The Black Arrow – A Tale of the Two Roses (Robert Louis Stevenson)

Posted: May 17, 2018 in fiction
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Let’s take a moment to remember what Stevenson has written up until this point: Treasure Island, Prince Otto, and Kidnapped. All three of these were adventure stories, written primarily for a younger, male audience. His style represents a transition from the loquaciousness of his Victorian contemporaries to the bare, “hard boiled” narration of twentieth-century genre fiction. But apparently that style hasn’t suited everyone, and before the story he references specifically “The Critic on the Hearth,” both a play on the Dickens title and an appropriate yet affectionate title for his wife. In The Black Arrow, he claims to be trying to merge his boy adventures with the type of story (and writing) that traditional novel readers enjoy – in other words, he says that he’s going to infuse some Dickens and Brontë into this one. I suppose it’s because he’s finally writing about a young man who is interested in a woman.

As the subtitle suggests, this story takes place during the Wars of the Roses, though Stevenson seems to avoid taking sides in the York/Lancaster debate. His message is at least partly that it doesn’t matter what side of a war you fight on, because in the end war is a way for the rich to get richer and the poor to die. The poor, realizing this, are hesitant to involve themselves. It doesn’t help that in a civil war of this type, the people they are fighting and killing are their friends and neighbors, all hyped up over one cause or the other. It’s not a happy world to drop your characters into. Displacing the characters in time gives Stevenson the chance to use some archaisms, but not enough to make it seem written back in the fifteenth century.

This is the story of Dick Shelton, told in five acts. In Act I, he’s a young teenager who’s more interested in fighting than in girls. In his guardian’s house he meets a young man on the opposite side, and incautiously promises to guide him to Holywood. So they run off on a secret adventure, and it’s all very homosocial and Kidnapped-esque. But this time, lest anyone think Dick is actually gay, Stevenson pulls a Shakespearean stunt and Jack Matcham is really Joan Sedley, so all those jokes that people were making about Jack being a girly boy were quite accurate. And remember, it’s okay to fall in love with someone of the same sex if they turn out to have been lying about their sex all along. They don’t quite make it to Holywood before Dick’s guardian Sir Daniel recaptures them

In Act II, Dick has to face some home truths about Sir Daniel – his guardian killed his father and persuaded him to believe it was someone else. His life and the love of his new father figure is all a lie, so he goes all rampage and joins The Black Arrow, a group of outlaw archers who live in the forest and are bent on killing Sir Daniel for having killed Dick’s father, among others. Sir Daniel has flipped sides in the war a few times, so The Black Arrow is not wedded to a white or a red rose either. They just care about avenging the wrongs of Sir Daniel and his cohorts. Dick decides that he wants to marry Joan, which is a bit of a challenge because Sir Daniel is keeping her captive so he can sell her in marriage to a rich noble. Doesn’t matter which one, so long as he’s rich and is willing to pay for a really young wife.

In Act III, Dick tries to rescue Joan the first time. He and his Arrows steal a ship and try to come around by the shore, the only ingress unguarded. A huge storm blows up and his men are too sick and scared to fight, and they come into conflict with Lord Foxham and his men. Foxham is Joan’s rightful guardian, and he’s also trying to get her back from Sir Daniel. After they end the first battle, Foxham and Dick team up. They try again, and are unsuccessful again. This time Foxham is seriously wounded and has to go recuperate for a long time. The message here? (1) You’re not going to get the girl and resolve the action in Act III of a five-act play, and (2) Stealing boats is not the right way to go about doing anything.

In Act IV, Dick teams up with the only guy who kept his head during the storm at sea. They disguise themselves as friars to sneak into Sir Daniel’s but they just end up captured and needing to break out again. Dick does meet up with Joan for a short time, but they are quickly separated. We also meet her friend Alicia, Lord Risingham’s niece. Both girls are kind of badass, but hindered by the gender roles of their time. It’s hard to run in a medieval princess dress. At least they didn’t have to wear those cone hats with the veils.

Act V. Dick ditches Lawless and becomes an officer under the Duke of Gloucester, he who will become King Richard III. Gloucester is presented as ruthless and efficient, but still young. Reading Shakespeare I always pictured Richard III as an older man, but when he died he was five years younger than I am now, so maybe young and stupid was always part of his problem. He never outgrew the adolescent need to see everything in terms of black and white. Dick does well with a barricade and is knighted, then drops from favor just as quickly when he pisses Richard off. He saves the girl, forgives the bad guy (but in forgiving holds him in one place long enough for the leader of The Black Arrow to shoot him), and they almost all live happily ever after. Well, until their natural deaths. There is no living ever after in a story set four hundred years before it’s written.

If there’s a big lesson here, it’s that Dick has to learn that his actions have consequences. He’s so focused on his goal of saving the girl that he bumbles around doing shitty things to other people and being surprised when they respond negatively, and when they turn back up in town and respond negatively again. The story takes place in and around one town; it’s kind of dumb to think that people are going to just go away. There is a war on, but you can’t expect the people you don’t like to die and the people you do like to live. Life isn’t that tidy.

So. Did Stevenson succeed? Well, he finally does have realistic female characters, and Dick realizes that he’s turned on by a girl who’s going to call him out on his shit, but this is still the same kind of adventure story he’s been writing before. The girls are awesome, but we don’t get to see them much. They’re damsels in distress, but that distress is mainly caused by the fact that they can’t wear trousers or take fencing lessons. Given the chance, I’m sure they could manage their own problems. There’s an independence of mind that Stevenson’s previous novels haven’t afforded women, so in that sense this book is a step forward. People who read novels for psychological studies and mature themes are still going to be disappointed; it’s still aimed at the younger male audience, full of unnecessary violence and idiotic attempts at heroism. I suppose that could be another message, don’t set people up as heroes because they’re as fallible as you and will inevitably let you down. But it’s an early Stevenson novel, fun in a late Victorian sort of a way.

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