Stephen Lawhead just might have been my favorite author during my teen years. I found his unique blend of mythic fantasy and historical fiction enthralling. Probably best known for his Pendragon Cycle, an original presentation of the Arthurian mythos, much of his writing is grounded in the history and mythology of the British isles that he moved to Oxford to study. The vividness and vital detail of his historical settings is incredibly immersive and a hallmark of his work. He also openly addresses the place of Christianity in his eras of choice, but such exploration rarely feels trite or preachy, his unusual combination of druidic mysticism and Christian piety providing a fresh perspective on the faith.
I hadn’t read Lawhead in over a decade when I began his King Raven Trilogy several weeks ago. While it may not be immediately obvious from the series title, the three books—Hood, Scarlet, Tuck—are an attempt to tell an early and more historically relevant version of the Robin Hood story upon which the later legends with which we are more familiar could have been based. Set in Wales a generation or two after the Norman Invasion, the trilogy takes its name from the inhuman persona adopted by the lead protagonist after the cantref his family has governed for generations is violently ceded to a French nobleman. On the run and desperate to recover his family’s lands, he takes on the role of a demoniac phantom haunting the forest: Rhi Bran y Hud, King Raven the Enchanter.
A single story sweeps through all three books, the end of the first and second volumes leaving the plot wide open. On the whole, it’s a fairly standard hero’s journey-structured medieval adventure, but Lawhead’s historical grounding breathes that world to such vibrant life that each beat of the story seems immediate, urgent, and new. I never felt as if I was reading the same old Robin Hood legend again, though pieces of the tale were subtly and desirably familiar. (Lawhead’s longstanding practice of using older Celtic names in place of later Anglicized appellations goes a long way toward establishing that contrast.) The saga contains a healthy dose of violence (that, perhaps true to the time, never receives much moral commentary), deception, and political maneuvering as well as a couple of genuinely unexpected turns. It was, in short, a fun and remarkably cinematic read.
Lawhead’s character work is also well developed if necessarily broad at times as a result of the scope of the story. All of the primary protagonists and antagonists are well and distinctly drawn. I may not have finished my reading with any new fictional friends, but I could certainly recognize voices—from Bran’s mischievous confidence to Abbot Hugo’s arrogant ambition. All the old favorites are there, too—Little John, Friar Tuck, Will Scarlet, Maid Marion, etc.—but adapted to the story’s new setting such that they may not be recognizable at first (or even second) glance. Will Scatlocke (called Scarlet) is arguably the character the reader gets to know best since he narrates alternating chapters of the second book in first person, but fortunately he’s the character with which most readers probably would prefer to spend their time anyway. Those first person passages can be a bit jarring at first—the remainder of the trilogy (even the other chapters of book two) is narrated in third person—but they allow the reader to develop an affection for Will that’s never quite justified for any of the other characters. Bran and Tuck earned my admiration, but Will is the one for whom I found myself rooting.
If you have any interest in Robin Hood or in well-written historical fiction, the King Raven Trilogy is worth a look. I personally felt that the darker tone and historically resonant (if somewhat fantastic) scenario lent real weight to the story and the stakes involved that many of the more swashbuckling incarnations of the Robin Hood legend lack. Tonally, it’s more similar to Ridley Scott’s recent interpretation than any other, but its plot is significantly more layered and nowhere near as derivative. (Ridley, I’ll always appreciate you for Alien and Bladerunner, but I’m not sure we needed another remake of Gladiator or Braveheart.)
If the very thought of Robin Hood is abhorrent to you, and/or science fiction is more your speed, you might rather dig into Lawhead’s latest project, the Bright Empires series. I have yet to read it myself, but the five books it comprises—The Skin Map, The Bone House, The Spirit Well, The Shadow Lamp, and upcoming The Fatal Tree—combine such heady concepts as ley lines, quantum physics, and extra dimensions in an ambitious story about the true nature of our strange reality. I can’t wait to jump into them.
Stephen Lawhead has constructed an impressive bibliography at this point in his career. In addition to the books I’ve listed above, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend any of the following. I’ve read them all at one point or another and carry fond memories of each and every one. (The synopses below come from stephenlawhead.com where you can find more information about the author and his work.)
“Aidan, a ninth century Irish monk, is chosen to join a quest to the farthest reaches of the known world—the glittering city of Byzantium—there to present the Holy Roman Emperor with the magnificent illuminated Book of Kells. He becomes, by turns, a warrior and a sailor, a slave and a spy, a Viking and a Saracen—before confronting his ultimate destiny.”
The Pendragon Cycle (Taliesin, Merlin, Arthur, Pendragon, Grail, and, arguably, Avalon)
“An epic retelling of the Arthurian legends. The story of Taliesin, his son Merlin, and Merlin’s protégée Arthur is wrenched from its medieval setting and returned to the place where it must surely have originated: fifth-century Britain after the departure of the Roman armies.”
The Song of Albion trilogy (The Paradise War, The Silver Hand, The Endless Knot)
“The ancient Celts admitted no separation between this world and the Otherworld: the two were delicately interwoven, each dependent on the other. The Song of Albion crosses the thin places between this world and that, as Lewis Gillies, an American student in Oxford, comes face-to-face with an ancient mystery—and a cosmic catastrophe in the making. The last battle begins as the myths, passions, and heroism of an ancient people come to life.”
The Celtic Crusades trilogy (The Iron Lance, The Black Rood, The Mystic Rose)
“Three generations of Scottish noblemen – and one particular noblewoman. Three bloody crusades to the Holy Land. Three priceless and powerful holy relics. A sweeping saga set in the time of the Crusaders and Templars.”