Robert Louis Stevenson has often been discussed as a children’s author, and to some extent this description is justified. Many of his works can be enjoyed by children, and some of them were written with such an audience in mind. The Black Arrow was serialized in Young Folks, a magazine intended for boys, in 1888, five years after Stevenson’s success with Treasure Island, which had been written for the same publication.
These novels are also part of a very old tradition of historical romance, dating back at least as far as Sir Thomas Malory and his Le Morte d’Arthur (1485). Closer to Stevenson’s own time, Sir Walter Scott wrote Ivanhoe in 1819, and the two authors are often compared. In his handling of characters and motives, Stevenson clearly broke with the traditions of historical romance.
The Black Arrow is set in the fifteenth century, during the War of the Roses, a civil war among the British aristocracy. This setting presents an author with problems in terms of motivation. Unlike the many stories of Robin Hood, or the adventures of heroes battling ferocious monsters, there is no clear delineation between good and evil in this novel. The various noblemen of the rival houses of York and Lancaster are all ruthless, out for their own advantage. There is never the slightest suggestion that one branch of the royal family is morally superior to the other.
Dick Shelton, the young hero of The Black Arrow, begins by being completely uncertain of which side he will support in the war. His guardian, Sir Daniel, also wavers, determined to wait until the last minute and to join the winning side. When Dick becomes convinced that his guardian conspired in the murder of his father, he casts his lot with the side opposing his guardian; the choice is a matter of Sir Daniel’s badness, not the side’s goodness. Sir Daniel decides to join the Lancasters and Dick joins up with the Fellowship of the Black Arrow, who are Daniel’s enemies and are siding with the House of York.
When Dick meets a major leader of that faction, he is...
(The entire section is 872 words.)