Published 1992 by Viking Penguin
Has there ever been a less lovable character in folk literature than that craven creature, the nameless Sheriff of Nottingham?
He remains to this day, fed by Hollywood versions of the legend, the hateful, impotent foil to that celebrated bowman, Robin Hood. Now, with his novel, The Sheriff of Nottingham, Richard Kluger turns the timeless tale on its head in a vivid, compassionate narrative based upon authentic and quite startling history.
Through a fusion of art and documented fact, Kluger portrays a far different sheriff. Philip Mark, a soldier of fortune from Touraine in the heart of France and actually cited by name in the text of the Magna Carta as objectionable to the king’s barons, is a complex figure, a man with a heart, a conscience, and deft political instincts. Posted to Nottinghamshire in 1208 as the crown’s chief law officer, he is answerable only to King John himself, a monarch who has been handed down to posterity – perhaps not altogether fairly – as an unredeemed tyrant presiding over a tumultuous age.
In vital, dramatic colors, Kluger paints a panorama of that England at the dawn of modernity and its principal players and events. Here are dark intrigue and adroit statecraft, hand-to-hand combat and sharp wits in collision, an avaricious ruler attempting to seduce his sheriff’s wife on Christmas night, and the hatching of the Magna Carta itself at Nottingham Castle one fine September eve in 1213 (along with the reasons why Philip Mark is specifically mentioned in that immortal document).
Storytelling at its most gripping comes in the novel’s powerfully moving centerpiece. Thirty sons of Welsh warlords are consigned to Philip’s castle as royal hostages on the orders of the king to ensure that their volatile fathers behave themselves back in chronically rebellious Wales. The boys are treated with respect and kindness by the sheriff and his family until a year later when King John thunders into the castle courtyard at the head of his entourage and, in a fury over a new Welsh uprising, roars at Philip, “Hang the hostages – hang them all – and at once!” How Sheriff Mark responds to this grim command forms the moral core of the novel.
In The Sheriff of Nottingham, Kluger has woven an engrossing medieval tapestry that transports the reader beyond the mists of time and legend to witness the struggle of a singular character seeking to act honorably in a time ruled by savage impulse and civil uproar.
©2017 Richard Kluger