Interviews in Sherwood

THERESA TOMLINSON

Conducted and transcribed by Allen W. Wright

Originally from North Yorkshire, children's author Theresa Tomlinson now lives in Sheffield, Yorkshire [Robin's legendary birthplace Loxley has been absorbed by this city].  She writes writes fiction for young adults using the history and folklore of various Yorkshire locations -- including Cleveland, Whitby and Sheffield -- as well as the neighbouring Derbyshire.  In 1993, she wrote The Forestwife, a young adult novel starring Marian.  Two sequels were published, Child of the May [1998] and The Path of the She-Wolf [2000].  Click here to go to Theresa Tomlinson's official website.

This interview was conducted via e-mail on August 25, 2001.

AWW:     Growing up in Yorkshire, what was your first exposure to the Robin Hood legend?

The UK Forestwife cover TT:      My earliest memories of Robin Hood are the weekly television series with Richard Greene, which I think was shown all over the UK. I can still remember the theme tune and it was one of the highlights of our week. I can remember my brother being taken to the cinema to see the Errol Flynn film, and I was very jealous. I think I was taken to see a ballet instead,  as  Robin Hood was thought to be more of a boys' thing at the time.

            The Yorkshire influence came in fairly early because as a young child we lived just north of Whitby and outings to Robin Hood's Bay were quite regular. I think it was my grandfather who first told me the story of Simon Wise (he was full of local stories that still give me inspiration now) The story goes that a man who called himself Simon Wise, took refuge in a small fishing town called Bay Town and made friends with the fishermen. He went out fishing with the men, even though he wasn't very good at it. One day the boat was attacked by French pirates, Simon Wise took up his bow and a quiver full of arrows and got his friends to tie him to the mast (I suppose to steady himself) and he shot every pirate who tried to come aboard the fishing boat. At last the remaining crew members capitulated and handed over the pirate boat and its contents, which turned out to be stacked with gold. However, Simon gave all the money away to poor fisherfolk in the area and returned to his native country, which was Barnsdale. Simon was really Robin Hood and the town became named after him. This was my grandfather's version. Since then I've heard many other explanations of how the town got its name.

AWW:    I gather you played Robin Hood and Marian adventures as a child. Could you please talk a bit about that? What Robin Hood experiences have you had with your own children?

TT:    As a young child I lived in a village, with a field across the road from our house. My brother and I would go into the field and make homemade bows and arrows, which were pretty good and we could actually shoot them. I also loved dressing up as Maid Marian. (The theme of disguise that runs through many of the legends has always fascinated me.)

Little John's grave in Hathersage, Derbyshire       By the time that I had my own children, we lived in Sheffield and that opened up a whole new interest in Robin Hood and the question as to whether the outlaw could have come from Sheffield? The film Prince of Thieves came along and my youngest son became obsessed with Robin Hood and also learnt to make himself bows and arrows. He was eventually given a real, craftsmen-made bow by his uncle. We had many outings to visit Sherwood Forest, Ollerton, Nottingham and most local to us, Little John's Grave at Hathersage. It was something that we could both enjoy together, each on our own level.

AWW:    What's the centuries-long attraction of characters like Robin and Marian?

TT:    For me the attraction is that Robin Hood is the hero of the common folk. In all my writing I find that the people at the bottom of the pile are the most interesting. Though Marian has often been depicted as an aristocrat, I wanted to look at other more earthy possibilities for her. I also wanted my version of Robin to be more rugged. Michael Praed was lovely, but so clean and handsome. I based my image of Robert loosely on Bob Geldof - I saw him as rebellious, scruffy, awkward and moody, but touched by a deep sense of compassion and a need to fight for justice.

AWW:    What do you think about Marian's traditional role in the modern legend?

TT:    I usually find it boring. As a girl I wanted to identify with Marian, but the gentle, ladylike image that most books and films gave throughout my childhood was disappointing. (Rosemary Sutcliffe's Marian was an influential exception to this.) In recent years I think things have improved. 'Marion' in the Robin of Sherwood series was more interesting and also in 'Prince of Thieves,' but the character that interested me most in that film was Fanny, Little John's wife. I thought, yes... there would be tough peasant women like her, who'd have gone along with their men when they were outlawed and lived rough with them, struggling to raise children at the same time. I wanted to take that idea further.

North American Forestwife cover, illustration by Dennis Nolan AWW:    Usually a "strong" Marian seems little different from the other Merry Men. Your Marian, however, is quite different. How did you come to create her and her own band of friends?

TT:    First of all I wanted her to be strong in a very female way and not just an honorary man, that is why she is a healer and a midwife and a very good food provider. She will fight if she really has to, but doesn't enjoy it . I didn't want her to be just a token woman, so that is why she needed her own gang of friends. I looked at Robin Hood's traditional band and used that as a starting point. Phillipa is rather like Little John, Mother Veronica and the rebellious nuns are like Friar Tuck, Lady Matilda and Isabel are like Sir Richard at the Lee, Emma is a little like Much. The sheriff's wife has always played her part in the story when Robin Hood disguises himself as a potter and goes to Nottingham, but she isn't usually made into a very lively character, so I tried to do that in Child of the May.

AWW:     Your characters are excellent role models for young people, particularly young girls. What do you think is the importance of role models?

TT:    I'm glad that you think they are good role models. As with most writers, I think my own values come through into the story and that is natural and bound to happen. What seems to me to be important is that young people read widely and have the opportunity to consider many different role models and ways of life, so that they can make up their own minds about what is right for them.

AWW:    A lot of historical events are mentioned in the Forestwife trilogy, and in your other books as well. How do you work history into fiction?

TT:    I decided to place my Forestwife stories at the time of Kings Richard and John, as that seems to be the most popular modern tradition. I thought that the story idea was different enough without me trying to set it in another time. I started to study historical events during these two reigns and found that the real return of Richard from captivity was pretty dramatic. I thought that the outlaws involvement with Bishop Hugh of Northumberland seemed plausible and fitted well. (At one time Bishop Hugh's critics accused him of 'harbouring outlaws'.) I later became very fascinated by the real history of William de Braose and his wife Matilda, who were persecuted by King John. Again, I felt that it was a bit of real history that fitted well with my story and interest in medieval women. In the third book Path of the She-Wolf, it seemed very natural to extend this interest into the time of Magna Carta. Giles de Braose was William's brother. He was Bishop of Hereford and one of the leaders of the Magna Carta rebellion.

            Importance of history - Though I have no qualifications as a historian, I do find that I'm more and more interested by what has happened in the past. If we understand what has gone before and how people have coped with terrible hardships, it might help us to deal better with our own lives and problems.

AWW:    You also focus on the role of women in history, something that is often sadly neglected. Did you have any special challenges in using this aspect of history?

TT:    Early on in my 'Forestwife' project I almost gave up, when I realized that the earliest ballads had no Maid Marian in them. However, reading books on Medieval Women brought me back on track. Women in Medieval Life by Margaret Wade Labarge was  perhaps the most important. She describes the lives of Medieval women in detail, including nuns, peasants and healers and she has a whole chapter on 'Women on the fringe' including outlaws. She claims that women who stepped out of line were punished more harshly than men, as it was felt to be more threatening to society if a woman misbehaved. Reading this and other books on the subject encouraged me to return to the story and do my best to make it reflect the real lives of medieval women. I do feel that women's history is rather hidden, but find that when you look closely enough at any time, you find that the women are there and often their role is very interesting. At the moment I'm writing another trilogy about how the Amazon women played a role in the Trojan War. (Title - The Moonriders)  This aspect of the story is rarely focused on, but when I started to investigate I found that there is a lot of information on the subject, going right back to classical times.

AWW:    Most of your stories use Yorkshire folklore. As you live in Robin Hood's Yorkshire, what is the importance of place in the Forestwife trilogy?

The North American cover for Child of the May, illustrated by Dennis Nolan TT:    First of all I love writing about places that I know well as I find that I am never lost for description or detail, and I think the finished effect is usually more vivid. I also love studying local history. As I've lived in Sheffield for 28 years I feel pretty loyal to the school of thought that Robin Hood could have come from Hallamshire [the old name for the area which contains Sheffield and Loxley]. Where I live we have an old pub just round the corner that's called The Robin Hood, I have discovered that the previous building that stood there in the 1600's was called The Robin Hood and Little John. The road that leads away from it is Archer Rd, and close by Beachief Abbey has ancient woodland that some historians claim was once linked to Sherwood. One of the Abbots  was the retired Sheriff of Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire. None of this is proof of a Robin Hood connection, but it all feeds the imagination and when you are writing fiction, part of the joy of it is that you can put what you want to be true into your stories. I don't think there should be too much disagreement as to whether Robin Hood came from Sheffield or Nottingham as it seems to me that common sense tells you that outlaws might use both areas and travel about quite a lot. From my studies on Richard the Lionheart and the way he travelled the country at great speed, I come to the conclusion that medieval journeys might not have been as difficult as we think, especially if you wouldn't hesitate to steal horses or might have the sympathy of the local peasant population!

AWW:    The Forestwife also ties in the mythical elements of the Green Man and a female counterpart, the Green Lady.  Could you please elaborate a bit on this area of folklore?

TT:    I very much enjoyed the mystical 'Herne the Hunter' aspect of the Robin of Sherwood series. I'd read theories claiming that Robin Hood stories were really folk mythology about a nature spirit, the Green Man. I had the idea that it might work well if both my Marian and Robert had a mystical side to them, which comes from their belief in the Green Man and the Green Lady. They use nature, but they respect it too. They kill the deer, not for fun but for food and then they organize a ritual dance to honour the deer and give thanks. If anyone would like to know more about this I'd recommend Robin Hood - Green Lord of the Wildwood, a book by John Matthews. This suggests that Robin Hood is really a semi-divine embodiment of the life-force of the land, whose spirit lives on in the stories. Green Man carvings are still to be seen in many English churches and a few Green Ladies too! I also believe that at the time when my story is set, ancient pagan beliefs still ran alongside Christianity fairly peaceably. That's why I have my rebellious nuns, (who I see as good Christians) working together with those who still celebrate the turning of the seasons in a more pagan way.

AWW:    Why did you chose to jump forward 15 years for Child of the May, and to focus on a new character? Marian says that Magda reminds her of her younger self. What do you think the differences between the characters are?

TT:    My plan was to cover the whole lifespan of Marian and Robert, so time had to move on. I jumped fifteen years so that Magda (little John's daughter) would be a new teenage character for young people to identify with, also that timing fitted well with the story of Matilda de Braouse, which I'd become very interested in. I think the two characters of Marian  and Magda are similar as they are adopted mother and daughter, but Magda has been brought up in the woods and wastes with all the skills that she needs in that environment, whereas Marian was the other way round, she had to learn to survive in the woods. Magda is more self confident from an early age and more willing to say what she wants and please herself. Marian develops a strong sense of duty to those about her and she almost always puts that first.

AWW:      The third book in the series, The Path of the She-Wolf, does not appear to be available in North America. Are there any plans to release it?

The cover for The Path of the She-Wolf TT:    This is a rather sad problem for me. The USA publishers felt that I had made the third part of the trilogy more adult than the first two books and, therefore, didn't take it on. I haven't given up hope that it will eventually be published in USA, but there are no plans for it at the moment. At the same time I have a another problem, The Forestwife is now out of print in UK though I still hope it will be reprinted. I suppose these are the sort of difficulties that most sequel writers come up against at times and there seems to be little that I can do to put it right.

AWW:   I think The Forestwife can be enjoyed by all ages.  How do you think writing young adult fiction differs from writing fiction strictly for adults? Or writing for even younger audiences?

TT:    In a way this relates to the question above. When I am writing for young adults e.g. The Forestwife,  I simply write for myself and this seems to be as adult as I can get (Perhaps this means that I'm childlike or maybe young at heart!) However ... perhaps there are times when this method does overstep the boundary as far as ageing books for the market is concerned, so that a story sometimes develops a slightly more adult theme. I'm afraid this is the only way that I know how to be sincere for this age group and I do believe that teenagers want well written, fast moving stories that do explore adult themes. I love to have a book for younger children on the go at the same time. If I get tired of one manuscript, I just flip over to the other. Writing for younger children is a relief at times, as I feel that anything magical can happen and the simplicity that's acceptable for the younger age range is a pleasant change.

AWW:    What kind of response have you had with the Forestwife series?

TT:    I have had a very enthusiastic response from young girls in USA and I do get quite a lot of letters and emails about the two books that are published there. There has not been such a good response from the UK. I don't know why this is. I think it doesn't help that the first book of the trilogy is out of print at the moment.

 AWW:     Is there anything else you would like to add?

TT:   No , I think your questions have covered everything that is important, and I've been pleased to have an opportunity to do this.

AWW:    Thanks very much for your informative answers.

Interview (c) Copyright 2001 -- Allen W. Wright

Please visit Theresa Tomlinson's Official Website.

Please check out my Robin Hood Spotlight review of The Forestwife.

For those interested in the ballad about Robin Hood's time as a fisherman, which Theresa mentioned, check out Robin Hood's Fishing at the Robin Hood Project at the University of Rochester.  The ballad is preceded by a scholarly introduction by Stephen Knight and Thomas H. Ohlgren.

NEW!! -- THE FORESTWIFE TRILOGY by Theresa Tomlinson. Available in the UK only, this collects all three Forestwife books (slightly revised) into one big edition. And hey, my website is mentioned in the afterword. Thanks, Theresa. Buy it on Amazon.co.uk

Buy The Forestwife (book 1) on Amazon.com
Buy The Forestwife on Amazon.co.uk

Buy Child of the May (book 2) on Amazon.com

Buy Child of the May on Amazon.co.uk

Buy The Path of the She-Wolf (book 3) on Amazon.co.uk


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