Book Review: Stevenson’s Tale of the Two Roses

the black arrow robert louis stevenson

Readers are advised that this blog reveals details of the plot of the novel The Black Arrow

Robert Louis Stevenson remains one of the most popular authors of the late Victorian era. Many of his novels, such as Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde remain in print and are avidly read and enjoyed by successive generations of readers. Short stories such as The Body Snatcher are still regularly anthologised.

Indeed, like Bram Stoker's Dracula and Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, many of Stevenson's characters have achieved a fame beyond the pages of the books where they first appeared. Long John Silver, and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde are now well-known characters in popular culture, immortalised in numerous film and television adaptations.

Despite being a much reprinted and consistently popular book, his novel The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses occupies an odd place in the canon of Robert Louis Stevenson's works. Its own author was quite dismissive of the book, and it has failed to secure the literary respect accorded to many of Stevenson's more famous works. Why is this so?

Young Folks was a very popular weekly paper owned by William Henderson, which published stories aimed at younger readers. During late 1881 and early 1882, Stevenson's Treasure Island was serialised in Young Folks and was a moderate success (achieving a far more favourable response when later published in book form).

Following this serialisation, Henderson proposed to Stevenson that he provide another adventure serial for the paper, suggesting a tale set during the War of the Roses.

Stevenson duly obliged and provided The Black Arrow, which was serialised in Young Folks during 1883.

On the surface perhaps a straight-forward adventure tale, the action of The Black Arrow begins in May 1860, when England was in the throes of the War of the Roses, the conflict between the Houses of Lancaster and York.

Richard Shelton, a young man and ward to the knight Sir Daniel Brackley, rides into the hamlet of Tunstall, in Suffolk, to announce to the inhabitants that Sir Daniel, their lord, is urgently recruiting men to fight on his side in a coming battle.

Sir Daniel, we soon learn, holds no true allegiance to either side in this bitter conflict, and tends to change sides when it will bring him some increase in fortune. 

His mercenary behaviour is further in evidence by his predilection for kidnapping children and teenagers (and sometimes murdering their parents) in order to acquire their inheritance, or to sell them into marriage. 

Shelton is joined in Tunstall by Bennett Hatch, Sir Daniel's bailiff, a hard and ruthless man but kindly to Shelton. They are soon made aware of a band of outlaws, known as the fellowship of the Black Arrow, who swear vengeance on Sir Daniel Brackley for the various wrongs he has committed, and also on his accomplices, including Hatch. It is insinuated, in a message from the outlaws, that Sir Daniel was involved in the murder of Richard Shelton's father.

While reporting to Sir Daniel in the village of Kettley, Shelton meets a younger boy named John Matcham, who is seemingly a prisoner of Sir Daniel. Shelton encounters Matcham again the following day, now fleeing from Sir Daniel's clutches. Shelton agrees to help him escape, and thus begins an adventure which will result in Shelton's joining the outlaws of the Black Arrow, falling in love, and finding himself plunged into the thick of the conflict raging across England.

The Black Arrow was an immediate success with the readers of Young Folks, its popularity outstripping that of the earlier Treasure Island. It is not difficult to see why.

As some, including William Henderson, felt that the pace of Treasure Island, in its early instalments, was too slow, Stevenson ensured that the fast pace of his new story was set from the very beginning, and never flagged throughout the rest of the serialisation. Two chapters appeared in each issue of Young Folks, always ending on a note of heightened excitement, what we might call today a 'cliff-hanger', to ensure the continued interest of its readers.

Indeed, The Black Arrow is quite a violent tale, with a considerable body count. The constant sense of danger, of always imminent menace, undoubtedly kept the readers of Young Folks on the edge of their seats.

The entry of a real historical figure, who becomes one of the story's most memorable characters, in the second half of the novel, would also have impressed the young readers.

Richard Crookback, Duke of Gloucester (the future king already immortalised in Shakespeare's Richard III) mercilessly disposes of his enemies, and apparently takes a liking to his newfound ally, Richard Shelton. 

Vicious and ruthless, Richard Crookback is a formidable and dangerous presence in the tale, even to those on his side. Despite finding, in Shelton, a comrade in arms, after they part, he instructs one of his men to follow Shelton and to stab him in the back at the first sign of treason.

Undoubtedly, Richard Shelton's growth as a character would also have appealed to the readers of Young Folks. When we first meet Shelton, he is a well-meaning young man, but at times dim-witted, and wholly ignorant of the duplicities of his master, Sir Daniel. 

By the tale's close, he is a battle-hardened knight and a shaper of his own destiny, a young man who has grown, matured, and fought for what he loves and for what he sees as right.

Despite this success with its first readership, Stevenson would later write, in a letter to a friend, "I find few greater pleasures than reading my own works, but I never, O, I never read The Black Arrow".

In the dedication to the first edition of The Black Arrow in book form, in 1888, he noted that his wife, Fanny, despite a number of attempts, never read the story.

There is no obvious reason for the dismissive attitude towards The Black Arrow demonstrated by the Stevensons.

We do know that, unlike the earlier Treasure Island, this time Stevenson did not come up with the idea for The Black Arrow. He acted on William Henderson's suggestion.

Apparently, the story was written quite speedily while, at the same time, Stevenson also worked on a novel which he regarded as a more substantial and serious work, Prince Otto.

Perhaps Stevenson saw The Black Arrow as a story which was simply written to order, primarily for financial reasons, while he gave the greater share of his attention to Prince Otto.

Stevenson may also have seen himself, at this time, as a serious author who needed to move beyond and away from a weekly paper providing thrilling stories for youngsters.

Apparently, Stevenson had no interest in seeing The Black Arrow published in book form, and only consented to this in 1888 for financial reasons. He was surprised at the ensuing popularity and continuing commercial success of the book.

In the years since its publication, The Black Arrow has also found little favour with literary critics. It has been praised by the novelist and playwright John Glasworthy, and, more recently both Professor Gary Hoppenstand, in his introduction to the Signet Classic edition (2003), and Professor John Sutherland, in his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition (2007), have written with great insight on the strengths and merits of the novel. And of course, The Black Arrow has been constantly reprinted, consistently popular with readers, and filmed and televised numerous times.

This is surely at least partly attributable to the exciting, fast paced narrative. Even to a generation familiar with the fast-moving plots of modern adventure films, and the constant spectacle of video games, The Black Arrow has a pace which never flags, its characters hurtling from one dangerous situation to another.

It also displays Stevenson's wonderful gift for conveying depth of character, and the changing landscapes and scenes of the story, with a few vivid, exquisitely chosen words. While the prose of some Victorian authors, to some modern readers, may occasionally seem a shade turgid, Stevenson's prose has something of a modern touch, economical but effective.

And it has been argued, in the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition by Professor John Sutherland that The Black Arrow shares common ground with some of Stevenson's other works.

Robert Louis Stevenson appears to have had a stormy relationship with his father. As a member of a family long renowned as lighthouse engineers, he angered his father by rejecting this profession, and also for professing himself an agnostic.

Stevenson's works often depict boys or young men in conflict with a father or male guardian. Examples include the relationships between Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver in Treasure Island, and David Balfour and Uncle Ebenezer in Kidnapped. This type of dysfunctional relationship was still in evidence in Stevenson's last, unfinished work, Weir of Hermiston.

Richard Shelton finds himself in conflict with a father figure, his guardian Sir Daniel Brackley, ultimately seeking revenge upon this man who had earlier tried to make Shelton a pawn in his own schemes. Richard turns upon his father figure and seeks to decide his own destiny.

Unlike many adventure stories of its time, The Black Arrow displays a maturity in its refusal to conform to simple ideas of right and wrong, good and evil. Moral ambiguity abounds throughout the tale.

Sir Daniel, while clearly a villain, is also clearly no coward. Mercenary he may be, but he is also a brave knight in battle, respected by his men.

His bailiff, Bennett Hatch, is merciless and determined in pursuing Sir Daniels orders, complicit in the wrongs Brackley has committed against many innocent people, yet he is kind to Shelton, clearly caring for the young man.

The outlaws who comprise the Black Arrow can themselves be ruthless and cruel. Early in the novel, Shelton and Matcham witness the outlaws ambush a group of Sir Daniels soldiers in Tunstall Forest. They are callous in how they pursue the last survivor, making a game, for their own amusement, of how they hunt him to death.

The later battle scenes, involving Richard Crookback, demonstrate how atrocities are also perpetrated by the side on which Richard Shelton has chosen to fight in the War of the Roses.

Even Richard Shelton, the hero of the story, is fallible, and some of his actions, despite good intentions, have disastrous consequences for others.

While The Black Arrow is still a compelling page-turner, an adventure story that can still thrill readers, it can certainly be argued that it has depths that lift it beyond that status. 

As a depiction of a young man discovering how little he understood those closest to him, growing to maturity and trying to establish his place in the world during a turbulent and violent time, it can be seen as another of Stevenson's substantial works, and certainly one of his most entertaining.

And of course, an artist can often be the harshest critic of their own work. As always, posterity has the final say. The book that Stevenson would not read has found new readers in each successive generation. The Black Arrow still flies.

-      Alan Dunne