by Parke Godwin



526pp/$5.99/August 1991


Reviewed by Steven H Silver

The legend of Robin Hood has existed for centuries. It wasn't until Walter Scott wrote Ivanhoe in 1819 that Robin Hood became linked to the reign of King Richard I. In Sherwood, Parke Godwin took a look at the older versions of the Robin Hood legend, as well as other stories of English rebellion and outlaws, and decided to set his retelling in the years immediately following the Norman Conquest, a period which makes more historical sense than the late twelfth century.

Godwin's Robin becomes Edward of Denby, an English thane and lawyer who attempts to retain the traditions of England after William I became king. The struggle, rather than being good against evil or outlaw against sheriff becomes a struggle between the old Anglo-Saxon culture and the Norman one which tried to impose its foreign, regulating ways on the more independent English. Despite nearly a half-century of close ties between England and Normandy, neither side understands the mindset. In fact, this is a problem a lot of authors have when trying to write historical fiction. Fortunately, Godwin understands the Medieval mind and doesn't offer up any anachronistic actions or thoughts while still making these characters understandable to the modern audience.

Opposing Robin is Ralf Fitz-Gerald, a bastard Norman knight who was rewarded with the position and revenues of the Sheriff of Nottingham, under whose dominion Robin falls. In their various encounters, Robin and Ralf find themselves to be of like mind on several issues, however they are always separated by the chasm of their lack of understanding of the other's cultural background. Ralf finds that he must do his duty to William and England, despite his personal opinions about Robin.
Ralf's marriage to the Norman educated Judith, Robin's cousin, also demonstrates the beginning of a merger between the Anglo-Saxon and Norman societies, however much Robin tries to fight to retain the old ways. Godwin's Robin is the noble opponent of change while Ralf is the proponent of change who wants to incorporate the old ways as much as possible without destroying the social structure with which he is familiar. These roles are preordained, not so much because of the legendary material Godwin is mining, but because of their own positions. Robin is a member of the minor nobility who only still holds his position at William's sufferance. He has the most to lose by innovations. Ralf, on the other hand, is a bastard son who had no future in Normandy, but who gained riches beyond his imagining when William's invasion was successful.

Godwin has done an excellent job bringing the flavor of early Norman England to the printed page as well as the trappings of the period.  Setting the action after the Norman Conquest instead of during Richard I's captivity may not appeal to Robin Hood "purists," but it does allow Godwin to portray a very interesting period using characters who are somewhat familiar to the majority of people.

I will admit to having read this book with a certain bias. Much of the action is set in the small Lincolnshire town of Grantham, where I lived when I was in England several years ago. As an historian, I was pleased to note that I only found three factual anachronisms throughout the novel, and one of them, the identity of the sheriff of Nottingham in the 1070s, was done for narrative purposes.

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