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The Hot Ones : SHERWOOD, By Parke Godwin (William Morrow: $20; 526 pp.)

August 04, 1991|Sue Martin | Martin is a Times staffer and frequently writes on science fiction

Parke Godwin, a terrific wordmeister, rewrites the Robin Hood legend (and just in time to join this summer's Robin Hood bandwagon) with a steady, rich hand. This is no Sherwood picnic, or a rush job full of short sentences and chapters, zip and merry men. This is a hefty, thoughtful novel that puts you squarely into the muck and smoke of 11th-Century villages and sieges. Godwin's research and his ability to bring the story to life are gratifying. If you haven't seen the movie, this might just be the next best thing to being there.

All the regulars from the legend are here, with some of the names changed slightly: Little John (John Littlerede), the Sheriff of Nottingham (Ralf Fitz-Gerald), Lady Marian, Will Scarlett (Will Scatloch), Friar Tuck and Much the Miller, whose act of thievery in Sherwood sets Robin off on the road of outlawry.

And Robin Hood himself is now born Edward Aelredson of Denby, nicknamed Robin after that puckish forest sprite, Robin Goodfellow.

What's different about this tale is that it's set a good hundred years earlier than the common legend has it. Godwin's tale takes place in and around the years of the decisive Battle of Hastings in 1066, when William the Conqueror set his Norman heel to Saxon lands and laws. So there are no Crusades, no Richard the Lionheart, no wicked Prince John. And Robin Hood, though a "thane"--a landholder--is not really a Saxon noble. What we have is the more believable and raw clash between cultures: French/Norman knights, with their heavy armor and horses and codes of honor, against the more earthy, practical, arrow-shooting, ambushing Saxons whose codes are those of the Danes/Vikings.

But they are England. And they fight throughout this novel to throw off William as he steadily, and at great cost, pulls the ragged ends of Englishmen (and Scots) under his sway to rule from Winchester with the help of his Queen Mathilda.

Godwin follows Robin from late childhood to just after the birth of his son Edward, a period of a dozen years or so. During this time, we get a very clever ambush to rob the wealthy Osmund, Bishop of Nottingham; the constant harrying of Ralf Fitz-Gerald's troops searching for Robin and his men (of whom there are only five) in Sherwood Forest; the legendary archery tournament with the winner receiving the golden arrow, and then, at the end of the book, an uneasy but necessary alliance with his nemesis Fitz-Gerald to help put down a rebellion against William by Saxon nobles.

This aspect of the story is a little disappointing, as it takes away the heat and edge between outlaw Robin and the law in the form of the sheriff. Godwin makes the alliance a practical, even noble cause, but even the irony of this alliance is a bit of a letdown. Nor do we get the whole story. There's another book coming to conclude the tale, "The Conscience of the King."

What's missing is the flash, the dash, the spirit of the cinematic Robins. A legend should be legendary, otherwise he's just another bloke in a tale. Making Robin Hood more real is a wonderful idea, and as executed here, a real achievement. But the danger, and excitement are in meager supply.

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