Thursday, August 23, 2018

Robin Hood, Revisited: The Forest Queen by Betsy Cornwall

Silvie's life as the privileged daughter of the Lord of Loughsley Abbey is perfect. She enjoys the luxuries of a young noblewoman, and yet her older brother John, who rules in place of their aged father, allows her to ride and hunt and run free in Woodshire Forest with her best friend, Robin, called Bird, son of the Huntswoman of the manor. But when Silvie learns that the Abbey's healing nun, Mae Tuck, has been jailed for ministering to the pregnant Little Jane, she begins to see the suffering that lies behind her easy life.

"See. Silvie, it's not your brother John you are defending. It's your family. It's yourself," said Bird. "You want to believe that you are not complicit in this, in all the ugly things nobles do."

I looked back at Little Jane, pale and trembly, and I knew that I'd never done anything in my life that wasn't at least partly selfish.

Silvie suddenly sees the injustice of her brother John's rule. As sheriff of the shire, he sets burdensome taxes on all, tradesmen and farmers, and anyone who crosses him is imprisoned or cast into his grim oubliette to starve to death on the decaying bodies and bones of those already dead. With Bird by her side, she frees Mae Tuck and Little Jane, and they escape to their secret cave deep in Woodshire Forest.

They survive by Robin's ability to trap small animals and the prey his falcon brings to them. But they are soon followed by more and more of the townspeople of Esting. The colony of runaways thrives, helped by Silvie's midnight raids on the larders of Loughsley Abbey and confiscations of valuables from occasional nobles traveling through the forest. Little Jane's baby comes, the first freeborn citizen of their commune, and Silvie and Bird's benevolent rule continues to attract more followers to their colony. So successful are they that Silvie mounts a daring raid on John's ill-gotten treasury and distributes the bounty to the suffering people of the whole county round.

But Bird and Silvie grow too confident. Disguised, the men dressed as women and the women as men, they attend the May Day festival, only to return to their forest home to find that John has attacked the colony and set their trees and houses ablaze. Most of their friends are dead, and Bird and Silvie are captured by John and thrown into his grisly oubliette to starve. Days pass and both grow almost too weak to stand.

Then Silvie is visited by what she first takes for an angel. But it is her hunting owl, Scarlet, floating down from the small opening in the ceiling of the dungeon above.

... there was a small and tightly rolled piece of paper. One line. I knew the handwriting. Mae Tuck.

We are coming. Take heart.

Sophisticated young adult readers will soon recognize Betsy Cornwall's The Forest Queen (Houghton Mifflin Clarion, 2018) as an inspired and inspiring feminist rewrite of the Robin Hood legend. Like the original, it is a passionate statement of the cause of freedom from tyranny, but Cornwall's gender reversal puts feminine characters in the familiar roles of Little John, Alan-a-Dale, and Friar Tuck. Silvie and Bird (Robin) share aspects of the role of Robin Hood, but it is clearly Silvie who is chief of this merrie band in the greenwood, and, humorously, even Will Scarlet and Much-the-miller's-son appear as female owls. Stirring adventures led by girls and women are now a staple of movies and novels, but Cornwell's novel makes clear the association of personal liberty, the theme of the Robin Hood legend, with a women's right to choose her own social role in society.

While this novel stands well on its own, its reading will be enriched by knowledge of the Robin Hood legend. Howard Pyle's strikingly illustrated The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood (Digireads, 2017) remains the gold standard for lusty Robin Hood tales, although Roger Lancelyn Green's colloquial The Adventures of Robin Hood (Puffin Classics) is more accessible for middle readers.

And for girls who prefer a female leader, Nancy Springer's Rowan Hood: Outlaw Girl of Sherwood Forest (Rowan Hood (Paperback)) offers another feminist alternative as the crusading outlaw heroine (read my review here), full of medieval flavor and with a bold charismatic feminine hero, Robin Hood's daughter Rowan. But where Rowan is a solitary heroine with few followers, Betsy Cornwall's Forest Queen Sylvie is a social reformer who rouses the poor to help overthrow the rule of her brother John, the parallel character to Pyle's Black John, whose cruel rule in the absence of his brother King Richard ended in the signing of the Magna Carta. Told in the first person, Silvie's metamorphosis from pampered noblewoman to a brave and able spokesperson for equality becomes central. All readers will find Cornwall's new queen of the greenwood a powerful and sympathetic hero for our time and all times.

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