233–237: Robin of Sherwood and The Handmaid’s Tale

The next four books are novelisations of the 1980s television show Robin of Sherwood. Yes, novelisations count as novels. The reason I bought them is particularly because I have enduring memories of the second book, The Hounds of Lucifer, from my prep school days.

Robin Hood is, perhaps more than anything or anyone else, our national myth, and the basic narrative admits of a huge amount of variation and customisation. The innovation of Robin of Sherwood was supernatural, blending the Robin Hood legend with the folklore figure of Herne the Hunter and pitting him against genuinely Satanic forces, rather than just the ordinary corruption of Norman officialdom. This, in my view, is a particularly interesting direction to take the character in, and the series has this over Howard Pyle’s version: it features Marion quite heavily (although, spoiler alert, it’s a bit weird that she basically just ends up falling in love with whoever happens to be Robin Hood at the moment). This version also does a good job of combining two incompatible backgrounds for Hood himself – as a simple Saxon yeoman, and as a knight or nobleman, usually the Earl of Huntingdon.

I must admit that I’ve never seen a minute of the show, but the novelisations are really rather fun. If it’s decently acted, I imagine it would be rather good.

Better never means better for everyone, he says. It always means worse, for some.

Everyone agrees that The Handmaid’s Tale is an Important Book. It handles important themes and big issues, and has a significant status as a must-read (or must-watch, these days, I suppose).

This is well-deserved, but it got me thinking about Important Books in general – their “points”, what they’re doing, that sort of thing. It’s not always easy to express. To take The Handmaid’s Tale as an example, it must be saying something more than “wouldn’t it be terrible if women were stripped of all rights and autonomy by a theocratic dictatorship and reduced to the status of ritualised breeding machines?” It must be, because I just said it in one obviously true sentence; if that were it, you wouldn’t need to write an entire novel (and if you did, it would be rubbish, whereas The Handmaid’s Tale is excellent). As is so often the case, there’s an Ursula Le Guin line for this situation, from her Introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness: “If I could have said it non-metaphorically, I would not have written all these words, this novel.”

So what is Atwood’s dystopia about? What is she doing or saying? On one level, it’s an almost impossible question – although the book’s not particularly complicated in plot or style, if it were easy to express concisely and comprehensively what it was doing, we’d be right back where we started in terms of not needing to write an entire novel. I picked some brains about this – at work, and also at my college’s ball, where it might have been a rather heavy topic of conversation to introduce – and ideas that were floated were things like look how easy it would be (although we must remember that Atwood’s backstory requires the murder of the entire legislative and executive branches of the US government). A refinement of this notion is perhaps to read it as a cautionary tale about letting power go without scrutiny to anyone who capitalises on times of instability.

The other question I had about The Handmaid’s Tale was one of genre. It’s frequently classified as science fiction; it won the very first Arthur C. Clarke Award and was nominated for the Nebula. But I genuinely don’t understand why. Dystopian, yes. Unpleasant, yes. Speculative, yes. But sci-fi? I don’t think I could identify a single science fiction element; simply being set a few years in the future is hardly sufficient. If anyone could explain to me what the rationale for describing it as science fiction is, I’d be very grateful (although I still might not agree). Atwood herself says the label is inaccurate, although it’s been suggested that this is just genre snobbery; I think, however, I can safely say that my position isn’t it can’t be sci-fi because it’s good. I’ve very recently discussed some of the best and most thought-provoking works of the twentieth century, with no hesitation or baulk at the idea of calling them science fiction. I just don’t think this one meets the criteria.

I hope, also, that it’s all right to admit that this book is actually pretty funny in places. “To be asked to play Scrabble instead, as if we were an old married couple, or two children, seemed kinky in the extreme.” And it has some great lines, although I’ll admit that I’m pretty deeply confused by this one, which seems to have too many commas: “But if you happen to be a man, sometime in the future, and you’ve made it this far, please remember: you will never be subjected to the temptation of feeling you must forgive, a man, as a woman.” I think I can just about parse it, but not easily.

Anyway. Enough of my ramblings. Excellent book. Important Book. Do read it.

Robin of Sherwood
Author Richard Carpenter
Published 1984
Pages 152
Best character Marion.

The Hounds of Lucifer
Author Robin May
Published 1985
Pages 168
Best character Little John.

The Hooded Man
Author Anthony Horowitz
Published 1986
Pages 147
Best character Nasir.

The Time of the Wolf
Author Richard Carpenter
Published 1988
Pages 147
Best character Mad Mab.

The Handmaid’s Tale
Author Margaret Atwood
Published 1985
Pages 312
Best line “I tell myself it doesn’t matter, your name is like your telephone number, useful only to others; but what I tell myself is wrong, it does matter.”
Best character Moira. “This is what it comes down to. I want gallantry from her, swashbuckling, heroism, single-handed combat. Something I lack.”


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