Forget men-in-tights and damsels-in-distress, Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe.
The Arrow of Sherwood, debut novel of historian and Oxford graduate Lauren Johnson puts a new spin on the Robin Hood legend. Combining carefully imagined fiction with factual detail, she places Robin of Sherwood firmly within the dark, brutal context of Richard I’s reign, reimagining the well-known myth as historical fiction. Her work vividly evokes a medieval landscape crippled by political turmoil and economic unrest, to which crusader Robin has just returned…
Johnson graduated from Wadham in 2007 with a Masters in History, and currently works as a research manager for costumed interpretations at Hampton Court and the Tower of London. Here, she talks to Cherwell about the challenges of a first novel, the resurrgence of historical fiction and the twelfth century world in which her story’s set.
How much did a degree in History help you when it came to writing a novel? Does having to hone such a sharp set of critical skills make it difficult to be creative?
Since this novel was historical fiction, a degree in History was very useful! So a large part of the research that went into my preparation for the book required similar skills to those used during my degree. I already had a basis of knowledge about the twelfth century, when The Arrow of Sherwood is set, but during my further research I would approach my reading with specific queries in mind: What happened at the Siege of Nottingham, for instance? What weapons did they have available? What was the lay of the land? And then you lay that research to one side and try to create something exciting in terms of narrative — which is definitely very different from writing a history essay.
Of the many challenges that face the first-time writer, what did you find the toughest?
The usual challenges I anticipated, like rejection, and I have faced in the past when approaching agents and publishers. That’s tough but you have to just really try and not let it get under your skin. What has been surprising as a first-time writer – and challenging even as someone who has done a fair bit of performing for the public over the years — is how much promotional work is needed just to try to get people reading the book in the first place. I think there are something like 150,000 books published a year, so just snaring people’s interest is a major hurdle. You have to suppress any stereotypical English mortification at ‘selling yourself’ and try to talk about your work as much as possible. Until a year ago I wouldn’t even have admitted to writing privately, so it’s a big change to now be doing it all the time!
And what has been the most rewarding part of your experiences?
Hearing people’s feedback on the book has so far been great. It’s very strange to share something you’ve spent years thinking about secretly, squirrelled away writing, and suddenly it’s out in the public domain. And obviously the really exciting thing is having a physical copy of a book — not just pages of manuscript or typed up proof copies, but a real bound book. That’s pretty awesome.
Why do you think there has been such a strong resurgence in the historical semi-fiction genre in the last few years?
I think people have enjoyed stories set in the past for a very long time. Even before this current wave of historical fiction, our screens were full of adaptations of Dickens and Austen. Perhaps there’s such an interest now because of the political climate — there is a lot of uncertainty, and the past offers refuge. We know how things turned out then, so we know there will be a resolution in those stories, which is reassuring. Also, there is the simple fact that other eras of history look exciting from the outside — a somewhat alien culture, dressing differently, with different priorities, but still sharing the same human concerns. And there are some fantastic writers who have turned their attention to historical fiction — Hilary Mantel and C.J. Sansom, to name just two.
What sort of things did you try to bring to your historical novel? The press release describes your setting as both “lucidly imagined and carefully researched” – are these always compatible?
Good question! Personally, I like historical fiction — in fact, fiction generally — that immerses me in a world. That could easily be a modern world but in another country, or an experience in Britain that I’ve never had, but it equally applies to historical settings. History-writing is a process of intense research, analysis and interpretation, and what ends up on the page is always the result of some degree of selection, even if it’s as simple as, ‘I chose to write a book about this one year period rather than the same events over a two year period’. But with historical fiction I do tend to prefer works that are not misleading – by which I mean, that don’t actively select interpretations of the past that are unlikely. Obviously, I am dealing with fictional characters who happen to exist in a real historical world, which gives me some latitude, but I tried not to do anything too absurd with them. Nonetheless, I felt able to deal with the fictional locations in a way I would not have treated the real ones – we know that Nottingham was not burnt to the ground in 1194, but that doesn’t mean the whole of the county, and its fictional environs, got off so lightly. By having fictional characters in a real world, you can simultaneously recreate the rich historical environment, but have the jeopardy of not knowing how things end for those characters.
Finally: why Robin? Is there anything that we can add to his legend?
Inevitably, part of this answer will seem like a cop-out. I wrote about Robin because it was the story I wanted to tell, because it kept whirring away in my head and I knew I needed to get it on the page. The legend of Robin Hood is incredibly versatile — we’ve had the Errol Flynn adventurer version with lurid tights and moustachioed grin, the sombre Russell Crowe film, pantomime villains and, more recently, the story being told from the perspective of his ‘merry men’. For me, I wanted to root the mythic characters in the reality of the twelfth century — with all its complexity, and sometimes its brutality. The late twelfth century saw the formation of the Common Law, and was just in advance of Magna Carta, so an outlaw figure with his own morality — sometimes in opposition to society — fits into that world brilliantly. My hope is that I take the legend and fuse it with history, to tell a new story.
The Arrow of Sherwood is published by Pen and Sword Fiction and is available here.