Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Black Arrow” (1888)

Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) is perhaps most famous nowadays for his brilliant novel, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886). This post, however, is about a now little-known novel that he authored entitled The Black Arrow, which was originally serialised in Young Folks; A Boys’ and Girls’ Paper of Instructive and Entertaining Literature over four months in 1883, and then published as a single volume five years later in 1888. It is a story about medieval outlaws during the War of the Roses (1455-1487). The novel appears to be a fusion of William Harrison Ainsworth’s Rookwood (1834),[i] and the numerous Robin Hood children’s novels that were being published in the late Victorian period.[ii]

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Stevenson was probably inspired to set his outlaw novel during the Hundred Years’ War as a result of having Jules Michelet’s Histoire de France (1844). This history situates Robin and his merry men, not in the time of Richard I, a practice which had been popularised by Walter Scott in Ivanhoe (1819), but, as Stevenson does in his novel, between 1455 and 1487. In speaking of Warwick the Kingmaker (a prominent figure in the wars), Michelet writes that he was

The King of the enemies of property, of the plunderers of the borders, and corsairs of the Strait.[iii]

He then goes on to speak about how Robin Hood was one of Warwick’s men:

What is Robin Hood? The outlaw. Robin Hood is naturally the enemy of the man of the law, the adversary of the Sheriff. In the long series of ballads of which he is the hero, we find him first inhabiting the green woods of Lincoln. He is induced to quit them by the French Wars, so he turns his back on the Sheriff and the King’s deer, seeks the sea and crosses it […] All Robin Hood’s companions, all who were under ban of the law, were safe whilst Warwick (either personally or through his brother) was judge of the marches of Calais and Scotland.[iv]

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Notwithstanding Michelet’s highly suspect scholarship, Stevenson must have been convinced that the time of the wars between Lancaster and York was the perfect period in which to set an outlaw novel. He singles out this passage in his own personal copy of the book.[v] While some of the illustrations by N. C. Wyeth (who worked under Robin Hood author, Howard Pyle, and provided the illustrations to Paul Creswick’s Robin Hood and his Adventures in 1917) in the 1916 edition are clearly supposed to evoke ideas of Robin Hood, The Black Arrow, of course, is not a Robin Hood novel; I suspect (but cannot prove) that the reason Stevenson did not utilise the famous outlaw in his novel is because of the fact that, by the late-Victorian period, the idea that the outlaw flourished during the 1190s has almost become a ‘fact’ in historical writing.

The prologue of the novel is quite sinister, opening with the death by an arrow which is fired out of the forest and directed at a seemingly innocent, harmless and friendly old man named Appleyard in the village churchyard:

An arrow sang in the air, like a huge hornet; it struck old Appleyard between the shoulder blades, and pierced him clean through, and he fell forward on his face among the cabbages.[vi]

The novel evokes the Gothic: family secrets are exposed, past crimes come to light, and as in Ainsworth’s Rookwood, which featured Dick Turpin (1705-1739) it is an outlaw/brigand who is instrumental in exposing these. Immediately after Appleyard’s death, another arrow is fired from afar and lands among the group assembled at the Church. Attached to the arrow is a letter:

I had four blak arrows under my belt,

Four for the greefs that I have felt,

Four for the number of ill menne,

That have opressid me now and then.

One is gone, one is wele sped,

Old Apulyard is ded.

One is for maister Bennet Hatch,

That burned Grimstone, walls and Thatch.

One for Sir Oliver Oates,

That cut Harry Shelton’s throat.

Sir Daniel, ye shall have the fourt,

We shall think it fair sport.

Ye shull each have your own part,

A blak arrow in each blak heart.

Get ye to your knees for to pray:

Ye are ded theeves, by yea and nay!

“John Amend-All. Of the Green Wood. And his Jolly Fellowship.”[vii]

In contrast to Robin Hood and the other outlaw stories that were circulating at this period, which often present a ‘merrie England’ view of the past, it is clear that this is a story of revenge. Among those assembled in the churchyard is Dick Shelton, who is perplexed at the note because it appears to imply that those closest to him, including Sir Daniel, whose ward he is, are responsible for his father’s murder. Upon finding out that his guardian, Sir Daniel, had his father murdered, young Dick teams up with the outlaws to get revenge on the murderous noblemen.

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While the novel appeared in a children’s magazine and is viewed by academics as a children’s book (and has even been portrayed by the BBC as a kids’ television show), the only “childlike” thing about it is the fact that it features an adolescent protagonist. The novel’s fairly detailed plot recalls earlier highwaymen novels. Finally, while it is not part of the Robin Hood canon of stories, it does deserve a place, if not within, then alongside the study of other Robin Hood texts.


References

[i] R. L. Stevenson, ‘To Edmund Gosse, 9 November 1881’ in The Selected Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson ed. by Ernest Mehew (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), pp.197-98; it is known that Stevenson admired Ainsworth (1805-1882), for in a letter to a friend named Edmund Gosse he urged him, while visiting London, to ‘go and see Harrison Ainsworth, and if you do, give him my homage’.

[ii] Examples of these late-Victorian and Edwardian Robin Hood children’s books are numerous, of which a few are named here: Charles Herbert, Robin Hood (London: John F. Shaw [n.d.]); Edward Gilliat, In Lincoln Green: A Story of Robin Hood (London: Seeley & Co. 1897); Stephen Percy, Tales of Robin Hood (London, 1840); Henry Gilbert, Robin Hood and the Men of the Greenwood (London: T. C. & A. C. Jack, 1912).

[iii] Jules Michelet, The History of France Trans. G. H. Smith 2 Vols. (New York: D. Appleton, 1882), 2: 319.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] See the annotated database of Stevenson’s library books at the following website: ‘What Stevenson Read – His Personal Library’ Robert Louis Stevenson Website [Internet <http://robert-louis-stevenson.org/169-robert-louis-stvensons-library/> Accessed 3 February 2017].

[vi] Robert Louis Stevenson, The Black Arrow (London: Cassell, 1888; repr. London: Cassell, 1916), p.9.

[vii] Stevenson, The Black Arrow, p.17.

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