A conversation with Elsa about the writing of MAID MARIAN
What inspired you to retell the Maid Marian/Robin Hood story?
Maid Marian has intrigued me since childhood. I’ve always been a fan of the Robin Hood story, but I could never understand why so much of the attention went to Robin, and so little to Marian. It struck me as strange that her name is so well known, yet no one has a sense of her character beyond her role as Robin Hood’s consort.
Once it occurred to me to write her story myself, I couldn’t let the idea rest. I wanted to show how complex her own life might have been, and how she might have struggled with the choices she made.
It’s thrilling to read the first meeting between Marian Fitzwater and Robin Hood in your book. How did you reimagine the love story between these two and what did you want to accomplish?
Through all its variations, the Robin Hood/Maid Marian romance is about opposites who attract. Each version describes the story in a different way — in some, Robin Hood is the noble, in others it’s Maid Marian — but most open with these two characters on opposites sides of the medieval “tracks.” Their romance, then, has immense obstacles to overcome. Concessions will have to be made on both sides. Their love for each other will, without question, leave both of them permanently altered.
That, I think, is the bedrock of a moving story, and one that allows for serious risks, bravery, and genuine sacrifice — the elements of a touching romance. Since this is told in the first person, I also wanted to include the internal doubts that accompany first love. Marian is inexperienced when she first meets Robin Hood, and she has to feel her way through the situation — something she isn’t accustomed to.
What is it about the story and the Sherwood Forest characters that has stood the test of time and continues to be popular?
What we love about the Sherwood Forest characters is the freedom they’ve found in the midst of oppression. Robin Hood epitomizes this idea — we love his disrespect for authority and his drive to maintain a “merry” lifestyle right under the Sheriff of Nottingham’s nose. When I began Maid Marian, I wanted to demonstrate this in her story as well. I wanted to show the restrictions on her life, and then let her break them in pursuit of her own course.
Robin Hood is also beloved because he is the champion of the little man, the independent spirit who looks after the poor even when they’ve been abandoned by their own rulers. He and his men fulfill our need to find goodness in typically bad characters. The notion of a civic-minded band of thieves is inherently charming. Between their hunting skills and their boisterous laughter, they strike us as being very much alive and in touch with their world — something our society increasingly covets as we find ourselves becoming more removed from our natural environment.
You include in the book many of the historical conventions women struggled with during those times. How important was that to the story?
The situation of women was critical to this story. In the Middle Ages, very few people — of either sex — were truly independent, but women were certainly the worst off. Noble women were practically sold as marriage prizes; common women toiled as serfs. As I imagined Marian living in such a society, I felt intense frustration over her situation. I wanted her to feel that frustration too, to such an extent that she was willing to take grave risks for a chance to change her future.
Marian is the sort of person who wants to be the decision-maker, the one in control — it made sense to me that she would do nearly anything to gain autonomy. Also, beyond the restrictions of planned marriages, I wanted to show the tedium of women’s lives: rich women endlessly spinning and sewing; poor women caught in the drudgery of fieldwork. I thought these elements gave important background texture to the story and helped explain why Marian felt so eager to break free of the mold.
Explain the tensions you mention in the novel between the Normans and the Saxons. How important is this to the main story?
In some ways I mentally compared Norman England of 1190 with the United States today, 140 years after the Civil War. Despite the time that’s passed, no one would say racial conflicts have evaporated in this country — the Civil Rights Act of 1964 proved that, 100 years after the war, tremendous division still existed between the races. England experienced similar racial blending after the Norman invasion of 1066. The Normans, led by William the Conqueror, became the rulers of the English, who were primarily Saxon. It seems reasonable to me that, 120 years later, when my story begins, tensions would be nearly as high as they had been in the years after the invasion.
The Robin Hood legends, passed down to us through songs, are folklore — the stories of the common people. I wanted, therefore, to emphasize the issues they would have cared about, such as the prejudice and injustice of the Norman elite. It seemed natural to make Robin Hood a Saxon-speaking character who came from laboring people. And I purposefully chose to make Marian a Norman noble, knowing that each would bring a set of biases to their meeting and that this would increase the tension of their romance. Annie, Marian’s Saxon nurse, also plays an important role by introducing Marian to both Saxon culture and its language.
How does your book distinguish itself from others on the subject?
In the 1800s, Thomas Love Peacock wrote a novel entitled Maid Marian, in which both Marian and Robin are nobles. There have been some young adult books on the subject, but the overwhelming number of Robin Hood retellings dwarfs the number of stories specifically about Maid Marian. In most versions of the Robin Hood legend, Marian is relegated to a minor character’s role. I wanted to bring her story to the forefront, to give her a voice of her own. I chose to write it in the first person so readers could enter into her thoughts and feel personally involved in her journey.
THIS INTERVIEW COURTESY OF CAMPBELL WHARTON, RANDOM HOUSE.