Interviews in Sherwood

Michael Morpurgo

Interview conducted and transcribed
by Allen W. Wright


Michael Morpurgo has written over 100 children's books and has been awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire) for his services to British literature. He also served as the UK's Children's Laureate from 2003 - 2005. He is perhaps best-known for War Horse, which was adapted to the stage by the National Theatre and into a 2011 film directed by Steven Spielberg. Michael Morpurgo and his wife Clare founded the charity Farms for City Children. His book Robin of Sherwood was published in 1996 (with illustrations by Michael Foreman) and re-published in 2012 under the new title Outlaw: The Story of Robin Hood.

Visit Michael Morpurgo's Official Website

This interview was conducted by email in April and May 2012.

Legendary inspiration

AWW:    What versions of the Robin Hood legend most inspired you and why -- both in childhood and in writing Robin of Sherwood/Outlaw?

MM:      I went back to the early poem, probably 14th century and read the fits (verses) that tell the story. This was as close as I could get to even earlier versions, orally told, of which of course there is no trace. Early tellings are bleak, and end, not with Robin and Maid Marion (a later invention to sugar the pill) getting married in Sherwood Forest, but with the leaching to death of Robin Hood by a prioress. Knowing he was dying he asks his friend Little John to help him shoot his last arrow out of the window. Where it lands, says he, there you must bury me and plant an oak tree over my grave. It was from this ancient ending that I took the beginning of my story - the great oak, hundreds of years later, blown over in a storm, roots ripped up to reveal the arrowhead and bones.

[He is likely referring to the ballad A Gest of Robyn Hood which appears in several printed editions circa 1500 and contains many plot elements that appear in the modern legend. It concludes with a brief account of Robin's death at the hands of the prioress. This was expanded in the ballad Robin Hood's Death. Click here to read two versions of Robin Hood's Death and the related section of the Gest. - AWW]

AWW:    What do you think are the most enduring and appealing aspects of Robin Hood? What makes it unique from the many other legends you've explored in your books?

MM:      I think the reason Robin Hood resonates all around the world, and many cultures have their own legends of such a folk hero, is because the fight against tyranny on behalf of the poor, the struggle against injustice and oppression, is universal in its appeal.

Darker themes

AWW:    One of the things that struck me the most of about the book is how dark it could be. Violence, death and loss were a pervasive part of Robin of Sherwood/Outlaw right from the beginning with the storm and the fallen tree. Why did you emphasize that aspect of the legend? And how do you approach weaving those dark themes into a tale for children?

MM:      It is of course not a children's tale but a tale for everyone. Children though do understand right from wrong, and can readily see that oppression by the rich of the poor has to be resisted. The Sheriff of Nottingham is a bully. Children know about bullies just as grown-up children do, and we all know that in the end we have to stand up and fight for what we believe. Robin Hood in my story does just that. Such a struggle involves violence, it always has done.

AWW:    The depiction of the "Merry Men" (Outlaws in the 2012 edition and Outcasts in the original 1996 edition) as actually physically distinct - such as an Albino Marion and hunchback Will Scarlett - is strikingly different from the usual versions. It has a dark fairy tale feeling to it, but also seems to touch on something else. How did you come up with this depiction?

MM:      I came across the stories of the Cagots in South West France, a group of people very often distinguished by the whiteness of their hair, the foreshortened fingers and their lack of earlobes. Historically they were treated as a race apart. They even had their own separate door to come into church and sit separately, and they were made to live outside town walls. Throughout history in most societies there have been outcast groups like this, Gypsies, Jews amongst them. These have always been the most downtrodden, and it was therefore from such groups that I felt Robin would have recruited many of his supporters. Merry Men they were not.

AWW:    Why the change in nomenclature - from Outcasts to Outlaws - in the different editions?

MM:      I felt that in the first edition there had been too much emphasis on their being outcasts rather than Outlaws, actually it came to the same thing in the end, and I felt Outlaw was a more understandable way to describe them.

AWW:    How did you work on weaving the different Robin Hood stories into a new work, and was the process different from your other books on legends, such as your Arthurian novel?

MM:      I think the process was very similar in the sense I was able to select from the many, many stories of Robin, as I did of Arthur, those tales which seemed to suit the central character I had created and the motivation for doing what he did. And indeed there are aspects of the story which are absolutely my own and invented.

AWW:    Were there any aspects of the legend which you wanted to avoid when writing Robin of Sherwood/Outlaw?

MM:      As with so many legends the problem is to strip away those adaptations which seem to me to have corrupted the original to such an extent that the spirit of the ancient tale is altogether abandoned. So it seemed to me that the struggle for freedom that Robin embarks upon should not have a trite ending, (with Sean Connery riding into the forest as Richard Lion Heart to give his royal blessing to Robin and Marion's marriage.) I felt the ending should be as harsh as the rest of the story. After all he was a resistance fighter, and to die in the struggle seemed to me to be more in keeping. The Disney adaptation is fine in its own way - witty and good tunes, but if that is all that we now know of Robin Hood, that seems to be a pity, actually more than a pity.

[The return of the king dates from the aforementioned Gest ballad, where the king is called Edward. Outlaw returns to the original tradition in having Robin's leave the king's service. You can read that section of the Gest and the later ballad also featuring the king's return by following this link. - AWW]

Engaging children

AWW:    Some of your medieval-themed children's books, such as Outlaw, Arthur - High King of Britain and Sparrow -begin with children in the present day. Do you think this is an essential part of connecting modern readers with tales of long ago?

MM:      I don't think that it is essential, but I do think that it is critically important to engage children of today with legend and history. It's their legend, their history. The Victorian writers, and many writers since, have used these ancient legends almost as instruction manuals for young people. Instructing children doesn't really work any more, they are more inclined to make up their own minds about things. So stories from the dusty past can seem, if we are not careful, simply that. The truth is they are such good stories for all of us, for all times, that to make them engaging to a new generation we have to be as inventive as we can. I felt that one way of doing that is to take a young person of today by the hand and connect them with the legends and stories of the past. Actually I do that quite a lot with stories I have written about the very recent past, as with my retellings of the legends of more ancient worlds.

AWW:    I thought Michael Foreman's wonderful illustrations in the 1996 edition complemented the story. How do you collaborate with your artists?

MM:      Michael Foreman is a good friend. We work very closely together on all our projects. We have done nearly 30 together now. It was his suggestion after we had done Arthur that we tackled Robin Hood next, and his suggestion also that after that we become even more ambitious and write about Joan of Arc, a character who is entirely historical. When I've finished writing a book he is the first person I send it to and the first person whose comments I always listen to. He's a wonderful storyteller himself, in his own right

AWW:    What are you most proud of in this novel? And is there anything which you wish you could have improved upon?

MM:      Proud is certainly not the word. Was I pleased with it? Yes. I felt I'd thrown new light upon an old and rather hackneyed character and brought him to a new audience for another generation.

AWW:    What are you working on now?

MM:      Maggie Fergusson has just written my biography to be published by 4th Estate in May, entitled 'War Child to War Horse'. She wrote it very deliberately in seven parts, seven ages of this particular man (I am approaching 70 rapidly, but not ready to shoot my arrow out of the window just yet). We wanted to make a book that reflected the story maker that I am as much the person that I am. So for each of the seven ages I wrote a story, a fictional story, based on some kind of happening during that decade. So I've been writing 7 new short stores. I hope you enjoy them.

AWW:    Thank you very much.

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© Text and Location pictures, Copyright 2020 Allen W. Wright - All Rights Reserved
Cover design from the 2012 edition of Outlaw © HarperCollins Publishers, 2012.
Cover art for the 1996 edition of Robin of Sherwood (Pavilion Books) by Michael Foreman.
Photograph of Michael Morpurgo is by Richard Cannon and used with permission of the Morpurgo family.
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