Michael Morpurgo and Michael Foreman have created what may be the definitive adaptation of "Robin Hood" for an eight-to-twelve year old age range. Of course, I know I'm meant to be encouraging young people to embrace the likes of Howard Pyle's The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood and Roger Lancelyn Green's The Adventures of Robin Hood, but truth be told, their archaic language is better suited for slightly older readers. Here the story of the Hooded Man is told in eleven chapters, interspersed with Foreman's action-packed illustrations. Somewhere between a chapter book and a picture book, this is a story that can be read alone or shared aloud between parents and children, its content heavy, but not too graphic, it's ending bittersweet, but not without hope.
As an introduction to Robin Hood, it's just enough to satisfy, leaving room for newcomers to seek out other versions as well as containing nods to readers who are already familiar with the traditional tales. The best thing about any retelling of a legend is seeing what new ideas can be merged into the old patterns in order to create something that's both new and familiar. With Morpurgo's vivid, clear prose, and Foreman's pencil-and-watercolor illustrations, "Robin of Sherwood" is an evocative and fresh retelling that includes all the familiar names and situations, but quite a few surprises as well.
Framed with the story of a contemporary boy discovering a grave under a toppled oak-tree, the narrative flits back in time to the 12th century in which King Richard is fighting in the Holy Land, leaving England to the mercy of his younger brother John. Under the tyranny of the Sheriff of Nottingham and his right-hand man Guy of Gisbourne, the peasants try to scrap together a living despite the exorbitant taxes.
After Robin's mother dies of hunger, he and his father take to Sherwood Forest in order to poach the King's deer in order to feed themselves and those in need. After his father is captured by the Sheriff, Robin is found by the Outcasts of Sherwood: hunchbacks, dwarfs, lepers, albinos and simple-minded folk. Rallying them all to his cause after the successful rescue of his father, Robin and his followers place a tax on the roads of Sherwood, requiring a toll from any travelers so that they might feed the poor.
The word soon gets back to the Sheriff, and although the Outcasts enjoy thumbing their nose at authority, sleeping under the stars, and each other's camaraderie, many soon begin to get restless - they want to take the battle directly to the Sheriff's door. With the recruitment of Friar Tuck, Little John and Much the miller's son into the outlaw ranks, soon Robin's men (and women!) are a powerful fighting force; and when word comes of King Richard held hostage in Austria, they seize the opportunity to bring him home again.
Along with the famous archery tournament, the river-crossing with Tuck, the bridge fight with Little John and the feast put on for the captured Sheriff, the story comes complete with rescues, ploys, deceptions, disguises, and ambushes. The cat-and-mouse games soon intensify until Robin's nearest and dearest are put at risk, and even when our heroes seem assured of a happy ending, Morpurgo doesn't go for a typical conclusion. Instead he focuses on Robin's own fallibility as a hero when he becomes enamored with the King's praise and his own fame, and the story itself goes right up to Robin's final arrow. It's an incredibly moving and bittersweet account of the legend in its entirety.
There are several interesting takes on the characters and story; particularly the interpretation of Marion as an outcast living in the forest on account of her being an albino. (One minor irritant and long-time pet peeve: Marion is portrayed as having red, "ferret-like" eyes. Albinos do NOT have red eyes; they usually have grey or blue ones). Rather than the more obvious choice, she and Robin wed halfway through the story, and have a child together. Other innovations include Little John as a soldier in King Richard's army, whilst Will Scarlett is the elderly hunchbacked leader of the Outcasts before he cedes his position to Robin. Also at work is a remarkable depth to fundamental moral issues, such as the burden of leadership and the difficult decisions that must be made: when the Sheriff is captured, Robin agrees with Marion in showing mercy, though acknowledging that Much has the right to claim vengeance for his father's death. "Robin said nothing, for there was nothing he could say. He knew Much was right, and he knew in his heart that Marion had been right as well." There are no easy answers here.
There is some content that is considerably dark: people are hung, burnt alive and blinded, though neither the pictures nor the text is needlessly graphic about it. Such things are seen as tragic and cruel, but offset by the permanence of hope and joy that the Outcasts provide each other. Both heroes and villains are intelligent and cunning, leading a real sense of danger and urgency to the proceedings, considering each side can give as good as it gets, and neither can afford to underestimate the other. The historical accuracy seems sound enough (not that I'm an expert) and particularly appreciable is the fact that King Richard turns out to be something of a disappointment to England, rather than the usual "fairytale king" that turns up at the end of the story and makes everything all better.
Ultimately it's a story of beginnings and endings, symbolized perfectly in the aforementioned framing technique that begins and ends with a grave, a fallen tree and the planting of an acorn. This is a wonderful version of "Robin Hood" that neither talks down to its target audience, nor is too stylistically difficult. Taking the components of the traditional tale and adding their own flavor to the proceedings, Morpurgo and Foreman have created one of the best versions of the legend for young readers - or older readers too for that matter.