Thursday, August 24, 2006

Robin's last arrow

"Why do all these heroes have to die?"

The ten year old was looking through an illustrated re-telling of the legend of Robin Hood and had skipped to the end. He was staring dismayed at a drawing of a mortally wounded Robin on his deathbed and the evil nun who had knifed him rather than tend to his wounds slipping away with a malicious grin on her face.

The ten year old knew most of the story of Robin Hood from the Erroll Flynn movie but this was the first he learned the tale of how Robin dies.

It varies, of course, as legends do. The tale as I heard it when I was his age was that Robin, having lived a long and happy life with Marian after good King Richard restored his lands and his former estate, drifted back into his outlaw ways after Marian and Richard died and the crown passed once more into the hands of Richard's evil brother, John. One day he was was hurt in a fight with the sheriff's men. He found his way to a convent and asked the nuns for help.

One of the nuns was loyal to King John and under the pretense of treating him, sliced open a major vein.

The ten year old said, "Why do they all die? King Arthur dies. Robin Hood. I mean, I know why Davy Crockett has to die. He was a real person. But why does Robin Hood die?"

"That's what happens to all of us, eventually," the elderly librarian said with, I thought, more of a sense of self-reminder than a desire to help the kid understand.

"Does Ivanhoe die?" the ten year old asked. He's thinking of reading the book.

The librarian didn't know. I wasn't sure I remembered. "I don't think he does," I said.

"Maybe he dies in another book," he said. "That's what happens to the Three Musketeers, isn't it?"

"Yes," I said, "at the end of The Man in the Iron Mask."

He knows all about it. Athos dies of a broken heart when he gets the news of his son's death. D'Artagnan is killed in battle. Porthos is crushed to death in a cave-in after fighting off dozens of enemy soldiers.

The ten year old thinks that Sir Walter Scott must have written a sequel in which his fair Saxon knight dies. The novel Ivanhoe does end abruptly with the report of Richard the Lion Heart's death and the implication that life was not easy or happy for Ivanhoe after that.

"Why do they all die?"

"Maybe, " I said slowly, wondering if it was time for this lesson, "Maybe it's to explain to us why after all the good the heroes did life still stinks. They couldn't stay around long enough to finish the job."

"Three steps forward," the librarian said, "Four steps back."

The ten year old thought this over. He nodded and closed the book.

"But," I said, "You didn't read the rest of the story."

He asked me to tell it.

Here's more or less what I said.

Yes, the heroes die, but there is always someone left to tell the story. Athos and Porthos and D'Artagnan die. But Aramis lives on past the end of the book. And Bedevere is there watching when the three queens take Arthur away to Avalon. And Little John comes to find Robin and is there for the most important part.

Robin is still alive when Little John arrives. He's weak and past hope. But he has strength enough to ask Little John for a favor.

Take me to the window and hand me my bow, he says to his old friend. Let me fire one last arrow. Bury me where that arrow lands.

And that's where the story ends, I said, with that arrow in flight high over the trees, carrying with it Robin's spirit, and ours, deep, deep, back into Sherwood where the story is always still at its beginning.


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