Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 624
Although the literary style of The Black Arrow might make it difficult for younger adolescents, the story’s quality rewards the effort. As a young adult, the hero must shape his existence in a world of conflicting loyalties. He confronts a series of interconnected choices, all of which can be subsumed into the choice between love and violence. Southern England, the novel’s setting, is fraught by war and local unrest. All the people Shelton respects and loves are threatened by John Amend-all: his foster father, his spiritual adviser, and even Shelton’s best friend, a soldier in Brackley’s service. Curiously, Shelton himself is excepted from the grievance list; vengeance is claimed in his name.
Caught on the horns of a dilemma between friendship and suspicion, Shelton vacillates between the two extremes. Another young man, “John Matcham,” begs Shelton to help “him” escape from Brackley and forces Shelton into action. As the two steal away, they become friends, although Shelton frequently complains about Matcham’s physical weakness and sensitivity. Kindness to others is not weakness, however, which the novel points out. Matcham, really a pampered young noblewoman in disguise, is easily the equal of Shelton. First of all, she is just as brave, vowing to stay by him in spite of all danger. Further, she is more compassionate; he is frequently ruthless, as for example, when Shelton surprises and kills one of Amend-all’s followers with a hunting knife.
As the reader might expect, Shelton is little more than a boy when he first helps Matcham escape; he learns about caring from Matcham and matures as a result. When the two are angry at each other, they come to blows and decide to go their own ways; afterward, ashamed of himself, Shelton agonizes about his friend’s safety. At first, Shelton offers to leave his crossbow; when Matcham refuses to use it, Shelton decides to swallow his anger and continue along with his friend. This loyalty to his friend is the first stage in Shelton’s growth, clearly intended for the novel’s young adult audience.
Shelton’s choices are difficult, particularly when they are compounded by a secondary theme in The Black Arrow, that of disguised intentions. In a very real sense, Brackley’s true motives and character are always hidden behind a disguise. For example, although he murdered Shelton’s father and usurped his domains, Brackley rears young Shelton. He does so, however, out of an evil desire to have his potential rival within easy reach. Further, although he commands military forces, Brackley is reluctant to commit himself to either side in the civil war; he waits until the battles are decided before he sends in his troops on the side of the victors.
Unlike thousands of other noblemen, Shelton follows his heart; in fact, he tries to stay out of the war, wanting only to set Sedley free. It is significant that when Shelton does engage in combat, he learns to temper his valor with mercy. For example, Brackley moves Sedley to a manor house near the ocean, and Shelton attacks a group of soldiers, assuming that they are her guards. After defeating them, Shelton learns that the group was led by Sedley’s father; Shelton’s truculence has weakened both a potential ally and himself. Later, during the battle of Shoreby, Shelton has the opportunity to practice this lesson: He takes a defensive posture during combat and avoids unnecessary bloodshed. His mercy makes Shelton a target for the mockery of his erstwhile friend, Duke Richard Crookback, who mistakes sensitivity for weakness. Crookback revels in bloodshed; Shelton’s rejection of him indicates how much he has matured, and how valuable a role model he is for the young adult reader.