Bookmark and Share

Friday, 13 September 2013

Robin Hood - the anti-hero for today as discovered by Lauren Johnson

Today I'm welcoming Lauren Johnson to talk about her new debut, The Arrow of Sherwood. I have always been fascinated by Robin Hood, so I asked Lauren -

Why do you think the legend of Robin Hood has been so enduring?

Lauren : I think Robin endures because he is an antihero – throughout his history, from at least the fifteenth century, he has been a symbol of misrule, of chaos, sometimes of outright violence and lawbreaking. His connection with Mayday in the past is a clear sign of that, because May was all about raucous celebration and upsetting the norm. But he is also a very modern hero. You can see that in the Robin Hood tax campaign – we still want a figure who stands up for the poor and needy, against the seemingly all-powerful wrongdoer. In all our modern TV detective shows, the main character could almost be Robin Hood – they do what they have to, to bring down the bad guy, even if it means bending the rules. He’s mischievous, but he stands for something, and that’s really appealing.

What will surprise the reader about your version of the character of Robin Hood, and will we be meeting Maid Marian?

In The Arrow of Sherwood you will meet pretty much all the archetypes of the Robin Hood story, but probably not in the way you expect. At the start of the book Robin comes back from crusade – he was sent on it to do penance – and the first person he meets is called Marian Peverill. They are supposed to get married, in one of the usual noble arranged marriages, but they deeply dislike each other. There is no respect between them whatsoever. That scene was one of the first I had in my mind – these two famous romantic characters appearing, and they can barely tolerate being in the same courtyard.

I wanted to make Robin, like all the characters, just a bit more human than in lots of versions of his story. He has grown up as a lord’s son but he feels constrained by his family and spent lots of his youth around lowborn men – there’s a bit of a Henry V element to him in that respect. But returning from crusade he is supposed to give up his ties to the common friends he had, and properly become a lord, ruling over them, focusing on increasing his estate and keeping the law. So a lot of the book is about that struggle: between being the lord his family want him to be, and his instinct to help his old friends. Not just because he feels that some other lords are abusing their power and he ought to stop it, but also because there is that danger-seeking element to him that enjoys transgressing rules.

You work as a costumed interpreter, can you explain what this is and how this helps your understanding of history?

Costumed interpretation – sometimes called live or historical interpretation – is a combination of dramatic performance, historical presentation and one-on-one conversation, usually in heritage settings. At its simplest, it means I wear a costume and engage with the public as a character from the past. I have been very lucky to work in a wide range of time periods, portraying very different – but always interesting – characters. I’ve played everyone from medieval princesses to Victorian scullery maids.

I think my experience as a costumed interpreter has helped me massively, not only in my understanding of the past but in my story telling. As part of my research I often go beyond reading about historical events and my character to learn songs, dances, social behaviours, contemporary stories – some of which are pretty weird – and that means I get a really rounded view of the past. Then, having done my own research I have to impart that knowledge to members of the public, from toddlers who might just want to know about medieval animals or my crown, to hyper-informed professors in their 60s. You get very good at gauging what interests the public and the best way of getting your information across.

And then there is simply the fact that I’ve been in the really privileged position of running up and down castle stairs in flat leather shoes, felt how you move in a laced gown with really long beautiful sleeves that can trip you up, sat in a medieval great hall and watched recreated court cases or stories being told – I’ve even shot a trebuchet in my time and withstood a siege from the castle walls. (Not literally, I hasten to add.) When you have the physical experience of a period of history and you’re engaging with your character, you get very close to feeling like you are back in that era, and I think it helps you understand their behaviour.

How important is the real-life history to your re-telling of the story and what is the favourite source you have used?

For me, the real-life history is very important. Obviously, I’ve written a story about a man who almost certainly didn’t exist in the way his myth is now remembered. But I very much wanted to root my version of Robin Hood in a real world – a period that I had spent a number of years researching and interpreting.

I came at this story with a clear question in my mind. A lot of the popular mythology of Robin Hood has ossified over the years – we think of him being a nobleman who lives in the forest with his common friends and Maid Marian, who helps King Richard against evil Prince John and steals from the rich to help the poor. But that character doesn’t really make sense in the twelfth century, when Richard and John existed. Noblemen were usually very separate from the people on their land, and you didn’t get noblewomen hanging out in forests with paupers. So my question was: If a nobleman called Robin of Locksley had existed in that era, how might he have become the Robin Hood we recognise today? I wanted to fuse the historical fact with that myth.

In terms of research, my favourite sources are contemporary ones that bring the past to life. I love twelfth century stories – Marie de France, Chr├ętien de Troyes, the moral fables. And I really like visual sources. I would love to take more time to just sit and look at manuscript images, because they are extraordinary, and they reveal so much about medieval life and their sense of humour. It’s a later document than my story is set but the Luttrell Psalter of about 1320-40 is brilliant from that perspective – it’s full of scenes of medieval noble life, like the lady sending her husband off to war and handing him his armour, or feasts being served at great tables, or royal ladies on the move, with an absurdly long wagon and all their servants and animals. Those sources bring the past to life, and make your realise that they were still human beings – it bridges the gap between us and them, and that is always what I want to do in my work.

Thanks Lauren, I've loved talking to you - and all the best with The Arrow of Sherwood.

You can follow Lauren on Twitter @History_Lauren or visit her website at


  1. Guess there wasn't space for her comments on Angus Donald?

  2. This sounds really interesting - a great idea to take a fresh look at such a well-known figure. I'll definitely add The Arrow of Shewood to my TBR pile (now scarily high and dangerously teetering ...)Thank you for a fascinating post!