Friday, May 13, 2011

Returning to Sherwood

Weeks have gone by since I’ve written anything; months have gone by since I’ve written anything worth writing about. But it feels as though it’s been years since I’ve written something I enjoyed.

There was a time when I could hardly wait to finish work or school. I felt like I was seeping stories – as if the ideas were springing forth like a sudden and profound nosebleed, and the only way to keep from making a mess was by pinning the words betwixt pen and paper.

Even when the writing was sloppy and the story at its weakest, there was something utterly appealing about the characters. Each time I sat down to write, it was like I was coming home to a private inn, inside my own head. Here, brawling pirates laughed alongside merry-making kings; film-noir detectives played pranks on interstellar explorers; and even the most brooding of soul-sucking vampires could lift his earthenware mug and clack it against that of his neighbour. I may not have been one of them, but I was heartily welcome.

Fiction or no, I was witness to their lives and their loves and their practical jokes.

In some way, I felt obligated to write down their stories before they were gone forever. And I loved it.

But something, somewhere along the line, has changed.

Recently, I’d been reading The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, by Howard Pyle. Periodically, I’d sigh at the descriptions of the English countryside as it unfolded spring leaves, or mellowed under the summer sun, or crisped in autumn’s frost. I smiled at the hijinks of Little John when he was dressed up as a monk, and I laughed aloud at Robin Hood’s embarrassment when he had the stuffing knocked out of him – a feat witnessed by some of his merriest men, who leaned against their staves and snickered up their sleeves.

At the end of it, I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to lose myself in the clean and scented Sherwood Forest, but the door was closed and we were bid adieu. And even though I can pick this book up again at leisure, I believed the author when he advised his beloved reader that, the book being finished, we were now obliged to part ways and leave Sherwood behind us. My heart broke when the story was done.

More than anything else, to me this is a story of good people and less-good people – because even the Sheriff of Nottingham and the greedy Bishop of Hereford have a sense of humour – and it’s about kindness and cleverness. It’s about goodness.

Once upon a time, when I wrote, I could hide in the rafters of a cottar’s hut in fictional Allua and breathe in the scents of roasted breadnuts. I could taste the spindlefruit pie, the one garnished with gentlewhite leaves. I could even sample some of the cold and crystal-clean fa’ood cider while screaming urchins ran amok around the table, much to their parents’ mixed delight and chagrin. I could step outside, blinking against the crimson glare of an evening sun as it splayed its dusty rays between the barred shadows of green and black trees. I could watch yellow-white grain bow in scalloped waves as a mild summer breeze combed through the rows with invisible fingers, and I could freely fill my lungs with the savoury air.

And as I wrote one fresh page after another, I snickered at the pranks between king and knight, and laughed at the good-natured squabbling between unlikely friends. I cheered when my harassed champion rose to his feet with growing power and righteous indignation. And I wept when I overheard the lullabies as mighty heroes sang their dying children to sleep.

There was a time when they were as real to me as anyone in this world. This world exuded light, sound, smell and touch; characters interacted as dynamically and loudly in my head as shoppers in a real-world mall on Boxing Day.

There was a time when I cared about my characters, and about my readers. I would use one to broadcast a sense of life and goodness to the other. I would follow in Pyle’s footsteps, and make a new Robin Hood. And in the pursuit of the goodness in fictional characters, I found it in real life.

But there seems to be a wide and subtle interlude between Then and Now; Then, life and writing were one and the same; Now, my writing holds no delight. Then, to stop writing was like holding my breath; Now, it feels like an empty and pointless labour.

And it isn’t just writing, either. It’s like something in me has died, sometime between Then and Now – something delicate, precious and fleeting. This half-remembered thing once cared, and was aware, and sought to soothe the pain of others with spontaneous joy and bold adventure.

This morning, perhaps inspired by Howard Pyle’s lyrical prose, I thought, “I have become as soft as a dull broadsword, useful to none but as a bludgeon.”

Without knowing it, I think Pyle reached out and grabbed all of us – those of us adults who were paying attention, at least – and told us why we wept and sighed at the thought of Sherwood Forest. It’s because we’ve grown up, and the world has changed us.

Throughout the story, right up to the very last chapters, Robin Hood was a man full of kindness and good humour. He had killed and repented, it’s true; but despite his guilt (or because of it), he had become a gentle man, passionately in love with his world and his freedom in it; and his esprit-de-vie was infectious. He shamed the greedy without stripping them of their dignity; the good, he set free. His was the laugh of an utterly carefree, but caring, man, and despite his ever-ready weapons and skills, his hand was always stretched forth to help, to heal or to thwart, whichever was needed at the time.

Until the end.

“Now, had Robin Hood been as peaceful as of old, everything might have ended in smoke, as other such ventures had always done before; but he had fought for years under King Richard, and was changed from what he used to be.” – Howard Pyle.

He’d had the wise-child beaten out of him in the Crusades – or, more likely, under the weight of another man’s authority. He had succumbed to reality. This parenthetical thought – that our Robin Hood was no more that was what made me cry. Can you imagine our brash swashbuckler trudging into battle with broadsword and blood-soaked helm, with ragged, smelly and loud common soldiers at his side? Can you imagine him, slashing and hacking and murdering for the hollow glory of another man?

Robin Hood came home a changed man, and it broke his heart to know he no longer fit in Sherwood Forest. Killing had come easily, and many men – friends and foes both – died because of it.

Yet, for us, this doesn’t have to be the end. So long as we live, the story goes on.

What has fallen dormant can come alive again; what has faded can be painted afresh; and while we may have left Sherwood Forest, we need only retrace our steps back to the Greenwood Tree, blow the bugle three times and live there again, free and alive.

I need only to find the way back.

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