Sunday, February 3, 2008

Review: The Black Arrow

The Black Arrow. By Robert Louis Stevenson. New York: Airmont Publishing Company, Inc., 1963. 256 pages.

With the War of the Roses as its backdrop, The Black Arrow blends the romance of young love and the excitement of its hero's initiation into war and politics. The theme of loyalty runs throughout—loyalty to parents, guardians, leaders, followers, lovers, and oneself.

England's loyalties are divided between Lancaster and York, although the distinction makes little difference to the country's more practical citizens. "It is the ruin of this kind land," a woman said. "If the barons live at war, ploughfolk must eat roots." When the naive young hero, Richard Shelton, reassures her that men "cannot better die than for their natural lord," another man points out, "No natural lord of mine . . . I followed the Walsinghams . . . And now I must side with Brackley! It was the law that did it; call ye that natural?"

Despite young Dick's idealism, which makes him faithful to his guardian and to the men with whom he has served, despite many disturbing rumors, it soon becomes apparent that most men are loyal primarily to their self-interests, whether they seek power like Richard Crookback or favor and riches like Dick's guardian, Sir Daniel Brackley. Even the mysterious "Jon Amend-All" of the black arrow, whose objective is to revenge himself and his friends on Brackley, is found collecting rents from Brackley's cottagers, acknowledging that they will suffer the hardship of having to pay twice. The man behind "Jon Amend-All" is no beneficent Robin Hood, but as cold and crafty a political operative as Brackley himself.

Brackley's loyalties are soon explained. "I lie in Kettley till I have sure tidings of the war, and then ride to join me with the conqueror . . . Tosspot and Shuttle-wit run in, but my Lord Good-Counsel sits o' one side, waiting." As Clipsby says, "For, indeed, he is one that goes to bed Lancaster and gets up York."

Fleeing from one danger into another, Dick finally understands that he cannot trust Brackley simply because he is Dick's guardian, or even Ellis Duckworth as his savior and protector. The only person upon whom he can rely is the girl he loves, who, ironically, was intended to be his wife in one of Brackley's financial maneuvers. The black arrow flies from Tunstall Forest to Kettley, then through wetlands back through Tunstall to the Moat House and on to Shoreby, with treachery and the threat of war hanging over all.

With every adventure, Dick's loyalty turns more inward on himself and his heart's desire. He is loyal to York because Ellis Duckworth is and Daniel Brackley isn't. When he finds himself rapidly in and out of Richard Crookback's favor, he is "neither glad nor sorry." Danger and treachery transform Dick into a more mature man who recognizes that loyalty is neither won nor lost so easily or quickly. In one of the novel's strangest and weakest scenes, he proves his loyalty to his bride-to-be by rejecting the advances of her best friend, peculiar as they are.

The series of events that makes Dick a man is his theft of the Good Hope, its subsequent destruction, and the death of the captain's man, Tom. "Dick's heart smote him at what he heard. Until that moment he had not perhaps thought twice of the poor skipper who had been ruined by the loss of the Good Hope; so careless, in those days, were men who wore arms of the goods and interests of their inferiors . . ." Dick achieves his aims, but at the cost of many lives and the prosperity of the innocent Arblaster, who mourns "my man Tom" until the end of his days.

As a protagonist, Dick is refreshingly and painfully human, at least outside battle. While brave, he lacks the ability to pick up on clues that are obvious to his less-sheltered acquaintances, including those about the true nature of Jack Matcham. He suffers remorse for what he has done and begins to ask others like Ellis Duckworth to reconsider their course. He has the mercy that Richard Crookback and Brackley lack.

Whatever its historical flaws (some of which Stevenson points out in footnotes), The Black Arrow is beautifully written, with well-drawn characters, a plot that rarely stalls, realistically bloody battle scenes, and dialogue that is often poetic without being jarring. While not Stevenson's greatest effort, The Black Arrow is exciting and fun for anyone of any age who loves a solid historical drama.

Sunday, 3 February 2008.
© 2008 by Diane L. Schirf.

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