Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 872
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 suddenly catapulted to great importance in the war, because that leader, Richard, duke of Gloucester (later to become King Richard III), has a superstitious tendency to support anyone who shares his first name. Richard is obviously a cruel, almost inhuman individual, and Dick finds it very hard to reconcile his own feelings with his support of such a leader.
The members of the Fellowship of the Black Arrow are also far from pleasant. They are bandits, but not the sort of romantic bandits found in stories of Robin Hood. They steal from people of all classes, for their own gain, and are quite willing to commit murder if necessary. This causes Dick’s final dilemma, and the one that forces him to lose all interest in the adventure in which he has taken part.
At the end of the novel, Dick has the chance to do away with his wicked guardian but decides to spare his guardian’s life. Ellis Duckworth, the chief of the Fellowship of the Black Arrow, kills Sir Daniel instead. Dick marries Joanna, the woman his guardian wanted him to marry (a break with tradition, certainly), and retires from the war.
The Black Arrow works as an exciting adventure story, but it leaves something to be desired as a historical romance. There are certainly villains, including Sir Daniel and Duke Richard, but they are on different sides of the dispute. More important, Dick is not the romantic hero readers expect in such...
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stories. He makes mistakes, he can never seem to make up his mind, and he “lives happily ever after” without resolving any of his problems.
The Black Arrow is somewhat difficult for a modern reader, because the language is deliberately archaic. A greater difficulty is that Stevenson was working within the framework of Victorian morality. Sex was practically nonexistent in most writings of the time, and violence was relatively tame. The story was written for a children’s magazine, which meant that even by Victorian standards, it had to be especially clean. As a result, passionate love scenes and delightfully gory executions are not to be found in the book.
Stevenson was a great writer in this genre, perhaps the last. The term “romance” has changed its meaning over time and now almost always refers to a formulaic love story rather than to an adventure story. Apart from books intended for children, there are few stories about knights in shining armor being written today, and actual history has largely been replaced by fantasy in adventure stories.
The Black Arrow should not be dismissed because it is children’s literature. Like many books for children, this story must be considered within a greater context. Presenting readers with a hero who has difficulty in deciding where his loyalties lie, and villains who seem willing to join whatever side is winning, Stevenson provides a realistic vision of humanity. Dick, Sir Daniel, and even Richard Crookback are more human than Ivanhoe or Robin Hood. The heroes of The Black Arrow are not perfect. Readers can therefore identify with them in a personal way.