What do you (and your students) think about when they hear the name Robin Hood? Bows and arrows, a green costume, and a band of “merry men?” If you think a little longer, you’ll probably recall Sherwood Forest, the Sheriff of Nottingham, and “Rob from the rich and give to the poor!” And if we’re honest, we’ll admit that most of our knowledge of Robin Hood comes from the movies; maybe your Robin Hood is Errol Flynn, Kevin Costner, or a cartoon fox. In any case, it’s reasonable to assume that somewhere there’s a definitive book called “Robin Hood” that contains the official canonical legend.
And that’s where it gets fuzzy. The earliest Robin Hood stories were ballads, sung or recited for audiences, many never written down. The oldest known Robin Hood ballad dates back to the late 1400’s, and the setting for most Robin Hood ballads is 200 years before that. In some ballads, Robin Hood robs from the rich and gives to the poor. In other ballads he robs from the rich…and keeps it. There may or may not be a group of Merry Men. He’s an archer or a swordsman, a lover or a fighter, a hero or an outlaw, a nobleman or a yeoman. The formalized legend that most of us are familiar with congealed in the 1800’s. No one person created Robin Hood.
So, when Matthew Cody takes his turn by setting Will in Scarlet against a Robin Hood backdrop, he does so without apology – and rightly so. The result is and intensely satisfying adventure story, appropriate for tweens, yet entertaining for readers of all ages.
You probably know that Will Scarlet is a supporting character in the Robin Hood legend – one of the Merry Men, often younger than the rest, refined in demeanor and appearance. Cody takes us back a few years. Will is the 13-year-old son of Lord Shackley, who’s off fighting the crusades with King Richard. The standard political intrigue of most Robin Hood stories forces Will to flee the manor, and he eventually meets up with an early edition of the Merry Men. Some familiar characters are there, and others are not. That’s okay. This is Will’s story.
And quite a story it is. There’s plenty of swordplay and action. The plot moves quickly, and the characters – both heroes and villains – are well-defined and well-developed. The descriptions of the castle, the forest, and the dungeon are vivid but not overdrawn. The chapters are short, and I dare you to read just one!
Cody brings new perspectives to many of the characters, and those changes make them appealingly human. Robin Hood a lovelorn alcoholic? Check. Much the Miller’s Son is really a girl? Believable. Sir Guy a violent, manipulative brute? It works. Will Scarlet is made to wear a red coat in mockery? Makes sense.
Although not gory, the violence in Will in Scarlett probably makes it inappropriate for elementary grade readers. There’s a bit of innocent nudity when Will discovers Much’s true gender. A few profanities exist, but they are contextually relevant.
Recommend Will in Scarlet to all readers interested in an action-packed adventure story with well-developed characters. Last time I checked, that included a large percentage of middle school readers. Will in Scarlet certainly fits the bill.
Note: I sincerely hope this book gets a decent cover at some point. The cover for the original hard cover is cartoony and a little childish. The paperback cover is more mature, but features Will using a bow – a weapon Will is painfully incompetent with in the story.