Michael Cadnum,
In a Dark Wood
(Puffin, 1999)

This is not your typical Robin Hood tale. There are no merry, carefree outlaws, triumphantly fooling a remarkably stupid and greedy Sheriff of Nottingham; nor is there a clear division between good and evil. No. What In a Dark Wood has are subtleties, textures, shades. It explores in depth the characters of the traditional legend, reducing both hero and villain from their overblown stereotypes to what they would have been: men.

Through an untraditional perspective on the tale -- Geoffrey's, the Sheriff of Nottingham -- Michael Cadnum makes real a story that has often seemed bombastic and hopelessly romanticized. In a Dark Wood is chiefly an exploration of the Sheriff's relationships with those around him: his unloving wife, his impudent fool, his squire, the woods around him, the highwayman Robin Hood and, most importantly, himself. These are crafted with great care and delicacy, and though some of the traditional adventures of the myth are present, they are not there for heroism, but rather as a means of slowly improving the sheriff's understanding and tolerance.

Robin Hood appears infrequently, but his importance in changing the sheriff is shown throughout the novel. He is mostly important in relation to the sheriff, rather than as an archer or a noble thief. This is truly Geoffrey's story.

The language is marvelous. The metaphors and similes are done so well that they allow the reader to visualize every vibrant image, and yet are never superfluous or flowery. While Cadnum does not skirt around the brutality of medieval life, the complete picture he creates of it gives it an undeniable vitality and resonance, which has its own peculiar type of beauty. The details of daily life in a medieval society are plentiful, but manage to fully recreate its conditions without weighing down the book in unnecessary and awkward historical insertions.

In a Dark Wood is similar to other novels in some ways -- in its sympathetic treatment of a traditional villain, it is a little like Donna Jo Napoli's fairy tale retellings; in its well-crafted medieval setting, a little like John Morressy's The Juggler; in its willingness to look at both beauty and ugliness in a world, a little like Cynthia Voigt's Kingdom series. Though those who liked these books will probably also enjoy In a Dark Wood, it remains unique altogether, both as a Robin Hood retelling and as a novel. It is unforgettable, and I only regret that it is so little known.

by Jennifer Mo
3 June 2006

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