The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson

This was the book chosen for me in the last Classics Club Spin and for once, I have managed to read it and post my review by the deadline, which is today!

I have had mixed results with Robert Louis Stevenson in the past: I loved The Master of Ballantrae, liked Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, couldn’t finish Kidnapped and can hardly remember Treasure Island, which I read as a child. I hoped The Black Arrow would be another good one; it sounded as though it should be fun, at least, and the setting – 15th century England, during the Wars of the Roses – appealed to me. Originally published as a serial in 1883, then as a novel in 1888, it is often labelled a ‘children’s novel’, but apart from the fact that the hero and heroine are in their teens, I think it’s a book that could be equally enjoyed by older and younger readers. It’s probably too old fashioned for a lot of children today, but any who do like reading classic adventure stories should find this one entertaining.

The Black Arrow tells the story of seventeen-year-old Dick Shelton, an orphan who comes to believe that his guardian, Sir Daniel Brackley, was responsible for the murder of his father. Setting out to discover the truth and obtain justice for his father, Dick joins a company of outlaws known as the fellowship of The Black Arrow who also have reasons for wanting to take revenge on Sir Daniel. Meanwhile Dick falls in love with Joanna Sedley, a young heiress kidnapped by Sir Daniel so that he can arrange a marriage for her to his own advantage. And while all of this is taking place, the Wars of the Roses plays out in the background and Dick must decide whether his loyalties lie with York or Lancaster.

The novel is written in a sort of pseudo-medieval style, with archaic words and phrases like ‘ye’, ‘methinks’, ‘forsooth’, ‘cometh’ and ‘goeth’ – common in older historical fiction, but not usually used today, so could take a while to get used to if you don’t read a lot of books like this. In many ways it reminded me of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, particularly once the band of Robin Hood-like outlaws appeared, and I think readers who enjoy one book will probably enjoy the other.

Despite the historical setting, you won’t really learn a lot of accurate history from this book. Throughout the first half, at least, the focus is on Dick’s mission to avenge his father’s death and rescue Joanna from Sir Daniel’s clutches. We hear of battles taking place but don’t see much of the action until the second half of the novel when Dick is drawn into the fictitious Battle of Shoreby and meets Richard ‘Crookback’, Duke of Gloucester – the future Richard III. As the events of the novel are taking place in 1460-61, Richard would actually have been about eight years old at that time (not the adult man we see in the story) and not yet Duke of Gloucester, but Stevenson does admit to this in a footnote!

I can’t really say that I loved this book – although I was entertained at first by the spying and intrigue, the disguises and daring escapes, the shipwrecks and secret passages, I felt that the story and the characters lacked depth and eventually it all started to become slightly tedious. Apparently Stevenson himself didn’t rate The Black Arrow very highly and described it as “a whole tale of tushery” (tushery referring to the archaic language). I still think it was worth reading and I preferred it to Kidnapped – although, to be fair, I should probably try Kidnapped again as I didn’t get very far with it. For now, I’m just pleased to have finally read another book from my Classics Club list as I’ve been making very little progress with it this year!

This is book 18/50 read from my second Classics Club list.

30 thoughts on “The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson

  1. Lark says:

    Sadly, the only Stevenson book I’ve read is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (which I love). But I really should read some of his other books…or at least give them a try. 🙂

  2. whatmeread says:

    Now, I haven’t read Kidnapped in a long while, but it was one of my favorite books when I was a young teen, although I didn’t understand much of the political side of it. My book, Kenilworth, was also a little disappointing, although I probably wouldn’t have found fault with it if I didn’t know a lot more about the Amy Robsart incident than, apparently, Scott did. Or maybe he just ignored the facts for effect, as Stevenson seems to have done.

      • whatmeread says:

        I liked the overall story, although to me it had some perplexing parts about it that at the time were hard to look up, like what is the significance of the song “Johnny Cope are you walking yet,” and why singing it was a jibe.

  3. cirtnecce says:

    I am glad you were able to finish the book despite it not being “gripping”. I applaud your tenacity; I would have give up! I know about the mixed feeling for RL Stevenson – I love Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hide but not Kidnapped but then I read that as a young adult and may need a revisit.

    • Helen says:

      I enjoyed the first half, but did start to lose interest after that. I would like to try Kidnapped and Treasure Island again, as I can’t really remember either of them.

  4. Alyson Woodhouse says:

    I didn’t like Kidnapped either, and wasn’t especially wild about Treasure Island, and this sounds kind of similar in some ways, so I’ll probably pass. At least you were able to get something from it and tick another classic off your list.

    • Helen says:

      I can’t remember much about either Kidnapped or Treasure Island, but yes, I think this is a similar sort of adventure novel. I did find things to enjoy, even though it wasn’t great.

    • Helen says:

      This one is still worth reading, even though I didn’t love it, but I can recommend The Master of Ballantrae if you haven’t read that one yet!

    • Helen says:

      I’ve read quite a lot of older books that use archaic language, so I could cope with it, but it does make it a bit more challenging to read. I think this is the first Spin book I’ve managed to finish by the deadline for a few years!

  5. Judy Krueger says:

    I too have been catching up on some reading challenges I let go by the wayside since March, being unable to get library books. Now we have curb side pick up and I am back in business, as it were. So congrats on getting your Classics Club book read!

  6. FictionFan says:

    Hmm, this is on my TBR but I don’t know how I’ll get along with the “tushery” – although I love that word and intend to use it often in the future… 😉 Of the few of his books I’ve read so far, Kidnapped is my least favourite too – I did finish it, but it was a real trudge and I’m not sure it was worth the effort.

    • Helen says:

      Tushery is a great word, which Stevenson apparently invented specifically to describe his writing in this book! I keep wondering if I should try Kidnapped again in case I gave up on it too quickly the last time, but maybe it’s not worth it.

  7. buriedinprint says:

    Tushery is such a great little word. As a kid, I never got on with the language in these books either, but I do enjoy old fashioned children’s stories now, in a certain reading mood. They can be very comforting when the world outside is, um, a strain.

  8. piningforthewest says:

    I should have made sure that I had this one at the same number on my CC list as yours. I did try to read this one before, but gave up because of the pseudo-medieval, but I will give it another go sometime.

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