Grasping for the Wind Rotating Header Image

Book Review: Scarlet by Stephen R. Lawhead

Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Historical Fantasy
ISBN: 1595540865
ISBN-13: 9781595540867
Format: Hardcover, 512pp
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Pub. Date: September 2007
Series: King Raven Trilogy Series, #2

In literature, there are several key scarlets: The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Scarlet Letter, and Scarlett O�Hara of Gone with the Wind. But none is better known than Will Scarlet, companion to the infamous Robin Hood, the outlaw who robbed from the rich to give to the poor. But in most versions of the Robin Hood story, Will Scarlet is a two-dimensional character. Although his relationship to Robin Hood is often a turning point in many narratives (see Kevin Costner�s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) his characterization is minimal at best. (Although the Will Scarlet of Robin Hood: Men in Tights is probably the funniest rendition.)

Stephen Lawhead first tackled the Robin Hood story in Hood, the first book in the King Raven trilogy. In it he imagines an earlier Robin Hood who is not a Saxon lord, but a Welsh one. Giving him the name Rhi Bran (meaning King Raven) the outlaw becomes a man thrust from his rightful kingdom, forced to prey on the Norman conquerors who stole his land from within the forest of the March. For Lawhead�s reasoning on why he set this story as a Celtic one, rather than in the traditional Nottingham of the East Midlands, see his essay at the end of Hood.

In Scarlet, Lawhead picks of the threads of his story where he left off in Hood. Bran and his Grellon (or merry men) are in hiding. Meanwhile, William Scatlocke, a forester, is thrust from his livelihood when his lord and master backs the wrong prince for the throne. Forced to become a wandering laborer, Scatlocke (also known as Scarlet) hears rumors of Bran and determines to seek him out. What follows is a series of adventures and narrow escapes reminiscent of the traditional Robin Hood story, but with a realism and historical accuracy lacking in the Errol Flynn version.

Lawhead�s Scarlet is the key protagonist of this novel. While in Hood, the story is told primarily from Rhi Bran�s perspective, here we have the story as told by Will, as he relates the occurrences to a priest named Odo. Three quarters of the novel is told in this way, with a few chapters stepping outside of Will�s memories and into the minds and hearts of the villains, in order to give us a full and round story. The final quarter of the story is told in traditional first person style, as seen through Will�s eyes, because he is no longer in a position to relate his story to Odo. This way of telling us the story gives a picture of Will as a simple and loyal man, a talented archer, who loves a woman very deeply. In this, it seems it was Lawhead�s intention to give us a picture of a common man of the time shortly following the invasion of the Normans into England.

Included in the narrative is a telling of the story of Manawydan and Pryderi, an ancient Celtic tale of the Mabinogion, by Angharad, the banfaith of the outlaws. Lawhead has oft used the old Celtic tales to provide metaphors for the story he is telling. He did it in the Song of Albion trilogy, as well as The Pendragon Cycle. It gives the reader a taste of the Celtic storytelling tradition. Although for some these secondary tales might seem out of place in the novel, or might be decried as just filler, I think that Lawhead is giving us a taste of how much the oral storytelling tradition was a part of life for the Celts and Britons. It informed and changed people, and was a way of passing down wisdom from one generation to the next, much like sermons and wisdom books do today.

Although the storyline is fast moving (helped along by the short chapters) the entire novel does have the feel of filler. Although Bran and his band are still seeking the return of Elfael, his rightful kingdom, not much happens to make us think that might happen till near the end of the book. In the meantime, the outlaws make a few forays against the current rulers of Elfael, Count de Braose, Abbot Hugo and the Sheriff de Glanville, but in truth I as a reader never really felt that the characters were going to meet with any success, in their goals.

The reader will have to read Hood in order to understand even the minutest part of Scarlet. I was disappointed that Bran and Merian�s relationship was not developed more. Bran, after reading Scarlet, seemed a flat character, distant and removed from Will Scarlet. Although I understand Lawhead�s intent to give dimensionality to Will Scatlocke, and to give the reader a feeling of a common man�s lot, I think that by doing so, he lost some of the personality of Bran in the bargain. After Hood, Bran was the person the reader was most in tune with, and the person the reader most identified with. But because we see the world through Will�s eyes, Bran becomes distant, and his struggle is no longer our struggle. That loss hurts the story.

There is gain in knowing more about the historical context and the personal struggles of an average Saxon, as well as learning more about the political and religious machinations of the day, and the story of Will Scarlet does that well.

The novel is well-written; it is fast paced, with excellent fight scenes, and makes a good lunch hour read with its short chapters and varying perspectives. Odo provides a surprising character and interesting plot twist that makes this book even more fun to read. And of course, this is still the legend of Robin Hood, even if the setting is different, so many of the adventures are in the vein that fans of the Robin Hood legend have come to expect. Arrow flights abound, close shaves are common, and brazen acts of valor are to be expected.

Scarlet makes for a good read, although it is not Lawhead’s best work. Fans of Robin Hood will enjoy Lawhead�s unique take on the legend, as well as his commitment to historical accuracy. Fans of fantasy will question the novel�s fantasy label, as well they should. But there is an element of magic in the person of Angharad and in the strange King Raven that Bran becomes when on a sortie, so the fantasy fan will not be disappointed. Fans of historical novels of medieval times will find much to love in both Hood and Scarlet, and Lawhead devotees (such as myself) are going to find all of the same things they have always loved about Lawhead�s writing in Scarlet. This is a novel worth your time. The legend of Robin Hood is brought closer to its historical truth, and given an added Celtic flair that only Stephen Lawhead can provide.

Read my review of Hood here. (BE WARNED. It was one of my first, and isn’t very good.)

This post is also part of the CSFF Blog Tour for Stephen Lawhead in November 2007. Click the links below to see what other participants are saying about Scarlet and Stephen Lawhead.

Trish Anderson Brandon Barr Wayne Thomas Batson Jim Black Justin Boyer Grace Bridges Amy Browning Jackie Castle Valerie Comer CSFF Blog Tour D. G. D. Davidson Chris Deanne Jeff Draper April Erwin Linda Gilmore Beth Goddard Marcus Goodyear Andrea Graham Jill Hart Katie Hart Sherrie Hibbs Timothy Hicks Christopher Hopper Becca Johnson Jason Joyner Kait Karen Dawn King Tina Kulesa Mike Lynch Margaret Karen McSpadden Melissa Meeks Rebecca LuElla Miller Mirtika or Mir’s Here Eve Nielsen John W. Otte John Ottinger Lyn Perry Deena Peterson Rachelle Cheryl Russel Ashley Rutherford Hanna Sandvig Chawna Schroeder James Somers Rachelle Sperling Steve Trower Speculative Faith Robert Treskillard Jason Waguespac Daniel I. Weaver Laura Williams Timothy Wise