Tuesday, 8 January 2002

Robert Louis Stevenson: The Black Arrow

Edition: Eveleigh, Nash & Grayson, 1951 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1027

This medieval romance is one of Stevenson's minor adventure stories. Its main character is naive young noble Richard Shenton, who discovers that his guardian is in fact an evil man who murdered Richard's father and who looks to become wealthy by continually swapping sides in the Wars of the Roses. (The point of the guardianship is this. When a noble heir was orphaned, his revenues until he came of age were in the hands of his liege lord, or such guardian as he appointed; moreover, the guardian was also frequently granted the tax payable on coming of age or marriage. These rights were the subject of lucrative trade in medieval England, and were one of the crown's major sources of income.)

To a modern reader, the main obstacle in The Black Arrow and the major reason it is less well known than, say, Treasure Island, is the flowery pseudo-medieval language used in the dialogue. This is something that has gradually been toned down in historical novels during the twentieth century, until now they are usually written with characters who speak more or less colloquial modern English. This is due to a change in philosophy; it is now considered better to accessibly reproduce what it felt like to be alive at the time the novel is set than to attempt to literally recreate it, and a modern reader will react differently to the kind of language used here from the way their medieval counterpart would have done to hearing it spoken. (And, of course, there was more regional and class based differentiation between individuals when people travelled less widely; this would be extremely difficult to duplicate, even for an expert in dialect development. Writers like Scott, Morris, Stevenson and so on didn't attempt to do this, and gave their characters dialogue based on a romanticised version of the formal speeches in medieval poetry - at least as inauthentic as modern usage.)

One of the merits of Stevenson's writing is the imperfection of his heroes. They tend to be - as Shelton is here - naive, not too bright, but with a strong moral sense; this makes them more interesting than the characters of many of the other writers of what might be termed proto-thrillers. Interestingly, when first published in serial form, The Black Arrow was more successful than Treasure Island had been; this ordering has since been reversed to leave the earlier novel as one of the classics of English popular fiction with The Black Arrow as just another novel by the same writer.

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