Bookbanter Column: Get Lost in a Good Fantasy Series, Part 3: King Raven (August 3, 2012)

Pretty much everyone is familiar with Robin Hood in some way, whether it’s thanks to the wonderful Disney movie (still my favorite!) or various stories heard as a kid, or the well-known old text by Robert Pyle, or the various movie versions of this enigmatic figure, shrouded in history and intrigue.

We all know the basic story of this unusual hero coming from very little, living out in Sherwood Forest with his band of merry men, robbing from the rich to feed the poor.

But for the most part this story is one of invention and imagination, as there is very little evidence to support this.

Stephen R. Lawhead, bestselling author of many books including his Song of Albion series and his Pendragon Cycle, does something a little different in his King Raven trilogy, pulling from various sources and melding a world of eleventh century turbulent history and Welsh mythology. It is again very much a what if, but one steeped in research, making it a fascinating read.

It also, perhaps for the first time, puts Robin Hood on an epic stage with these three long and detailed books, giving this mysterious character of history the recognition and respect he deserves.

Hood

There are a couple of “legends” in British history that many people worldwide know about: one of them is King Arthur and the other is Robin Hood.

Arthur has an entire bookshelf of history and fiction written about him, and many of those fiction books profess to be as accurate as the possible truth, even though it is still not fully known if there ever was such a living person.  As for Robin Hood, much of the same story and lore shrouds this figure, and yet the amount written about him is small in comparison.  There are many seminal works that are considered part of the “King Arthur Cannon,” such as Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, Chretien de Troyes romances, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon, Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles, and Jack Whyte’s Camulod Chronicles, to name a few.  In fact the author, Stephen R. Lawhead, has even written a series about Merlin and Arthur, known as his Pendragon Cycle.  There have been mediocre to poor TV shows about he who robs from the rich to feed the poor, but there has never really been an equivalent book series or trilogy about Robin Hood of a high caliber; until now.

Bran ap Brychan doesn’t really know if he ever wants to be king, but his father is a poor monarch who doesn’t treat his subjects of Elfael as well as he should perhaps, but then Bran doesn’t really know what he wants to be.  Then all that changes when a group of Normans invade the Welsh kingdom and his father is killed, making Bran the automatic heir.  Except the Normans seize the kingdom, awarding it to a bishop and care little for Bran and his supposed claim to this throne.  And so begins Bran’s adventure, as he brings together a band of merry men to go see King William and wrest back his kingdom.  Thwarted in London, he is told he can have his kingdom back for a ridiculously high amount of money.  So Bran sets about getting the money the only way he knows how: from those cursed Normans who stole his land, as well as making sure his people are treated right and well.

Stephen Lawhead presents the first of his impressive trilogy on Robin Hood in Hood, explaining his detailed research in the afterword, and pointing out the unlikelihood of this character living in the thirteenth century in Sherwood Forest and going against King John.  Lawhead posits Robin Hood living in the late eleventh century in the time of William the Conqueror and his overtaking of Britain with his Normans.  Bran is a Welshman, and the Normans cared little for this distant part of Britain, except when they wanted to make it their own.  It makes perfect sense that a man out of legend would rise up to help the people against those dastardly Normans.  Lawhead also pulls from Celtic mythology to seamlessly blend with the story.  Hood is a great and riveting work of historical fiction that will have any fan of the genre hooked and wanting to read more in the trilogy.

Scarlet

The book opens with the framing tale of Scarlet, who is in prison and sentenced to be hanged.

In the brief time before his execution, Scarlet tells his story of losing everything and becoming a forester where he meets this King Raven.  At first challenged to an archery contest, he reveals his extreme skill, rivaling that of King Raven, better known as Bran, and soon becomes a valuable member of his “merry men.”  But Bran needs a skilled warrior like Scarlet to fight back against these Normans steadily taking control of Wales, as William the Red doles out more land to his cutthroat barons.

The book comes to its climax as Scarlet must choose whether to be executed, or to give up the secret location of King Raven and his men.

Tuck 

In Stephen R. Lawhead’s conclusion to the King Raven trilogy, readers get to enjoy it from the viewpoint of the jolly and redoubtable Friar Tuck, who has been around since the first book, Hood, and on through the second, Scarlet.

But little has been seen in the abilities of this clergyman, until now, who is bravest and shines brightest at his most important moment.

It seems the Normans simply won’t give up, and King Raven, also known as Rhi Bran Hood to the people of Wales, must muster not only his skilled foresters, but incite an entire revolt from his people, based mainly in his kingdom of Elfael.  With the treacherous Abbot Hugo and the evil and bloodthirsty Sheriff de Glanville, it will take everyone working together to bring these Normans to their knees once and for all and send the firm message to King William the Red that King Raven and his Welshmen will not be crushed.

Lawhead rounds out the trilogy in a great way, bringing it all to a satisfying close, but still with plenty of action and subplots and complex goings on.  Again blending the history with the Welsh mythology, it is a very enjoyable read seen through the eyes of a new character.

If Hood was the tasty appetizer, and Scarlet the delicacy of a main course, then Tuck makes for a delicious and perfect dessert.

Originally published on Forces of Geek.

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