Interviews in Sherwood

Michael Cadnum

Interview conducted and transcribed
by Allen W. Wright


Michael Cadnum is an award-winning poet and novelist who currently lives in Albany, California, USA. His Robin Hood-themed novel In a Dark Wood (Orchard Books, 1998) featured a positive and engaging portrayal of the Sheriff of Nottingham. In 2002, a sequel Forbidden Forest: The Story of Little John and Robin Hood focused on Robin's right-hand man.

He has published several works of poetry and over a dozen novels, many historical or mythological in nature. These include the Crusader trilogy -- Book of the Lion (2000), The Leopard Sword (2002) and The Dragon Throne (2005) --, Nightsong: The Legend of Orpheus and Eurydice (2006) and The King's Arrow (2008) which is set around King William II's mysterious death in the New Forest. His 2009 Peril on the Sea is set during the time of the Spanish Armada.

Click here to go to Michael Cadnum's official website.

This interview was conducted via e-mail in October 2008.

A forest epiphany

AWW:    When did you first encounter the legend of Robin Hood?

MC:     I experienced something of an epiphany.

            I was hiking in the redwood forests east of Oakland, California, probably in the early Seventies. I was cheerfully losing myself among the lofty woodland, a sanctuary quite in contrast to the urban grid of Oakland proper and the metropolitan East Bay. This forest is all second growth redwood, the grandfather giants having been cut down in the Nineteenth Century, but the woodland had long ago recovered. The trees are tall and full of life, and the woods are the kind of place where the call of a jay or the chattering of a woodpecker echo can come from many different directions at once.

           And a vivid sense of Robin Hood, and the Robin Hood tales, came over me. It was not quite as though a figure in green stepped from behind a tree and accosted me, but the event could not have been more profound if he had.

           I write poetry, as you may know, and poets are sometimes given over to such experiences, Our work would have little value to people in general if it was not rooted in flashes of understanding or instant moments of enlightenment.

           But this sense of Robin Hood and his tales arrested me. And in the years that followed, this feeling stayed with me, and moved me to visit the remnants of Sherwood Forest in England, and to wander the byways of Yorkshire, and to read like a man on a mission, seeking everything I could discover about the famous outlaw.

            In A Dark Wood and Forbidden Forest were both the direct result of this exploration.

Sticking with the early legend

AWW:    In Forbidden Forest, you credit Dobson and Taylor's Rymes of Robyn Hood. Both your novels draw largely from the earliest Robin Hood traditions. Marian and Tuck don’t appear. You’ve included Red Roger as an enemy. And much of In a Dark Wood is based on the Robin Hood and the Potter ballad. Why did you stick mainly to the earlier versions of Robin Hood?

MC:    I sought to pare the legends down to the truest, earliest sources. This is the way I proceed in much of the rest of my creative life, cutting my writing and reworking poems, cooking the language down to the basic essence. It was quite natural for me to approach Robin Hood this way.

           Furthermore, if you decide, as I did, that the Robin Hood story most happily inhabits a time period around the late Twelfth or early Thirteen Centuries, much of the usual Robin Hood lore evaporates. There would have been no Franciscans in England during that time--Saint Francis had not yet established his order. That eliminates Friar Tuck. And Maid Marian is a late addition to the myth, according to many historians, so she vanishes, too, and I am left with a muscular, lively Robin Hood myth, and a lean Robin Hood himself, ready for adventure.

           It is important to note here that I believe that there was an actual, true-life Robin Hood. My instinct was that the earlier the story, the more likely it was to be, if not literally true, certainly one that might have originated during or shortly after the life of the actual outlaw.

           I hope you can sense with me the great thrill that this approach gave me--I was actually reading and reworking tales about a living adventurer. And creating new, plausible exploits for him, too. One of the joys of writing In A Dark Wood and Forbidden Forest was to share the delight I felt in conjuring an outlaw who was not so romantic, and not the stuff of legend, but who acted and sounded real.

A modern Sheriff of Nottingham

AWW:   Robin sums up Geoffrey, your Sheriff of Nottingham, and how he defies expectations:

"Forgive me, my good lord sheriff, but you are an amazing creature. A talking mute! A seeing blind man! A dead man with moving arms and legs."
"I am glad I please you."
"I expected a burly man, a man who was cruel but also fiery. A man filled with fury and hatred. I expected a man of muscle and little wit."
Geoffrey tasted his wine. "And?"
"And I get a dry man."
      --In A Dark Wood, p. 141

Geoffrey is different from the modern portrayal of the sheriff, but not merely because he is not the villain of the novel nor especially cruel. The Robin Hood of the ballads is often a trickster figure, but in films such as Prince of Thieves, the sheriff seems to have taken over that role. Why did you make the sheriff someone who champions duty over adventure?

MC:    I did not consciously calculate my treatment of the sheriff, but it is easy and reasonable to follow what my instincts were.

           I assumed that if I cleared away much of the extra lore that surrounded the Robin Hood story, the way you knock the mud off a boot, you’d get a clearer, more well-defined legend. So I think I took the same cheerful skepticism I used on the legend in general and put it to work on the sheriff.

           I have long enjoyed reading Middle English, and I am a happy student of the Middle Ages in general. I knew that lawmen sometimes tortured suspects, and that criminal punishment was often severe and dramatic. But I knew that a sheriff would usually be a man who was more intelligent than most of his fellow townspeople, and one who had some administrative powers that set him apart from, say, millers and potters.

            Furthermore, I fell in love with the idea of creating a modern character, a man who was a gifted manager, who admired justice, and enjoyed the paperwork and the thought that went into being fair. And I plunked him down into a time period in which cruelty was often admired, and in which courage was defined by the ability to kill. My sheriff is the kind of man you and I would like to work for, if need be--a capable administrator. He is a good-hearted man, with women troubles and a difficult wife. He is one of us.

           And I knew that Robin Hood, if he met such an individual, would come to recognize his virtues. I think Robin Hood is pleasantly surprised to discover that, in the long run, the sheriff has characteristics the outlaw admires, and the same is true for my sheriff. He will ultimately accept the existence of Robin Hood, not because he is weak, but because he is wise.

           This leads me to a point I think we sometimes overlook as readers, and as human beings. We are not the same at the end of a day as we were at the beginning. Characters who are complex and interesting are not the same at the end of a story as they were at the start.

           Robin Hood is changed by his encounters with the sheriff, and while this is hard to quantify, we can sense that that sheriff, too, is altered and made more of a judge of human events by his troubles with the men of the greenwood.

           The sheriff makes a brief but key appearance in the first book of my Crusader trilogy, by the way. In the Book of the Lion we observe Sheriff Geoffrey judging the case of a counterfeiter’s apprentice, and agreeing that the young man should join King Richard’s crusade rather than face more harsh, much bleaker punishment. This is the sheriff as we have come to know him--a man whose careful nature has been burnished by his awareness of Robin Hood.

A zest for history

AWW:    What are you working on now?

MC:   Because of my experience with the Robin Hood legends, I have developed a zest for exploring historical events and knocking the excess off them, chipping away at the dross to get at the core--to the actual, living essence of what really happened.

           My most recent novel is Peril on the Sea, a story that takes place during the sea battles of the Spanish Armada. I asked myself the same kinds of questions I asked regarding Robin Hood. What really happened? And what would it be like to actually be there?

            The answers I have discovered make for an exciting experience for the writer--and I believe for the reader, too. I am enjoying putting the finishing touches on this new novel. Peril on the Sea should appear with Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2009.

AWW:    Thanks very much for your very thoughtful answers.

Order books by Michael Cadnum on Amazon

IN A DARK WOOD by Michael Cadnum. This novel is from the point of view of the Sheriff of Nottingham. The Sheriff, Geoffrey, is a more positive figure than most versions of the legend would suggest. A solidly written tale that takes its inspiration in part from the ballad Robin Hood and the Potter. (A similar concept was once considered for what became the 2010 Robin Hood film.) .
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FORBIDDEN FOREST: The Story of Little John and Robin Hood by Michael Cadnum. This follow-up novel focuses on Robin's chief lieutenant.
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THE BOOK OF THE LION by Michael Cadnum. The first book in The Crusader Trilogy features a cameo by the sheriff.
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THE KING'S ARROW by Michael Cadnum. This novel is based around the death of King William II aka William Rufus.
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PERIL ON THE SEA: THE NOVEL by Michael Cadnum. This novel is set during the time of the Spanish Armada.
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In a Dark Wood cover art by Kari Kroll, Forbidden Forest cover art by Martin French Cover art is used without permission for the purpose of criticism and review
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