Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson


In this little blog I aim to promote the enjoyment rather than the revering of classic literature. People are too ready to discount a book as hard-to-read and unexciting just because it's old and well-respected.
Fortunately, when it comes to Stevenson's books for young people, no confusion can arise. The books are obviously meant to be enjoyed, possibly at night with a torch under the covers. And of the four great adventures that Stevenson wrote, my favourite would have to be The Black Arrow.
It is the year 1460. Young Richard Shelton has never questioned the authority of his guardian—his uncle Sir Daniel Brackley—but then as Sir Daniel sends orders to muster his men for the latest struggle in the Wars of the Roses, a black arrow fired from the heart of the greenwood alerts Richard to the fact that not all is as it should be--
I had four blak arrows under my belt,
Four for the greefs that I have felt,
Four for the nomber of ill menne
That have opressid me now and then.
One is gone; one is wele sped;
Old Apulyaird is ded.
One is for Maister Bennet Hatch,
That burned Grimstone, walls and thatch.
One for Sir Oliver Oates,
That cut Sir Harry Shelton’s throat.
Sir Daniel, ye shull have the fourt;
We shall think it fair sport.
Ye shull each have your own part,
A blak arrow in each blak heart.
Get ye to your knees for to pray:
Ye are ded theeves, by yea and nay!
Jon Amend-all
of the Green Wood,
And his jolly fellaweship.
Item, we have mo arrowes and goode hempen cord for otheres of your following.
Richard finds it hard to believe that Sir Daniel and his four most loyal retainers could have done such terrible things. But then Jack Matcham turns up—strange milksop Jack Matcham—who begs Richard's help to escape from...that same Sir Daniel, again! On the run through the greenwood from outlaws and assassins, Richard finds something new to fear: his uncle.
Famously, Stevenson actually disliked this book, calling it “tushery”. We've all written things we're ashamed of later, but I tend to think that if I could write something as good as The Black Arrow, I would die happy.
Because I love this book. The attempted medieval dialogue is fine, and far better than some I could name. The plot moves at a snappy pace—there are outlaws, secret passages, battles, hairs-breadth escapes, storms at sea, and more as Richard battles to regain his rightful inheritance—to say nothing of the girl he loves.
This is a great story; I really appreciate the depths concealed below all that surface glimmer, as well. Richard comes of age slowly and painfully, horrified to see others suffer the consequences of his own thoughtless actions. The characters, too, are plenty of fun: apart from the very amusing banter that runs through the book, Stevenson's characterisation of the future Richard III is unforgettable; Joanna's delightful young friend Alice babbles like a brook; and of course, there's the not-so-trusty sidekick Lawless...
If ye should drink the clary wine,
Fat Friar John, ye friend o’ mine—
If I should eat, and ye should drink,
Who shall sing the mass, d’ye think?

With great characters and a great story, don't worry if you're past the torch-under-the-covers age: The Black Arrow is for anyone who appreciates a good story, whatever their age.
Project Gutenberg etext (illustrated by NC Wyeth!)

2 comments:

Stewart said...

I read this book for the first time over 50 years ago and I still remember the rhyme I have 4 black Arrows under my belt . I think I'll go to the library and take it out again

Suzannah said...

An excellent plan, if you ask me :)

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