Monday, February 24, 2014


In his writer's blog yesterday, our Editor-In-Chief announced the cancellation of the Pro Se anthology Pro Se Presents.
But amongst the stories in that just released last issue is I. A. Watson's novella: Robin Hood and the Maiden of the Tower; thus giving The Free Choice E-zine the opportunity to finally present the second half of our interview with the author.
If you missed part one of our interview with Ian Watson, who writes under the name I.A. Watson, so as not to be confused with the other wordsmith of the same name, you can find it here.

Pro Se Presents 20, cover by Sean E. Ali

TFCE: Ian, your Robin Hood stories were mentioned briefly during our last discussion, but you have done quite a bit of work with the Sherwood Forest archer and company.
I.A.W.: Correct. Mostly by accident. Soon after I’d starting publishing fiction, I was approached by Airship 27 supremo Ron Fortier about the possibility of a novel. He sent me a list of characters he was interested in publishing and said, “Pick one.”
The one that appealed to me most of all was King Arthur, but I felt that was too big a proposition for a done-in-one book. Of the rest, Robin Hood seemed like a good bet. He’s a local lad to me, and he’s one of fiction’s major archetypes. Who couldn’t have fun writing about him?
So I set to work, with an outline that took the readers through Robin’s first year as an outlaw leader of the free men of Sherwood. Lots of Robin stories feature a bit of an origin, but I really wanted to get deep into what transformed a roguish bad lad into the people’s champion of justice over law. Unfortunately, that story turned out to require three volumes instead of one. Fortunately it nicely separated into three stand-alone stories that mean each volume can be read separately.
Book 1, cover by Mike Manley
ROBIN HOOD: KING OF SHERWOOD starts us off, with Robin accidentally
capturing a highborn damsel and that lady becoming Maid Marion. It show how they chivvy each other into becoming the heroes their age needs.
Book 2, cover by Mike Manley
ROBIN HOOD: ARROW OF JUSTICE tells what happens when folks start robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. The Sheriff doesn’t like it, for starters. That volume also includes probably the best-known Robin Hood story, the archery contest. ROBIN HOOD: FREEDOM’S CHAMPION amps the action up as all the consequences of Robin’s rebellion play out. By now we’ve got Prince John, Black Guy of Gisbourne, the Sheriff, and half of England chasing Robin and his men to a really major finale.
The books are produced by Airship 27 in paperback, Kindle, and pdf format, all
Book 3, cover by Mike Manley
linked off my website whose address is down at the bottom of the interview. A short story, ROBIN HOOD AND THE SLAVERS OF WHITBY, is available free online at A Robin Hood comic strip with art by Rob Davis is in ALL STAR PULP COMICS #2.
I’ve also written the novella ROBIN HOOD AND THE MAIDEN IN THE TOWER, which appears in issue 20 of Pro Se Presents magazine and takes place after the trilogy. It’s set a couple of years later, when Prince John is consolidating his power, and this time the action takes place in London; the Tower of the title is the Tower of London – and somebody has to break in there!
There’s a couple of other stories that need telling too. The novella ROBIN HOOD AND THE BLACK MONK is sitting on my hard drive right now biding its time. That one’s the final showdown between Robin and the Sheriff of Nottingham.

TFCE: I’ve really enjoyed your Robin Hood stories. Considering how much of your overall bibliography it comprises, what attracted you to writing historical fiction?
I.A.W.: I like old stories that have resonance with us and our culture. Characters like King Arthur and Robin Hood are part of our literary DNA. Fairy tales like Sleeping Beauty and Red Riding Hood speak to us from childhood at a very primal level. So I enjoy taking events that everyone has at least heard about and using them as elements of stories told using more modern writing techniques.
Author I. A. (Ian) Watson
For example: ancient Greek entertainers made a living telling tales of their hosts’ famous ancestors. That’s why the thirty-seat Argo has seventy-odd named occupants. Nobody wanted his great-grandfather omitted from the heroes’ list, and the minstrel who wanted his fee knew to expand the roster accordingly. But those tales of Jason and the Argonauts were told in a very different style compared to adventure fantasy stories today. There was little reported dialogue or conversation, little exposition about motive or background. We’re told what the characters did, but not always the why. So a talented writer could come to that story and retell it using contemporary literary methods and find a very compelling adventure drama.
And it’s been done. I recommend Robert Graves’ The Golden Fleece to anyone. Scholarly themed and massively entertaining all at the same time. If there’s anyone I try to emulate when I’m writing, it’s Robert Graves.
Historical fiction comes with other advantages. There’s the amazing backdrop,
which adds another dimension to the reader’s mind’s eye picture of events. There are remarkable developments which might not seem credible as made-up plot twists but that can be justifiably used because one can point to an ancient source and say, “See – it happened!” There are things that “everyone knows” about certain eras and events, so the writer can either use that to reinforce his narrative or else challenge it to wake the readers up when something contrary to what they thought was the case happens.

TFCE: What are the difference(s) between historic and traditional fiction?
I.A.W.: Stories set in the past need to inform the reader about the relevant cultural and technological differences. If the country’s occupied by invaders, then that back story needs to be made clear. If there’s a law demanding that all members of a particular faith wear marks to identify them, then that has to be spelled out. If medical science has not yet understood bacteria, then the audience has to grasp that. All assuming this is knowledge that is significant to how the characters and events of the story interact.
In other words, a modern reader can be expected to know what a character in a contemporary story is doing when he uses the Internet. No exposition is necessary. Readers understand that he can look up the address of a multi-national company and learn something of its sinister CEO. That same reader might need to be warned that traveling from York to London by stagecoach takes two days and requires a stop at a coaching inn half way there or that a feudal serf could not legally own property, not even the clothes he stood in, and required his lord’s permission to marry.
This sometimes requires a certain out of exposition. One tries to avoid, “Well, as you know, Lord Harry, since the imposition of Norman Law after 1066 it has become illegal for peasants and serfs to carry arms or bring hunting dogs into royal forests, on penalty of a hand or eye,” but there is a necessary function to inform modern readers of things that would be common knowledge at the time when the story is set.
Attitudes to women, to different ethnicities, to religion, to disability, and plenty of other things have changed through history as well. There’s a choice before any historical author about how to reflect appropriate mores of the time, a balance between realism, pragmatism, and the sensibilities and expectations of an audience.
One last difference is that the reader might know what’s about to happen. If you set your story in Pompeii 79 A.D., then most of your audience might be expecting a volcanic eruption at some point in the narrative. The author has to take into consideration what a reader might know of events to come and make some use of it.
There’s always a balance to be had, of course, between historical veracity and narrative necessity, but that’s no different from choosing how realistic a modern police procedural should be.

TFCE: Do you find doing the research a daunting/difficult task?
Edward Gibbon
I.A.W.: I’m blessed with a good education – although blessed wasn’t the word I’d have used at school. I have qualifications in history and archeology, so I don’t usually have to dig too far to get the basics. As a hoarder I have a good library – well actually, a library, a study, a dedicated comics room, and an overspill book attic in my house. Most of the standard reference texts are there somewhere (some may have crept into my daughter’s room these days), from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles to a weighty seven-volume tome on the Second World War. When that fails, these days the Internet can usually supply. I rarely need to leave the house to find what I need to know.
The sources of historical accounts vary by era and culture. Everything we know about time-of-Christ Britain was written by Romans, including Julius Caesar who had failed to conquer the country; so everything we read about druids and human sacrifice, about men going to war wearing only woad daubs to show how brave they were, is all filtered through Roman perceptions and Roman propaganda. If one wanted to tell a story of Celtic Britain, one would have to decode and select from writings of the period to assemble the facts one wanted to use. Likewise, one would have to decide what of the various historical reports – that is, things written as histories after the period – one wanted to accept.
Geoffrey of Monmouth
For example, Geoffrey of Monmouth was a twelfth century monk. He wrote a medieval bestseller, the epic History of the Kings of Britain, which starts with the Trojan-descended refugee King Brutus settling London, covers various interesting pre-Roman kings like Bladud the Sorcerer and Shakespeare’s King Lear, and gives us very early stories of Merlin and King Arthur. And that was supposed to be a history book. It was taught as history as late as the eighteenth century. Modern historians despise Geoffrey but I love him. He knew how to write things that were true even if they never really happened!
Should one accord Geoffrey’s work importance in establishing a historic milieu? I think so. Not only did he have excellent narrative instincts, but for half a millennium people believed what he wrote to be the absolute truth; so any tale written in that five hundred years has characters who know history according to Geoffrey.
Sorry, a bit off topic there. Research doesn’t usually bother me. It helps me get into the right mood to write a particular era or style. I often write myself an essay to help me acclimatise the information. Sometimes the essays become features in their own right.

TFCE: Just how fictional, for example, is the legend of Robin Hood, compared to recorded history? In other words: what is reality and what is misconstrued? I know what little remains of the real Sherwood Forest is nowhere near its original size!
I.A.W.: Andrew of Wyntoun's Orygynale Chronicle (1377-1384) says of the year 1283: “Lytil Jhon and Robyne Hude, Wayth-men ware commendyd gude. In Yngil-wode and Barnysdale, Thai oysyd all this tyme thare trawale.”
Soon after that, the seminal “first English poem” Piers Plowman mentions him, when the author admits he doesn’t know his Paternoster, but can remember tales of Robin Hood. There’s also a 1439 court case, where the defendant is accused of being “a Robin Hood”; so within two hundred years of the period Robin was said to be around he was a byword for outlawry. The earliest stories of Robin that have come down to us are from the early 15th century, starting with Robyn hode in scherewode stod and Robin Hood and the Monk.
We have a very clear and detailed picture of life around the time in which Robin Hood is supposed to have been active. This is variously accounted to be during the reign and absence of King Richard the Lionheart and the rulership of his brother Prince, later King, John, or of their father Henry II, in the latter part of the twelfth century. It was a time when the feudal system bit hard. England was still in some ways a conquered, occupied country. It was only 125 years or so since Norman invaders had seized the land, imposing new rules over now-enslaved serfs and impoverished peasants. The international Catholic Church had displaced the indigenous and independent Celtic church and held as much control over a citizen’s soul as the Norman overlords held on his body. It was a time when law was used to perpetrate and perpetuate injustices, a time ripe for a folk hero to make a stand.
Robin Hood Statue in Nottingham
That’s not to say there was a Robin Hood; only that one was needed. It’s easy to see why stories of a laughing outlaw who thumbed his nose at authority and stood up for the little people might become such popular tavern fare.
There a small industy out there trying to find “the real Robin”, most of which I’ve managed to offend with my trilogy. It’s the only stuff I’ve written that has provoked letters to the local newspaper and an item on the radio! Nottingham’s multi-million pound tourist industry depends on its Hood connections, so when I followed the earliest traditions in placing Robin’s start in neighbouring Yorkshire (where Barnsdale Forest is), I was kicking over a hornet’s nest. A couple of years ago I even heard from the current Sheriff of Nottingham about it when we met at a dinner.
That said, I’ve drawn my cast and events from the oldest sources available, making choices where there were conflicting versions that best suited the story I wanted to tell, adding in motivations and explanations for events the original chroniclers didn’t bother to footnote. I’ve compromised where reality would trip up a good story – for example, I’ve only peripherally acknowledged that Norman lords, Saxon peasants, and educated clergy spoke three different languages in this era – and I’ve proceeded from the opinion that people will be people whatever their time of birth or social setting. I suspect an oily diplomat, blunt housewife, charming conman, or dedicated soldier are the same from ancient Babylon to distant future Alpha Centuri.

TFCE: Have you taken any liberties with the Robin Hood character(s) that others didn't, or fixed any past misconceptions/mistakes?
I.A.W.: The further back one digs for source material, the more range of choices one has, while still staying true to some version of the character. With Robin Hood, the big choice is whether to make him noble or common. The earliest stories call him a yeoman, that is a free commoner. He’s a low-born lad made good, “one of us”. It was only in Shakespeare’s time, when Robin Hood first appeared in stage plays, that he was associated with the Earl of Huntingdon and assumed to be of noble birth. Everybody loves a lord.
In the end I went with common Robin, the people’s hero. In part that was to avoid the somewhat dated and tacky trope of the superior individual deigning to join the downtrodden people and lead them to success through his innate superiority. In part it was for the fun of having low Robin and highborn Marian interact. For the pro-noble Hood faction, I did establish that the Earl of Huntingdon was probably his birth-father; just not on the right side of the sheets.

TFCE: Considering the difference in eras, how “politically correct” were things back then, compared to how they are today?
I.A.W.: Sticking with Robin Hood, recent versions have become very sensitive on issues of race. This was the time of the Third Crusade, Richard’s reason for leaving the country. Various TV and movie stories have felt it necessary to introduce a wise, noble, and sympathetic Moor to offer some kind of political correctness. Since the original stories have nothing to say about crusading at all, other than to acknowledge it was happening half a world away, I’ve omitted such indulgence. I don’t feel I’m being racist or endorsing religious violence by not bending a story out of shape to address it.
Likewise, various modern incarnations have shied away from Friar Tuck because he is a Christian religious figure. Depicting genuine Christian faith is a modern taboo. Almost all the original sources reference Christianity. On the one had there are the venal and scheming bishops and prelates of a rich and corrupt institution who are amongst Robin’s targets. On the other we have Robin and John’s avowed devotion to the Virgin Mary and Tuck’s flawed but practical Christianity. I’ve tried hard to depict both sides of the story taking place in a world where religion was a pervasive feature of everyday life. There’s plenty of nasty churchmen, and Tuck is a very fallible whiskey priest, but just occasionally when he acts or speaks, it is with true faith and proper Christian intent.
Friar Tuck
One of my favorite scenes is a campfire conversation between Marian’s knightly father and Friar Tuck, wherein the old crusader demands to know why a monk of Christ would associate with outlaws. Tuck replies:

“If our Saviour was amongst us in flesh today, Christ incarnate, where do you think he’d be? In a cathedral with those preferment-chasing modern Pharisees? At court dining with Prince John and his toadies, watching the bear-baiting before the whores come in? In Nottingham with the Sheriff helping him count up his taxes? Or with us in the villages, giving food to the sick, supporting the widows and the orphans, standing up for those the world has trampled down? Where do you think?” The fat friar reached for his tankard. “I’ll wait for him with the outlaws, thank you very much.”

TFCE: And what about Maid Marion? The 2006 BBC (America) adaptation had her take quite an active role, compared to, say Olivia de Havilland in 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, with Errol Flynn in the title role.
I.A.W.: Marion is quite a late addition to the Robin Hood legends, although she was a legendary character in her own right in her own stories before ever she crashed into Robin’s tale.

TFCE: Really? Afraid I’m unaware of Marion having a solo career before Robin.
I.A.W.: There’s a very old tradition in northern Europe of May Day festivities – maypoles, morris dances, races, country masques, puppet shows and so on, along with some even more rural customs in the fields after sunset. There are traditional characters in these mummers plays, dating back to at least the fourteenth century and possibly much earlier. Marion is the traditional heroine in those stories. The characters are often called “the Knight”, “the Saracen”, “the Fool”, “the Devil”… and “the Marion.”
Marion painting by William C. Wontner
French born minstrel Adam the Hunchback, composing around the late 1200s, only a hundred years after the time of Robin’s stories, wrote the musical play Jeu de Robin et Marion, now the earliest surviving French secular music, but that Robin was a simple shepherd lad. Even then, Marion was a forest maid. It’s held likely that there are whole Marion story-cycles that we’ve lost now, where she was the star.
Meanwhile, Robin Hood was associated with Clorinda, Queen of the Shepherdesses. She’s the earliest heroine in his tales (and in “The Slavers of Whitby”). Robin was quite established as a hero when Marion first appeared in his stories in the sixteenth century.
Marion has also become associated with a real-life historical figure, Matilda Fitzwalter (or Fitzwarren), daughter of one of the Earls who spearheaded the campaign against King John that led to his being forced to sign the Magna Carta. Real-life rumours of John’s attempts to seduce or ravish Matilda are mixed with legendary tales of his designs upon the fair Marion.
In my novels, I try and plot a good narrative course between all the different possibilities, but when we first meet Lady Matilda Fitzwarren in KING OF SHERWOOD, she’s on her way to Kirklees Abbey in disgrace after deterring Prince John’s advances with the assistance of a chamber-pot!

TFCE: Now that’s definitely more in keeping with the image of Maid Marion associated with Robin Hood today.
I.A.W.: True. These days it’s common to toughen up a historic heroine, give her fighting skills or command responsibilities to show she was liberated and capable even in an age where women were marginalised. That’s really not required with Maid Marion. One of her earliest Sherwood appearances has her disguised as a man, fighting Robin to a standstill before they discover each others’ identities. Marion has rarely been portrayed as weak, helpless, passive, or quiet. One ancient source described her: “A smirking wench, none of your coy dames.”
I wanted a version of Marion that could hold her own against a bouncing, exuberant, irreverent Robin. She had to be able to shine beside him, turn him from an outlaw lout to a forest hero. I was really lucky that after a while the two characters clicked in my head and provided their own dialogue thereafter. The problem was shutting them up.

1976 movie with sad ending
TFCE: Considering how some of the movies ended, either in "happily ever after" mode or more dire, like 1976's  Robin and Marian with Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn as the title characters, where they die at the end; did the historical Robin and Marion ever have any children?
I.A.W.: There's nothing about it in any of the older (pre 20th century) stories, but then again there's nothing about any of the merry men's family lives, or the Sheriff's. Except if we follow the Elisibethan strand that identified Marian with Matilda de Fitzwalter, who had known issue by a husband not called Robin Hood (but who might have been Robin turned legit under a different name, I suppose). Her father was the first signatory of the Magna Carta after leading "the Baron's Revolt" that brought King John to heel. Or if we follow the other Elizibethan stage tradition that first made Robin the Earl of Huntingdon (who was actually crusader Prince David of Scotland). He definitely had descendants, one of whom was the famous Scots ruler Robert the Bruce.

TFCE: Obviously there is a lot of material to work with. Other than that yet to be published novella you mentioned earlier (Robin Hood and the Black Monk), is there any chance you will ever return to Sherwood Forest?
I.A.W.: There are a few additional Robin stories that I have considered telling, even to the point of contemplating a fourth volume in the series, but there is definitely at least one more I need to write. Every hero needs an ending. When the moment comes, I’ll get back to THE DEATH OF ROBIN HOOD. That’s as much a part of his lore as his contest for the golden arrow, or his assisting an impoverished knight, or his battle with Black Guy of Gisbourne, or any of his other deeds.
In fact, one thing we often miss out on today in our serial fiction is that final ending, the last bow shot. Batman and James Bond won’t ever really die with a lasting, iconic canon story. Because of that, for all their brilliance, their myths resonate just a little less brightly. King Arthur’s last stand at the Field of Camlaan and Robin Hood’s final bow shot into the forest elevate them to legend.
George & Dragon painting by Briton Reviere
Myths and legends after that? ST GEORGE AND THE DRAGON is one scene off finished. Then I’m planning a volume of stories about Women of Myth. So far I’ve got Cinderella and Blodeuwedd the Flower Maiden done (that name’s pronounced Blood-eye-weath, by the way, saying ‘weath’ as in weather; she’s from The Mabinogion). I’m part-way through Hesione’s story, and then I’m going for Lilith. I’ve got a three-volume novel about the sinking of mythical Ys to run through a third draft of. And there’s lots and lots and lots of King Arthur material stacking up.

TFCE: And that’s on top of everything we discussed in our previous interview.
I.A.W.: These publishers are just so slow! It’s like they don’t want to publish monthly novels by me!
TFCE: Give them time Ian. As great a writer as you are, I (for one) am just not that fast a reader.

All images accompanying this article were either provided by the author or Wikipedia.

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