The other day on Twitter there was (I swear) an interesting conversation about coming to stories at the right or the wrong time. Guy Kay (an author I like a lot) was ‘speaking’ without someone about a book they had read, which this person thought they would have liked when they were younger, but didn’t actually enjoy now. Kay remarked something along the lines that they had come to the story at the wrong time in their life.
That’s an interesting way of thinking about our relationship with stories. I am a great re-reader of tales, I tend to come back to favourites again and again (for reasons I’ve discussed elsewhere on this blog) and it’s a rare book in my collection that has been read only once. So on the whole, I continue to enjoy the stories that I used to like, although now that I think of it, I have experienced many of them differently as I’ve gotten (so very much) older.
A case in point that had been on my mind recently anyway – not a book, but a TV series, the 80s vintage BBC series Robin of Sherwood. If you haven’t seen it, it’s, well, a very 1980s take on the classic Robin Hood tale. It ran on that same PBS channel that got me hooked on Doctor Who, and it is, I’m pretty sure, the reason why I ultimately got into medieval history.
(As a sidebar, Robin of Sherwood is interesting to me as a good example of how we can see characters and stories like Robin Hood re-invented for each generation. This version of Robin (when the series starts, anyway) is not a disgraced earl, or the yeoman of the medieval tales, but a peasant hero, a commoner perhaps ideally suited for a modern audience. Unlike the thoroughly Christian Robin of the original stories, this one has an alliance with pagan spirituality, suiting the 1980s generally and Christianity’s receding power overall. And (I believe) this is the first time that Robin’s Merry Men includes a Muslim character – again suiting a modern sensibility that our heroes should be racially inclusive. Similarly, this show’s Marian soon ends up shooting longbows and swinging swords with everyone else.)
I watched the show in my early teens, I liked it quite a lot, and so when at I was at university and it was time to pick elective courses, I picked a medieval history course. The rest, due to a professor who took an interest in me, is history. It’s been an interesting and somewhat uneven road, but I wouldn’t change it. Through those studies, I have gotten deeper into the medieval world than Teenage Me, watching PBS, would ever have believed, and met people who I will treasure for the rest of my days.
I still have, on my laptop, the whole run of the series. I watch parts of it from time to time. Looking at it now, from the perspective of a historian, even one with sort of a glancing familiarity with the Robin Hood stories and a rather better one of medieval England – the show gets a lot wrong. In terms of giving much of an accurate sense of the 12th century, it’s … really not great.
I don’t want to dissect it, but I do wonder how I would have felt about it if I could somehow come to it fresh, without all the history the stories and I have together. Judging from the reaction my PhD supervisor had when I made her watch part of it, my guess is: rather different.
Perhaps that’s a shame, and would be an example of not being able to relax and enjoy something for what it is. Perhaps the thing is that I came to Robin of Sherwood at the right time, and now I get to keep it as a story that I love – because I still do, even though it has its problems. (John Rhys-Davies’ King Richard is still maybe my favourite)
I wonder, too, how I would feel about some of the stories that I know I loved when I was younger, if I were to read them again. I’ve seen the Prydian chronicles mentioned here and there of late, and that’s a series that I read in high school and liked a lot at the time. I’ve never come back to them, unusually for me. I wonder how I’d feel. Perhaps that was the right time for them, and that time has passed. (At some point, I’m going to have to find out)
Sometimes even a part of a story can have quite an effect at just the right part of your life. Whatever else happens with the series, I will always be grateful to Jim Butcher and his Dresden Files for just one exchange where his hero tells a sceptic: “I don’t need you to believe me.” For whatever reason, that relatively minor exchange really resonated with me, at that point someone who was really easily drawn into pouring energy into endless efforts to win debates or convince people of particular points of view. That isn’t what that exchange was about in the book, but I use it every so often to remind myself that it doesn’t matter if there are people out there who think I’m wrong on a subject or an issue. It’s fine. I don’t need them to believe me. That has, genuinely, been the source of a great deal of peace.
Anyway, this is all quite disconnected and rambly, now, but I think it’s remarkable how much power a story like Robin of Sherwood can exert over your life, if you come to it at the right moment.
Thanks for reading, and do keep reading. Those stories are out there.