October 17

It’s International Robin Hood Day…

And I was pondering how best to honour a Favoured Outlaw.  Some time ago I wrote Some Musings about a few of the reasons Robin Hood always lurks in the collective unconscious, and I could certainly ponder further upon that, but…

Well, it seemed that to list some creative retellings of Robin’s many faces would be a far more fitting tribute. I certainly cannot list them all — nor would I choose to, in some cases 😉 — but here are some of the prose examples that have, over the years, lain very close to my heart.

SherwoodSherwood-Godwin

&
RobinATKing-GodwinRobin and The King
both by Parke Godwin

Top of my list now, but at first I was hesitant to read them. Not because of the quality of writing (duh, it’s Parke Godwin), but due to the unexpected time frame. Robin Hood circa 1066 ACE? But I was young and foolish. Because why not? and yes!–Godwin took the Saxon/Norman conflict and put it where it truly belonged, with an amazing surround and strong, well-rounded characterisations… which meant, of course, they break your heart in all the right places.

Last of the GreenwoodLotG-Whidby by Sharon Whitby
This one has all but disappeared, which is a shame. (Even the verrry dated cover that really doesn’t do the story justice is my old battered copy scanned in–couldn’t find it online.) I discovered Last of the Greenwood years ago whilst first researching the rest of the then-trilogy begun in Greenwode… and the dark mysticism in it was familiar, compelling… and reassuring, particularly to a young writer trying her own wierd new take on a warhorse of a legend.

SoNotts-Kluger

The Sheriff of Nottingham by Richard Kluger
Told from the titular P.o.V., this was a refreshing take.  An anti-hero, certainly, but not a shallow villain with no story of his own.

MythagoWood-Holdstock
Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock
Robin is, in this book, a minor–and nicely ambiguous–character, but the Wood is the true wonder; a character in its own right, dark and magical and not-quite-friendly.

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In all these examples, the prose runs from brilliant to sublime. Beautiful and evocative writing.

Of course, I also must mention the ones that lie closest to my heart.
WodeLogoIf I didn’t care about my own characters, didn’t love and hate and suffer with them… believe in them… even more than I cherish these other examples? There would be little point to living, loving, and suffering with Robyn Hode and his covenant of the Shire Wode.

So to the spirit of Robin and his band, in all their many incarnations — I salute you!

#RobinHood #RobinHoodDay

April 24

Retro Recs – THUNDERHEAD

HERE’S THE PLAN: to pull out a book from my tight-packed bookshelves and share it. Qualifications? It has to be one I’ve read over and over again, one that has inspired my own writing, and one that gave me a lasting experience of some sort. There are so many older books that are just too damned good to be buried in the mosh pit of publishing fashions and frenzies. So I’m going to pull them out and have another dance with them. And hopefully encourage others to do the same.
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Since it’s only seems right to have these first Retro Recs posts feature authors who have one way or another deeply influenced both my reading and writing, then Mary O’Hara makes up the third, but certainly not the least, of my Three Hail Marys. O’Hara is perhaps best known for the novel My Friend Flicka–which has spawned several movies, few of which do justice to the rich and powerful layer cake of characterisation that is O’Hara’s work. My Friend Flicka is perhaps the first of her books I read as a youth, and another absolute favourite of mine. But not as many people seem to know that Flicka was the first of a trilogy; a coming of age tale concerning a boy named Ken McLaughlin, his family, their ranch in Wyoming and the horses that taught him the many truths of living. The titles are, in order:
My Friend Flicka
Thunderhead
Green Grass of Wyoming

These books are marketed as ‘children’s books’, true; but when they were published, there wasn’t the same nigh-rabid need to classify everything into a plethora of overly simplistic categories. Whether we as readers (I refuse to use the word consumers–like books are cereal! Hardly!) have learned over-entitlement through such rabid labelling is a topic for another time. Suffice it to say, when growing up I thankfully didn’t have those stifling categories trying to indoctrinate what was ‘proper’ to read; books were separated by reading levels and topics and really, that was about it. A prodigious reader from the age of four (that’s what my parents told me, anyway), I read books. From every shelf in the library.

And these three books, like almost every ‘children’s book’ of that era–contained something for every age of reader. Naturally there were things in the text that as a child I didn’t comprehend and glossed over… but that was–and is–the delight. So many little gems are in these paragraphs and this story; layers upon layers of sheer characterisation and storytelling brilliance. The whole trilogy is the kind of book that you want to keep on your shelves, and reread–for each time you do, you glean something more.

Yes, I love these books. I have the first set in early edition hardcovers (c) 1941, given to me by a dear family friend when I was perhaps eleven.OHaraHardcovers

So, after a hard choice from three examples of mind-blowing and amazing craft, it was Thunderhead that came to the fore. Granted, I do tend toward the middle of many trilogies; perhaps because that’s where the emotional stakes ramp up the most, and things spin out of control. In Thunderhead were all the pivotal points of any good bildungsroman: insubordination, a family crisis amidst the hardships of ranch life, thwarted hopes and a focus upon which to fasten one’s love and pain and hopes.

The latter in particular is an ugly white colt named Thunderhead, called the Goblin and as much an outsider as his abstracted young master, Ken.  Ken has, in the colt’s birth, set his heart upon raising a race horse that will bring his parent’s ranch out of overweening debt. Both colt and boy come into their proper destiny in ways neither can foretell. But the story isn’t just about Ken. His mother and father, his elder brother, the ranch hands, even the brilliantly-described countryside itself… all are living, breathing individuals. None are perfect–and you care about every single one of them.

And the horses. Oh, the horses!

O’Hara had a way with them that was sublime. They weren’t cutesy, overly anthropomorphic cartoons, their thought processes were just understandable enough, yet alien, too. Horses are not humans–no animal is human–and that very difference should be given honour. O’Hara does this as can only someone who has spent their life around horses and beneath the wild skies of a barely-tamed land:

When Goblin caught the unmistakable strong scent of the stallion he trotted out from the herd to find him. He saw him up there on a hill–just where Banner would have been–and with a joyful nicker, started toward him.

The Albino came down to meet him.

Goblin, a creature of fire and magnetism himself, felt the oncoming stallion in terms of voltage, and it was almost too much to be borne. Goblin came to a stop. It occurred to him that he was going in the wrong direction. But he held his ground.

He watched. He had never seen or felt anything like that before. The stallion was so contained, his power was so gathered and held within him that he was all curves. His great neck was arched, his chin drawn in and under, the crest of his head was high and rounded with long ears cocked like spear-points. His face was terrifying–that ferocious expression! Those fiery eyes! And his huge, heavily-muscled legs curving high, flung forward so that the great body floated through the air–then the massive hoofs striking and bounding up from the earth with sledge-hammer blows that made the hills tremble and echoed like thunder in the valley!

The Goblin held his ground. The Albino slowed his pace, came closer–stopped. Their noses were about two feet apart.

For as long as a minute they faced and eyed each other.

They were the same. Trunk and branch of the same tree. And from that confusing identity–each seeing himself as in a distorted mirror–there flamed terror and fury.

No self-respecting stallion would deign to attack a mere yearling, or even to take him seriously enough to administer heavy punishment. But suddenly the Albino raised his right hoof and gave one terrible pawing stroke accompanied by a short grunting screech of unearthly fury. And in doing so, he both acknowledged and attempted to destroy his heir.

thunderhead-by-mary-ohara~~~~~~~~~~~~~
From these books and this author I learned that words could give animal the souls I knew they possessed. From animals–and lifetime of being around them–I embarked upon the never-ending process of acquiring that all-important skill set of speculative and historical fiction: writing Other. More importantly, I gained empathy and the stark, important realisation: that Other isn’t separate from an undeniable semblance of Self, yet it still possesses–and must maintain–its own rights and presence.

Not so bad a legacy from a ‘children’s book’, methinks.

A mere thank you is not near enough, Mary O’Hara.

March 27

Retro Recs — THE KING MUST DIE

HERE’S THE PLAN: to pull out a book from my tight-packed bookshelves and share it. Qualifications? It has to be one I’ve read over and over again, one that has inspired my own writing, and one that gave me a lasting experience of some sort. There are so many older books that are just too damned good to be buried in the mosh pit of publishing fashions and frenzies. So I’m going to pull them out and have another dance with them. And hopefully encourage others to do the same.
———-
In my own pantheon of The Three Marys, there is one whose Historical Fiction was greatly instrumental in prompting me to plunge into the writing of said genre. Mary Renault didn’t need to adopt the detached, oft-pontificating tone in which historical fiction can sometimes indulge. Her works possessed a profound gift–the storyteller’s art in motion. Her characters were real, passionate, often deeply flawed… and you were right in there with them.

My choice for today, out of many excellent novels, had to be The King Must Die. This cover image is from my bookshelves and the mass market edition circa 1979, but the original date is 1958, and my first read was from the public library. TheKingMustDieThe King Must Die was my introduction to Ms Renault’s works–I think I read it when I was eleven or twelve. (We didn’t have or read ‘YA’ when I was of that age–we read books!) Already more comfortable with mythological and speculative worlds than any contemporary reality, I’d not yet realised how fascinating history was–no doubt in consequence of the dry dates and statistics to which public school curriculum rendered it.

This book began to change all that for me. A retelling of the myth of Theseus, it had an undeniable and firm grasp upon the historical personalities and realities that birth legends. It was that seemingly effortless mix that truly comes only with serious application of craft.  Gritty and sometimes unpleasant, yet nonetheless magical in every sense, the novel makes an impassioned appeal for both the fantastic and the historic–together. It was bildungsroman (woot!) at its finest, warts and all, with an oft-unreliable narrator as hero, displaying both the arrogance and virtues of a deeply-inculturated young man. Not much is shied away from or glossed into comfortable platitudes. You root for Theseus, as well as long to give him a good spanking. 😉

It takes little guesswork to hazard that The King Must Die is responsible for my plunge into a lifelong fascination with Sacrifice and Sacred Kingships from all cultures. It also made it difficult for me to be satisfied with a lot of first person narrative. It’s a form that not many can achieve with the same effortless grace as Mary Renault. (Or my inaugural Retro Rec author, Mary Stewart, for that matter.)

Recently, I heard a writer at a convention recommend Mary Renault–with the caveat, however, that ‘she is old-fashioned’. I was rather appalled at anyone attempting excuses for someone who had more talent in one nib finger than most writers possess in their entire repertoire… but, after all, we all say a lot of silly things when we’re baby writers. Though I truly don’t think I had the brass to assume myself able to take a mammoth with a BB gun. 😉 Not with prose that glides like this:

The Great Court was empty under the moon. Tier upon tier rose the pillared balconies, dimly glowing. Lamps flickered behind curtains of Eastern stuff. The pots of lilies and of flowering lemon trees shed a sweet heavy scent. A cat slipped from shadow to shadow, and a Cretan who looked as if his errand were the same. Then all was silent. The great horns upon the roof-coping reared up as if they would gore the stars.
I stretched out my hands palm downward and held them over the earth. “Father Poseidon, Horse Father, Lord of Bulls, I am in your hand, whenever you call me. That is agreed between us. But as you have owned me, give me this one things first. Make me a bull-leaper.”

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No question in my heart, I would encourage everyone to read The King Must Die. Or any of Mary Renault’s books. And come on, I read it at the age of eleven; surely it isn’t that insurmountable an experience. If it is, indeed, ‘old-fashioned’, then bloody DAMN but we need more ‘old fashioned’ in this world.

Pax~
J

March 12

Retro Recs–First Up: THE IVY TREE

HERE’S the plan: to pull out a book from my tight-packed bookshelves and share it. Qualifications? It has to be one I’ve read over and over again, one that has inspired my own writing, and one that gave me a lasting experience of some sort. There are so many older books that are just too damned good to be buried in the mosh pit of publishing fashions and frenzies. So I’m going to pull them out and have another dance with them. And hopefully encourage others to do the same.
——–
To choose Mary Stewart was a no brainer, actually, though it was difficult to pick between what I call ‘my rosary of three Marys’ (Stewart, Mary Renault, and Mary O’Hara). But once I decided which Mary, it was a little easier to pick the book. I’m sure others will come into play at a later date, but this time, it had to be The Ivy Tree.
——–TheIvyTree
From those aforementioned bookshelves, (c)1961, this is the first US printing in 1963. Isn’t this cover just deliciously (and a bit painfully) ’60s gothic? From the sweeping cape and hair to the Barnabas Collins coat and the uphill, defiant pose? From the back cover:  If Mary Grey looked so much like the missing heiress, why should she not be the heiress? To the lonely young woman–living in a dreary furnished room–the impersonation offered intriguing possibilities… So plain Mary Grey became the glamourous Annabel Winslow. Only someone wanted Annabel Winslow missing… permanently.

I love old gothics. I miss them. Brain candy, of course, but a specific type of tweak and treat for those doomed with a brain that stubbornly refuses to totally check out. Gothics have their own formula, tiresome as any when cranked out with little skill or craft… but the good ones were complex, character driven, and subtle after their own fashion, with the formula in service to the craft, not the other way ’round. The Ivy Tree was a very, very good gothic.

Mary Grey is, like most of Stewart’s heroines, a real person: independent and capable, conflicted… and with a secret that could be the death of her, if she’s not careful. Inheritance of a small estate, a dying, over-controlling grandfather, and a few sociopaths scattered into the mix, turn a chance meeting on Hadrian’s Wall into a madness of plot and counterplot… did I mention I love gothics? A good one has as many twists as a North Country back road. And the language Stewart uses!

If you stood on the low piece of crumbling wall that enclosed the trunk, you could just reach your hand into the hole. I held on to the writhen stems of the ivy with one hand and felt above my head into the hollow left by some long-decayed and fallen bough. I put my hand in slowly, nervously, almost as I might have done had I known Julie’s owl and seven mythical young were inside, and ready to defend it, or as I might have invaded a private drawer in someone’s desk. The secret tryst; Ninus’ tomb; the lovers’ tree; what right had a ghost there, prying?

What right indeed? Well, you’ll have to read the book and let me know what you think. You won’t be sorry; it’s a thumping good afternoon’s read.