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Marissa Lingen

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Robin Hood and the Problem of Domestic Fantasy [Oct. 9th, 2015|02:19 pm]
Marissa Lingen
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So I’ve been thinking, off and on, about why it is that we see a lot of novels about King Arthur and not a lot of novels about Robin Hood. You get Robin Hood movies, sure, but books, not so many, only a handful. I was rewatching Disney’s animated version not that long ago, and a particular image got my attention.


Robin Hood and Little John were doing their laundry.


While Disney’s Robin Hood is really great on gender stuff–Robin Hood clearly can’t cook because he’s a lovesick fool, not because he’s a guy and Little John, who can, fixes the ruined stew for him; they do laundry; when Lady Cluck says “this is no place for a lady!”, she clearly means “for a gently reared person,” because she charges immediately into the fray herself, to the tune of On Wisconsin*–this is not the only Robin Hood that features laundry in Sherwood Forest. In fact Sherwood Forest is strikingly domestic, for a mythic setting.


I think this is perhaps the problem with getting it into novels.


Jo Walton, when talking about writing Lifelode, has discussed the problems of domestic fantasy, how conflict and war tend to creep into books that are otherwise trying to focus on the daily and the smaller-focus, just structurally–that we have an addiction to the grand and the dramatic, as a genre, even when we are trying not to. And I think that the Robin Hood myth actually runs into this problem. Sure, there is swashbuckling. There is the dramatic. But it is the dramatic image. It is the arrow going into the target; it is the Merry Man swinging into a tree. It is not the dramatic tension, because we all know the precursors for the ending are historical, not personal.


Because of Robin Hood’s near-unique place in western legend, straddling myth and history so neatly, the story’s ending can’t be refitted without upending actual history. The end of the Robin Hood story is that actual, historical Good King Richard returns from the Crusades and ends the usurped reign of his brother, actual, historical Prince John. So…what, exactly, are Our Band of Merry Men doing? They can’t actually resolve their own problems in any lasting way. And fighting the Sheriff of Nottingham starts to look an awfully lot like doing the laundry if you’re never allowed to either beat him (slay/depose him) or have him beat you on any permanent basis. Oh, it’s Monday: time to wash out our green jerkins and hassle the Sheriff’s men. Oh, it’s Tuesday: time to go to market for turnips and shoot some arrows into Prince John’s tax collectors’ hats. But not into the tax collectors themselves! Because resolution is not in our purview. We resist. Others resolve.


The jerkins will get dirty again, the turnips will go again into the stew, the taxes will get collected again. The camera can fool the eye with pageantry into feeling that there has been progress from arrow shot to arrow shot. But on the page of a novel, it’s very hard to make a holding action against entropy feel like heroism. Even though it’s the main heroism any of us achieve on a daily basis. Even though it is a heroism worth having.


Try again, someone; I would have another domestic fantasy, or a Robin Hood novel that grapples with this, or both. But for the moment at least, I am not the one to write it.


*Multiple associations with north of one place or another. Willingness to throw shoulders in a brawl and clown for children. Bosom capacious enough for storage. Can we say “Marissa’s identification character?” CLUCKY I LOVE YOU.




Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

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Comments:
[User Picture]From: dichroic
2015-10-09 09:13 pm (UTC)
Now I want to see a story about what the Merry Men do after Richard comes back, because it seems like it would be uncomfortably like Frodo trying to fit in back in the Shire. The 3rd Crusade was over and the 4th was 10 years later, so crusading wasn't the answer.

I just looked it up and Richard was only gone for three years, which puts the whole thing in a completely new perspective for me.
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[User Picture]From: ethelmay
2015-10-09 10:28 pm (UTC)
And what if you think of the whole thing as a failed utopian experiment, like Fruitlands?
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-10-09 10:36 pm (UTC)
Those are magic words. Wow.
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[User Picture]From: ethelmay
2015-10-11 01:05 am (UTC)
AFAIK the most politically-minded treatment of Robin Hood is still Geoffrey Trease's Bows Against the Barons).
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-10-11 10:55 am (UTC)
I'll keep an eye out for that, but "Fruitlands" is a magic button to press for me. (It produces a certain amount of frothing....)
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-10-09 10:36 pm (UTC)
It is like college. It has that eternal quality to it that means you know it can't last very long in actual time.

So--oh lordy stop me--the Merry Men college reunion equivalent.
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[User Picture]From: dichroic
2015-10-09 10:41 pm (UTC)
Fortunately, Friar Tuck already looked the way most guys look at their college reunion.

I can't remember now if Tuck was the friar who makes an appearance in Silverlock. If so, there's one post-Robin appearance.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-10-09 10:43 pm (UTC)
Everyone made an appearance in Silverlock. I think I might have made an appearance in Silverlock, and it's older than my parents.
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[User Picture]From: tool_of_satan
2015-10-09 11:19 pm (UTC)
I think it was Friar John in the scene you are probably thinking of, but Silverlock spends time with Robin Hood & Co. earlier in the book.
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[User Picture]From: rubel
2015-10-09 10:36 pm (UTC)
I recommend Robin McKinley's Outlaws of Sherwood for this aspect.

The issue you bring up is a big part of why I took a very long hiatus from the whole genre of fantasy. In fact, except for finishing the Waste--er, the Wheel of Time series, and reading Harry Potter, that hiatus is still going.

My brother has a friend who illustrates the problem best, I think. He reads almost nothing BUT sci-fi and fantasy. When people ask him, "What is that book about?" he invariably answers, "Saving the world."

Because it always is. It's as if authors think that's what it takes to make a story interesting, and I got really bored with it. I LIKE some of the more mundane struggles, and I often volunteer to play Russia when someone busts out a copy of the board game Axis and Allies. Russia has to merely resist the inevitable defeat at the hands of Germany and/or Japan, hoping against hope for Britain and the US to do something to take the pressure off. Sure, Stalingrad isn't exactly laundry, but the point is that if the story isn't interesting enough, the details of less than critically dramatic life are usually either under too much magnification or too little beneath the author's microscope.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-10-09 10:38 pm (UTC)
I think there's a lot of sff out there that isn't about saving the world, but the problem of scope creep is a real one. If you think that the only way to follow up on saving the city in book one is to save the country in book two, the world in book three, the solar system in book four, and the universe in book five, you're going to have a much more boring series than, say, the Vorkosigan books, which are not, in fact, doing that. But the ones that you chose to read are a lot closer to it, sure.
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[User Picture]From: cheshyre
2015-10-09 11:29 pm (UTC)
That ties into something I observed while reading Tamora Pierce's novels. Her earlier series fend off threats to the kingdom/realm every book. Later series in the same worlds* have stakes which are much smaller - and much more compelling.

* thinking of Alanna & Kel, both girls training to be knights in Tortall, and Circle of Magic / Circle Opens
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-10-10 02:34 am (UTC)
Hmm, interesting. That's not entirely how I parse the progression of series, as I don't think they get monotonically better, but I am glad she doesn't fall into the "up the ante every book" trap.
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[User Picture]From: dichroic
2015-10-09 10:44 pm (UTC)
Well, there's Jo Walton's Among Others - which covers what happens after you saved the world (which happens before the book and isn't discussed in great detail) and then have to grow up and deal with everyone else around you who wasn't part of that. Plus annoying relatives.
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[User Picture]From: thanate
2015-10-10 12:53 am (UTC)
I was going to bring up Outlaws of Sherwood both for the domestic aspect (full of digging privies & odd-lot green wool and things) but also because Robin spends pretty much the entire book thinking that things can't possibly last, and the story arc kind of addresses that the problems they're dealing with aren't things that they can actually solve.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-10-10 02:33 am (UTC)
I'm sorry, I should have put the "except for of course The Outlaws of Sherwood" caveat explicitly in the post.
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[User Picture]From: rubel
2015-10-10 05:52 am (UTC)
It was particularly satisfying to basically read, "What use do I have for a golden arrow?"
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[User Picture]From: tool_of_satan
2015-10-09 11:23 pm (UTC)
The other way the Robin Hood story can end is with Robin's death. Roger Lancelyn Green's Robin book ended that way, although not very well (it's been years since I read it but I recall the last few chapters being very disconnected bits of narrative). I don't know that any movies have done this except Robin and Marian.
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[User Picture]From: klwilliams
2015-10-10 04:00 am (UTC)
Robin and Marian did the end of Howard Pyle's Robin Hood novel beautifully (except for some of the costumes), and I too think it's the only movie where Robin Hood dies.
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[User Picture]From: vcmw
2015-10-10 12:22 am (UTC)
I feel as if I've seen a small fistful of romance novels that use the Robin Hood story, and there's been occasional bouts of middle grade or YA books that do. Which I mention because maybe there are different narrative expectations for those genres that let them use pieces of the Robin Hood narrative more easily? I think middle grade and YA often use the "winning place / earning place in band of Merry Men" narrative, and of course romance novels typically feature the successful resolution of a feelings-episode, usually involving Robin Hood and Marian.

Which I think is maybe just saying that novels about entering adulthood, or about finding companionship in adulthood, are... more common than novels about the daily heroism of adulthood?
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-10-10 02:33 am (UTC)
Oh interesting. The daily heroism of adulthood is more alluring/interesting when you're not in it?
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[User Picture]From: txanne
2015-10-10 12:01 pm (UTC)
I think you're on to something. Paying the bills, keeping self/family clothed and fed, taking friends to lunch when they're going through a rough patch...all essential, frequently hard, and utterly boring if it's not your very own friend's rough patch.
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[User Picture]From: txanne
2015-10-10 12:06 pm (UTC)
I don't know if I made sense, and LJ seems to have removed the edit-comment option. Fiction will show you different ways of adulting, which is interesting because it's a new skill, but once you're actually doing it, it's not as fun to read about. (This is basically my objection to litfic as a genre. Even litfic by people who aren't cis white Americans can fall into this category.)
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-10-10 01:04 pm (UTC)
Hrmm. I think my objection to the kinds of literary fiction I don't like--and as I get older, I get clearer on how that's not the same as all literary fiction--is how little actual adult behavior it tends to show.
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[User Picture]From: txanne
2015-10-11 12:29 pm (UTC)
That's possible. I'm not at all well-read in the genre.
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[User Picture]From: klwilliams
2015-10-10 03:57 am (UTC)
Even though it’s the main heroism any of us achieve on a daily basis. Even though it is a heroism worth having.

Yeah, this. I think it is far more heroic to stay home and deal with the crumbling buildings and the harvest that's late and the hungry children once all the fighters have gone off to have days of glory than, well, going off to have days of glory. I'm working on Robin Hood, though. He actually has a family, too.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-10-10 01:03 pm (UTC)
Yes, there definitely is some, but it pushes against the grain.

And I like the Magna Carta idea. Hmm. The clash of our symbols and their reality as a major theme there, maybe, because yes, Good King Richard was a far better remembered romantic gesture than a king.
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[User Picture]From: genarti
2015-10-13 05:40 pm (UTC)
Ooh, yes. Working in the Magna Carta -- along with the fact that Distant Good King Richard Who Would Fix All These Problems is a much better king than Actual King Richard Who Is Reigning -- really is an interesting idea.

Jennifer Roberson's Lady of the Forest plays around some with the problem of King Richard's myth versus actual personhood, as I recall, but I would not call that a domestic fantasy. It's quite a loose take on the story in a lot of ways, IIRC. (Though I do remember very much liking the fact that Marian is constrained by others' perceptions and her upbringing in ways that a lady of her era and social class would be, without becoming a doormat thereby.)
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[User Picture]From: tool_of_satan
2015-10-10 01:55 pm (UTC)
I would have another domestic fantasy

This may be a dumb question, but have you read "Katherine Blake"'s The Interior Life?
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-10-10 02:45 pm (UTC)
Not at all a dumb question, and I don't find it in my booklog.
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[User Picture]From: tool_of_satan
2015-10-10 02:51 pm (UTC)
I think you would find it interesting. The protagonist is an American housewife who suddenly acquires a sort of secondary interior life in a fantasy world. The book splits the narrative fairly evenly between her everyday life and the fantasy life and she uses inspiration from the fantasy life to make changes to her domestic life.

It's better than I'm probably making it sound.

"Blake" is Dorothy Heydt.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-10-10 02:54 pm (UTC)
I have heard of it before, I just haven't found it anywhere, is I think the problem.
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[User Picture]From: tool_of_satan
2015-10-10 03:03 pm (UTC)
Ah. It's not the sort of thing most libraries probably feel the need to hold onto. Copies are available for a few dollars online if you ever feel like ordering one. And since it's from Baen it's possible they've made an e-book out of it, but I haven't checked.

papersky likes it too.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-10-10 03:04 pm (UTC)
That's probably why it sounds familiar, yes.
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[User Picture]From: ethelmay
2015-10-10 08:25 pm (UTC)
See discussion in comments here: http://sovay.livejournal.com/705859.html
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[User Picture]From: carbonel
2015-10-13 03:31 am (UTC)
It's hard to find, but I have a copy if you'd like to borrow it.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-10-13 03:33 am (UTC)
When we see each other for tea if it isn't too inconvenient?
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