Category Archives: Age – Young Adult

I Remember Robin (Hood, That is)

Nerd confession, incoming.

I’m the kind of guy who re-reads the same book- and the longer, the better. Tolkein, maybe six times; even the Silmarillion a couple of times (which really isn’t fair, he didn’t mean for it to get published in that form! But I loved it anyway.). Count of Monte Cristo and Cyrano de Bergerac every three or four years, which at my age… a lot, OK, let’s just drop it. So these tales, many of them stretch back into my childhood. And this time around I’m beginning to realize, in my chronicling, how much they influenced my thinking from as early as I could remember.

I know you’ve seen the movie (one of them, anyway). Have you read Robin Hood? I mean the Pyle version with the fabulous illustrations. I had them read to me by my father around age five, and the illustrations might as well be branded on my forehead.

It’s been a revelation to me how much of my own efforts are really aiming to revisit the feelings I got from this version of Robin Hood (and if you’ve seen the movies, believe me, they’re trying to reach this same sentiment). I re-read it this time in the Kindle version.

  • Good news- it’s free!
  • Bad news- no illustrations.
  •  Good news- double-click on any olde-Englishe word and get the definition!!

Since I recall the illustrations anyway, that’s a win-win for me. Think about it- is your experience of heroic fantasy the same as mine?

Robin almost never kills anyone. One arrogant forester in the beginning (which makes him an outlaw), but he’s defending himself. Then Guy of Gisbourne near the end (who the tales make very clear is a monster). In the Lands of Hope they slay monsters without mercy- but other people are considered off limits until they prove their evil intent. And that reminds me…

Hardly anyone is that bad, and neither is their punishment. Pyle pulled his punches to make his tales safe for kids. So the worst that happens to the greedy sheriff or bishop? A little well-deserved humiliation, and he loses maybe two-thirds of his purse (one-third to Robin’s band, one third to the poor). Sometimes the bad guys stay for feasting and hunting and end up having a great time. Which leads me to…

The outlaws are called the Merry Men for reason. They’re having a blast- time and again, even people who have every reason to be furious can’t help but laugh. Check out the scene with Midge the Miller’s son, see how the four doughtiest warriors in the Midlands are defeated by a man with a sack of flour, and tell me you don’t chuckle. The stories just drip with good will- they tease each other and banter incessantly. Lord, how I love that, all my heroes banter like maniacs. And there’s an obvious contrast between living the high free life of the forest and obeying the laws of corrupt lords and selfish men of the cloth. Friar Tuck is, not to put too fine a point on it, a roaring, belligerent drunkard. But he’s miles closer to a proper priest than the establishment orders. Speaking of which…

– Filed away under I Don’t Know and I Don’t Want to Know“… there are many instances in Robin Hood where one of them declares another to be a fine fellow, which is great, but then follows up with a kiss. And plenty of embraces, and more than a few declarations of “I love you well” and sometimes tears. I’m thinking “wow, Victorian era book, are you sure?” I can only say that as a child I didn’t pay it the slightest mind. Even now, it’s only a cause for more smiles, in between the adventures. And that brings me to…

– Robin and his crew only get into scrapes because they can’t stand the lack of adventure in the forest. Once the Sheriff stops coming after him, Robin has to go into disguises, sneak back into the city, try the archery tournament with a patch on one eye, etc. for some excitement. That one trait, the desire to seek adventure when wealth and fame are already assured, is at the heart of the lives of the heroes in the Lands of Hope. Now that I see it in Pyle’s book, I’m struck with wonder. How did I not see that before?

So Pyle’s Robin Hood is right at the heart of me, right at the start of me. His tales, and others I could name, continue to inspire my work. {P.S.: One of the best computer games I’ve ever played? Legend of Sherwood– it’s thrilling and hilarious!}

Which books have driven you onward? Do you consciously write in another author’s style, or go for the same kind of characters? Is there a sense of right and wrong you believe someone else got perfectly? What’s there at the heart of you?

Classics You’ve Never Read cont.: Why Pretend? Part Two

Classic: a book that people praise and no one reads.

-Mark Twain

I might set a record for confusing new readers before they even finish the title. If you just came in, I’m blogging about works of heroic fantasy everyone would recognize, but few of us may have read. So you might wish to return to Part One before continuing, where I used the work of the Baroness d’Orczy to explore the theme of the secret identity. And I promised there, that this theme would cover two great works of heroic derring-do, fairly close in time but far apart in geography (though both are set in the Alleged-Real World). So, who ranks alongside The Scarlet Pimpernel as one of the earliest heroes with a secret identity? Of course, it’s the main character of that incredibly famous tale… The Curse of Capistrano!!

Subtitle: The Mark of Zorro

Title-Tracking

Indeed, one of the all-time bad title choices in history, I’d say. Johnston McCulley published this immortal yarn under a name that makes me think of swallows pooping on your car, back in 1919 as a serial in five installments of the pulp magazine All-Story Weekly. I’ve been keeping an eye on the way the written works wend into other forms, and this is one of the great good luck stories for any aspiring author to remember. Who knows what would have become of this little tale with that title and publisher: but the great movie stars Fairbanks and Pickford saw it and decided it would make a great debut movie for their new studio. The rest is certainly history- a big hit for United Artists (!), causing McCulley to re-issue the tale as a novel, and the title we’ve all known has stuck ever since. Whew.

whisk-whoo-whask !
whisk-whoo-whak !

In the Solar System of Fantasy, Zorro clearly ranks as Cinematic Heroic for its rollicking style and humorous escapades. I smiled practically the whole time reading, much as I did during The Princess Bride. Where Percy plans, Don Diego seems only to act- he barges into a room, then conducts a duel, hurls an insult, whistles up his horse, rides like the wind. Both men, in their mild-mannered alter egos, refuse to duel a hothead in a way that makes them seem ridiculous. But The Pimpernel never once draws his weapon or throws a punch, whereas Zorro cannot seem to keep his sword in its scabbard.

There He Is!

This brings me to one main point- Zorro is REAL. I mean, he’s got a mask, he rides a horse- he’s actually THERE in the scenes, taunting his foes and daring to speak words of love to the gorgeous Senorita Lolita. People see him, take a shot at his back, duck his blade- the Pimpernel is a name, but there is no “him” there, just his many disguises. The contrast between Zorro and Don Diego Vega is shown to the reader, often within the breadth of a single fast-paced page. Time and again, the poetic, disinterested, weak Don Diego begs the need to retire and rest, trudging from the room- and mere seconds later, the dashing masked outlaw has arrived through a window, to announce another breathtakingly bold and honorable intention. The hero pledges his love, or promises revenge, laughs, leaps, disappears- and here just a moment later the tired caballero Don Diego returns, complaining of the noise and horrified to hear that Zorro just left.

So we come to another big point- our hero not only has a secret identity, he uses it to stay close to the action as well as far from suspicion. Don Diego complains of any exertion, even the need to woo Lolita, but most of all he bemoans how this masked menace ruins any chance for quiet contemplation. Seldom has an alter-ego been so openly disdainful of his heroic side. If this was a stage-play, you’d need your costumes fitted with velcro seams to get on and off in time. Though the action of the tale is fast-paced and seems random, we find by the end that Don Diego, like Sir Percy, has been planning this meticulously. Everyone believes he cannot be Zorro because he’s been acting this way since he was fifteen.

Behind the Mask

zorro1The differences between Zorro and the Scarlet Pimpernel are legion. Blakeney has a cadre of followers from the start, and acts to save them. Zorro only recruits the other young caballeros very near the end, and they play a key role in rescuing him. British and Spanish honor aim at somewhat different targets but both men pursue them with vigor. Taking a lady’s arm is about as far as they go in Britain, but the Spanish dare to hope that they may kiss her hand. Yeah, me either. I was surprised to note how many times Zorro wielded a pistol; the writer made it clear each time that he was only balancing the odds before forcing a man to duel him unaided (at which point the pistol in his other hand becomes a liability for Zorro). The Pimpernel leaves his mark in red, but only on paper, and he uses a pen: Zorro, of course chooses a somewhat more dramatic medium and settles for a single letter.

But the biggest difference, to my mind, is in the writing. Ms. D’Orczy really reaches some literary heights with her comparisons and descriptions, whereas Mr. McCulley aims only for a riotous romp filled with action but very little scene-setting and almost no reflection. Zorro would be sword and sorcery except the entire country is imperiled by the corrupt government and cruel soldiers who run it as the story opens. He is Robin Hood without the bow, breaking the law to serve justice. Blakeney risks his life as the Pimpernel but has an entire nation to run to for safety. Zorro has only his mask and wits to hide from his enemies.

Read It Yourself

I procured a digital copy of the original book from Amazon on my laptop Kindle; the full title is Zorro: the Curse of Capistrano and Six Stories, all by Johnston McCulley. The usual missed words here and there, a couple of repeated phrases- it happens with these quick transcriptions, but I’m happier with that when it’s free than this time when I paid $2.99. . I was interested in the other tales, but oddly, while the plots were interesting the level of the writing came nowhere near that of Zorro. The tone of McCulley’s other stories runs closer to Robert E. Howard and other pulp

OK, I surrender
OK, I surrender!

writers of the day- darker, less fun, and I’m sorry to say less inspired. Again, good plots and some nice touches but overall stick with Zorro.

I was just too young to enjoy the Disney TV serial version: I can only picture Guy Williams wearing a spacesuit. I grew up expecting to see The Fox with the  bullwhip, not a pistol, alongside the rapier, and the movie-versions I’ve seen did not disappoint. Using Antonio Banderas in the most recent movies (as a “Zorro 2”) was as natural a choice as taking Michael Jordan for pick-up basketball: and as for Catherine Zeta-Jones… my Lord, what words could suffice? I really enjoyed those movies and think they truly carried the spirit of the book (in a somewhat different- certainly more explosive- setting). It’s hard to name a character from a century ago who has seen more rebirths on film, TV, comics and elsewhere.

Sure, But Can It Work In Your Tale?

In “straight” heroic and epic fantasy, the characters seldom resort to disguise or secret identity. Frodo and Sam try to sneak into Mordor wearing orc armor, and sometimes one of Arthur’s knights or Robin Hood would don a disguise for adventure. But to create another character or persona is rare- as a fantasy author, you have enough to do introducing a new person (and his or her world) to your readers, without layering on more! This is one reason Feldspar in Fencing Reputation can get away with his many guises- no one around him in the city of Cryssigens would consider hiding their “real” selves, they spend all their time and money advertizing exactly who they are for fame and influence. So the infamous stealthic can adopt not just one, but a dozen guises and no one is the wiser- including Feldspar, who comes to have a bit of an identity crisis in the tale when he decides to “just be himself”.

Secret identity as usually seen in the comics provides the hero with a safety-valve, a way to interact with people without endangering their lives, and sometimes a chance to collect information which they then use in hero-guise. Also, wearing spandex all day can raise issues in the mall bathroom. Finally, we’ve seen themes in the comics lately to indicate that if heroes “came out” on a more full-time basis, the world itself would react and change: becoming more of a straight fantasy or sci-fi setting. Keeping a hero under wraps and letting a regular guy do the work allows the author to stay grounded in a “default real world” background, and limits dreaded world-building to a minimum (things like hiding the lair, managing the costume change).  There could easily be fantasy stories where evil has run so far amok that a secret identity would be useful to the hero.

I’d be interested to hear your recollections of such instances in “pure” fantasy.