The Sheriff of Nottingham by Richard Kluger
In literature we have witnessed Robin Hood continually evolving from a yeoman, a nobleman and a Saxon rebel, in his endless battles of wits against the cruel Sheriff. I was interested to discover the Pulitzer-prize winner Richard Kluger’s different approach to Robin’s arch nemesis.
His historical novel, The Sheriff of Nottingham, first published in 1992, is based on the life of Philip Marc a soldier of fortune, brought over from Touraine by King John and made High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire from 1204-1224. Marc’s shrievalty was researched by the Cambridge Professor Sir James Holt, who described his conduct as ‘zealous, thrustful and dangerous; envenoming the local politics with robbery, and false arrest.’
Remarkably Marc is even named in the Clause 50 of Magna Carta as one of a number of his family to be completely dismissed from office. These details of Marc’s life as a contender for the infamous villain of the Robin Hood ballads have been highlighted in various posts on this blog.
Kluger tips the legend on its head with his revisionist 480 page journey back to thirteenth century England. Here we have Marc’s rise to power from poverty to his reward by King John of a commission as Sheriff; we witness his journey with his family to Nottingham Castle, but unlike his infamous historical namesake, the author paints a different picture of him. This Philip Marc is an honourable, decent and generally respected loyal servant of the king, only trying to do a tough job.
Sadly though this book in my opinion is very wordy, it tends to plod very slowly from one episode to another, and at times I nearly gave up with it. His characters - a blend of historical and fiction-are shallow and lack any depth and colour. The fickle earl, the Jewish moneylender, the aged prior and even the village prostitute conform relentlessly to their stereotypes.
In the novel, Philip Marc faces continuous tests of his ability as an officer of the crown. His unquestionable loyalty to King John is pushed to the limit when he is instructed by the monarch to execute some Welsh princes from Nottingham Castle.
Kluger bases this on the popular legend that in 1212 the tyrannical King John ordered the death of 28 Welsh hostages. The boys, (the youngest was seven) were the sons of Prince Llywelyn's supporters who had risen in revolt. Tradition states that they were dragged from their play and hung from Nottingham castle walls.
This chapter in the story kept me interested and was certainly the most intense and well written part of the book. Unfortunately later, as I turned the pages, I seemed to lose that mood quite often, especially when Kluger introduces us to the woodsman Stuckey Woodfinch of Blythe, his version of Robin Hood.Of course, you cannot have the Sheriff of Nottingham without Robin, but in this novel the outlaw’s inclusion seems to be almost an afterthought. In a twist of the legend Kluger has Marc eventually using Stuckey’s knowledge of the greenwood and employing him as a freelance forester.
Stuckey says to Marc:
“Your brother agreed from the first that my former identity might hamper my work among the foresters as your secret eye-in-the-wood and raise suspicion of some continuing link to the castle. So I’ve changed a bit and in look and name. My ‘Stuckey’ always lacked the dignity with which I’m so fashionably gifted, so I’ve killed it outright. My ‘Woodfinch’ I’ve played around with a bit. ‘Hood’ rhymes with ‘wood’ and means a cloak of sorts, which is the purpose of my rechristening, after all. And still being fond of our feathered friends for their freedom of flight and sweetness of song, I sought a birdy name of the same length to replace ‘finch.’ Only ‘eagle,’ ‘stork’ and ‘robin’ came to mind, with the first two predatory to suit my kindly nature and the second too ungainly to love. So there you have it.”
“Have what?” asked Philip.
“My new name.”
The sheriff wore a confounded look. Then it came to him. “What-Master Hood Robin? A bit odd, if you ask me. But I suppose if you’re pleased by it....”
“No it seemed better the other way ‘round.”
A bit odd indeed!
But for me the most bizarre moment in the book was when Robin and Will Scarlet disguised as travellers ambush the Prior of Lenton Abbey:
“None of you is to move a muscle for five minutes.”
Did they have wristwatches during the thirteenth century?
So Richard Kluger attempted to offer us an interesting new angle on the much maligned Sheriff of Nottingham, set in the volatile politics of the time. It was a great idea, but I must admit to being very disappointed. Overall the novel was slow moving and I felt the character of Kluger’s Sheriff lacked realism and was far too squeaky clean. For me the fictional pure hearted Marc was too far removed from the real historical mercenary overlord and heavy handed Angevin administrator.
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