire in order to visit cousins of my late grandmother. Arthur and Kathleen Peterkin were their very English names and Arthur took us on a drive to see Sherwood Forest, where Robin of Locksley had once upon a time fought against the oppressive forces of King John and his regional deputy, the Sheriff of Nottingham. Anticipation welled in my heart.
I have to admit it was rather disappointing, this so-called forest. Being Canadian, I knew from a proper forest and this seemed more like a cozy park, not the nearly limitless northern jungle I was used to exploring. However, one does learn that civilization does creep in on the best of nature, even the historical bits, so we pressed on. What was impressive was when we stopped at some church or abbey – the names all flow together as I saw them by the dozens on that trip – and there in the graveyard was the final resting place of Little John. Wow. So he was real!
A decade later, I was a student of English literature and in studying Chaucer's Tales of the Pardoner and the Summoner, I came to realize that the Holy Roman Catholic Church wasn't above faking a few relics in order to make a fast buck. So whether or not this lengthy grave I had seen actually bore the bones of Robin Hood's boon companion is still open to debate. And that is the charm of the Robin Hood stories. They just might be real.
It really doesn't matter I suppose whether Robin Hood was real or not, but that argued credence does add a certain frisson to the reading. No matter how much we might like to pretend otherwise, we know that Jean Valjean was a creation of Victor Hugo, just as The Scarlet Pimpernel came from the lively imagination of the Baroness Orczy. Those two fictional swashbucklers had the relative misfortune of being written into times where we have a reasonable historical record. Search as much as you want and you're not finding any birth or death dates for any Count of Monte Cristo in any departement in France.
As long as we're on this track, let's open up a rather enormous kettle of fish and sniff how the broth smells. Because there are just enough physical hints and rumours to give Robin and his lads an argument for actual existence, that puts him in the same camp as Jesus Christ. Both the child of Locksley and the baby of Bethlehem did exist and they both had somewhat, let's say anti-establishment natures, but how much of the rest of their written record is history and how much artistic embellishment is impossible to state with certainty. To do so requires the allure of faith along with the triumph of the imagination. As with J.M.Barrie's Peter Pan (a literary first cousin of Robin Hood if ever there was one, right down to the green tunic), if you believe hard enough in faeries, then faeries exist. I think, therefore you are.
This is all great fun, but of course we actually do have a book to discuss here. Steven McKay's The Wolf and the Raven was recommended to me by another historical author, Glyn Iliffe, who wrote the quite wonderful The Oracles of Troy. Glyn had read the first volume of McKay's trilogy (The Wolf and the Raven is the second, but it stands alone perfectly well) and thought I might find the newest volume worth a read. Ah, he was quite right.
In order to justify a re-telling of a pretty well-known story such as Robin Hood, a writer has to accomplish three tasks. The first is a given in any book; the writing must be excellent. Second, there must be a level of detail about the period, the whole mise en scene in order to draw the reader into the depths of the book. And third, that writer must somehow make known outcomes into something unknown so that the needed emotions of suspense, doubt and release can be enjoyed by the reader. McKay pulls off all three.
Vis a vis the writing, what I most congratulate McKay for accomplishing is not targeting his novel towards precocious ten year olds. A precocious ten year old will quite enjoy The Wolf and the Raven, but his father or grandfather will not feel they are being dumbed-down if they pick up the novel and dip in. That said, I leave it to the parent to decide whether they are okay with Sonny Boy reading this passage (and this really is about as saucy as things get):
There were grunts of agreement at that, but Matt snorted, looking around at the rest of the men in disgust. “The common folk? You mean like the people at Burton where Lancaster burnt the place down about their ears?” He turned to glare at Robin again, barely drawing breath as he continued. “You’re supposed to be our leader, Hood. We all trusted you to steer us right. You said it was a good idea – ‘we’ll all win pardons,’ you said. Well, where’s my fucking pardon then? And what about that king's man, Sir Guy of Gisbourne? That bastard has a hard-on for you and we're all going to suffer for it now!” As he ranted, his voice had grown steadily louder and he had moved slowly closer to Robin, so, his last, shouted words, were spat right in the young man’s face.
To me, the language is no worse than is heard in any school recess yard, but you make the call on that. The important point is that this is a story that can and will be enjoyed by all ages, as all good myths (did I say myths?) should.
As suggested by my three-way test, there is indeed a richness of detail, and as far as suspense goes, McKay follows the rule of many a Hollywood screenwriter or producer. When handling well-known characters, supply some supporting roles who can be killed off here and there. It is a smart strategem and someone like Joss Whedon has made a career out of it; once the reader has made an emotional tie to a supporting character, if anything bad happens to him or her, the reader desires all the more the triumph of the lead.
I heartily recommend The Wolf and the Raven, whether it is the first version of Robin Hood you have read, or the tenth. It is a cracking great yarn.
Be seeing you.