Form and Content

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Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Black Arrow is the story of a young man’s maturation during the mid-fifteenth century, when England was torn by thirty years of civil war, known as the Wars of the Roses. As such, the novel combines several important conventions of historical fiction, as well as those of the coming-of-age novel: The hero learns about himself and his place in a world fraught with danger and violence. The internal narrative of events in the life of the young hero and the external events concerning warfare between two English royal houses are mixed in this complex novel. Ultimately, the two skeins are inextricably tangled, as national events give Dick Shelton the means to discover who he really is and who he wants to be.

The intermingling of personal and national concerns dominates this fascinating novel. Shelton, the son of the former lord of Tunstall Manor, has been reared by Sir Daniel Brackley, to all appearances a virtuous, although stern, nobleman. He begins to learn the truth about Brackley, however, when an outlaw, John Amend-all, vows revenge against Brackley and his followers. Shelton finds a threatening message in which Amend-all pledges to kill the murderer of Sir Harry Shelton, the young hero’s father. After Shelton learns that Brackley may have been responsible for the murder, he is profoundly shaken, having realized that things are not always as they seem.

Shelton begins to look into his father’s murder but finds his investigation thrust aside by larger events that demand an ever-increasing amount of his attention. Shortly after Amend-all begins his campaign of vengeance, Shelton meets another young person, John Matcham, and helps him escape from Brackley. Shelton is put in the position of reconciling his friendship with Matcham with his loyalty to his foster father.

Eventually, Shelton and Matcham are persuaded to return to Tunstall Manor, partly because Brackley lies to Shelton and partly because he invokes Shelton’s sense of duty: Even Tunstall Manor has become embroiled in the Wars of the Roses, and Shelton believes that he must put personal concerns aside. Although their escape is finally unsuccessful, the two young people become friends; and when he learns that Matcham is actually a young noblewoman, Joanna Sedley, Shelton realizes that he has fallen in love.

Shortly thereafter, Shelton tries to rescue Joanna several times, each time more certain that he loves her. Meanwhile, he meets and befriends another, more ruthless young man, Richard Crookback, the duke of Gloucester, who compensates for his physical disabilities with an arrogant demeanor and a determination to win the civil war. Joining Duke Richard’s forces, Shelton lays siege to the town of Shoreby, where Brackley’s forces are concentrated. Even though their army is outnumbered, Shelton and Duke Richard win the battle, forcing Brackley to flee with Joanna back to Tunstall Manor. Just as Shelton catches up with them and rescues Joanna, Amend-all’s last black arrow kills Brackley.

Places Discussed

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*Tunstall Forest

*Tunstall Forest. Hardwood forest dotted with knolls and hollows and crossed by numerous dirt trails that lies in Suffolk, though the county is never named in the novel. The forest was larger in the fifteenth century than it is today. Since at least the time of the Robin Hood legend, woods have often played a romantic role in English literature. In Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, Tunstall Forest stands in for the Sherwood Forest of Robin Hood. The woods provide hideouts for the heroes, young Dick Shelton—the protagonist—and the honorable “outlaw” band known as the “Black Arrow.” It also serves occasionally as a source of threat when it...

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cloaks potential ambushes.

Lawless’s den

Lawless’s den. Den excavated under a giant beech tree in the forest that is partially uprooted during a storm that is the hiding place of Dick Shelton’s accomplice Will Lawless. Although the cave has a hearth that gives it a homey feel, its roof is of roots, its walls of sod, and its floors of dirt.

Tunstall Moat House

Tunstall Moat House. Castle of Sir Daniel Brackley, Dick Shelton’s guardian and the story’s chief villain, located within the forest. This moss-covered fortress of the woods is complete with guard towers, a lily-strewn moat, a supposedly haunted room, and secret passageways that are both narrow and dank. It is heavily romanticized, even to the point of helping to reinforce what later become literary clichés about medieval castles.

St. Bride’s Cross

St. Bride’s Cross. Crossroad point within the forest where two major plot advancements occur. There, Dick Shelton meets Lord Foxham, who helps in his quest to marry Joanna Sedley, and Richard “Crookback,” who will one day be King Richard III of England. Shelton saves Crookback in a battle beneath the cross, then joins the future king to fight for the House of York against the House of Lancaster—Sir Daniel’s side—in the civil war.


Shoreby-on-the-Till. Fictional small town on the river Till near where the river supposedly empties into the North Sea. Shoreby is the site of a battle between the forces of Lancaster and York. Its streets serve as battlefields, its taverns as command centers. After the battle, the town is sacked. The division of the town during the battle serves as a metaphor for the division of England during the Wars of the Roses, although it is unclear if Stevenson intended such a connection. The sack of Shoreby may well represent the devastation of England caused by the wars.

At the edge of Shoreby stands a beach house in which Joanna Sedley is held captive by Sir Daniel during portions of the narrative. This is actually a collection of buildings lying amid sand-hills and patches of grassy upland dotted with brush. A more important building in Shoreby is the abbey church where Dick is trapped after escaping from Sir Daniel’s house in town. The church itself is a holy place, but not all of its human representatives are holy. This contrast between the sacred and the corrupt may be a comment on the politicizing of religion, particularly during the Wars of the Roses.

*Tunstall Hamlet

*Tunstall Hamlet. Small village of scattered houses at the edge of Tunstall Forest. Stevenson describes it as lying within a green valley that rises from a river. There are farms on the outskirts of Tunstall Hamlet, including that of Nick Appleyard, an old soldier who is the first to die by the Black Arrow. Tunstall Hamlet was a real place but is heavily fictionalized by Stevenson; the name is still known to local inhabitants but is not officially recognized by the government.

River Till

River Till. Wide and sluggish stream whose many fens and marshy islets provide both atmosphere and a barrier to travel for the characters in the novel. (England has at least three rivers named Till, but none of them appears to be close enough to the real Tunstall Forest to be the river Stevenson uses in his story. However, a tributary of the River Tweed in Northumberland that is named Till matches the physical description of the River Till in The Black Arrow.)


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Set in late fifteenth-century England, The Black Arrow takes place during the Wars of the Roses, a long civil conflict between the House of Lancaster, symbolized by the red rose, and the House of York, symbolized by the white rose. Historically, the Yorkist faction, led by Edward IV and his brother Richard III, overthrew the Lancastrian ruler Henry VI. Ultimately, Henry VII conquered Richard III in the 1485 Battle of Bosworth, but the book ends well before this turn of events.

Stevenson's narrative begins in the village of Tunstall in east Norfolk toward the end of Henry VI's reign. Seventeen-year-old Dick Shelton's search for vengeance of his father's murder and his rescue of a young heiress lead him through the English countryside, where he fights beside Richard, Duke of Gloucester, later Richard III; joins forces with the mysterious John Amend-All's followers; and steals a ship in an ill-fated attempt to rescue the heiress. Dick encounters a variety of characters, some fictional, others drawn from history. Gloucester plays a significant role in the story, and Dick's adventures occur against the historical backdrop of a civil war notorious in English history.

Literary Qualities

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Stevenson revived Romanticism with his historical adventure novels. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Sir Walter Scott began writing spirited stories of the Middle Ages and of Scotland set during the Renaissance and eighteenth century. Scott's historical fiction was enormously popular and influential for three generations, but by Stevenson's time, when realism was on the rise, readers were losing interest in Romanticism. Stevenson's psychologically complex characters and his sharp sense of time, place, language, and historical detail reveal the realist influence on his work. Many of his details of fifteenth- century life came from The Paston Letters, a body of correspondence written between 1422 and 1509 to a prominent Norfolk family. Stevenson lacks Scott's depth, but his fast-paced narratives testify to his skill as a stylist. Like Scott, Stevenson deftly recreates Scottish dialect in Kidnapped, David Balfour, and Weir of Hermiston, but also like Scott, he indulges in artificial archaisms in the dialogue of his medieval stories, and archaic language flaws The Black Arrow, though it becomes less pronounced as the narrative moves along.

The Black Arrow is not a major novel, nor did its author consider it so. Primarily of entertainment value, the book rises above its genre through the author's vivid realism, sense of moral ambiguity, and narrative verve.

Social Sensitivity

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The Black Arrow focuses on betrayal and warfare, and though Stevenson presents many exciting adventures, he laments the "deplorable necessities of war" and makes it clear that war is a disaster. Dick may win his sweetheart and regain his small estate, but for the country at large war brings only death and devastation. Thus on one level Dick's adventures are good fun, while on a deeper level they expose the horror of warfare. In battle, many on both sides die pointlessly. To the peasants and common people, it makes no difference whether Lancaster or York rules; their lives remain equally grim. Neither side is wholly right or wrong. After Dick helps win the battle of Shoreby, the victorious Yorkists sack the town, victimizing the innocent civilians. The Yorkists triumph, but readers familiar with English history know that they will ultimately suffer a tragic end.

For Further Reference

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Daiches, David. Robert Louis Stevenson and His World. London: Thames and Hudson, 1973. A compact biographical and critical study by a leading critic of Scottish literature. This volume has ninety-nine illustrations.

Furnas, J. C. Voyage to Windward: The Life of Robert Louis Stevenson. New York: William Sloane, 1951. The most thorough modern critical biography of Stevenson.

Hennessy, James Pope. Robert Louis Stevenson. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1974. A more recent study of Stevenson, published posthumously after the author was murdered.
James, Henry. Literary Criticism, American and English. Edited by Leon Edel and Mark Wilson. New York: The Library of America, 1984. James was a major novelist and a close friend of Stevenson. His essays, "Robert Louis Stevenson" (1888) and "The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson to His Family and Friends" are insightful critical appreciations.

Japp, Alexander H. Robert Louis Stevenson: A Record, an Estimate, and a Memorial. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1905. An appreciation by one of Stevenson's literary associates and correspondents.

Osboume, Lloyd. An Intimate Portrait of R.L.S. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1924. A recollection of Stevenson by his stepson and collaborator.


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Calder, Jenni. Robert Louis Stevenson: A Life Study. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980. A study of the works of Stevenson and the circumstances in his life that influenced his books. The emphasis is on the works, rather than on the author’s life. Includes analyses of many of Stevenson’s novels.

Green, Martin. Dreams of Adventure, Deeds of Empire. New York: Basic Books, 1979. A discussion of the genre of romantic adventure in English literature, particularly focusing on the nineteenth century. An excellent source for placing works such as The Black Arrow in their literary context.

Kiely, Robert. Robert Louis Stevenson and the Fiction of Adventure. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1964. A discussion of Stevenson’s adventure stories, their antecedents in English literature, and their effects on later works. Particular emphasis is placed on Treasure Island and The Black Arrow.

McLynn, Frank J. Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography. London: Hutchinson University Library, 1993. A highly detailed biography of the author, covering his life from early childhood to his death in Samoa in 1894. Emphasizes the author’s extensive travels and their influence on his work.

Pope-Hennessy, James. Robert Louis Stevenson. London: Jonathan Cape, 1974. A biography, including a detailed discussion of the times and places in which the works were written and the circumstances that inspired them. Includes many illustrations.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide