Hodd by Adam Thorpe

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Hodd by Adam Thorpe

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A re-telling of the legend of Robin Hood with a sound basis in historical fact, but spoiled by a somewhat stilted execution.
Buy? No Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 336 Date: June 2009
Publisher: Jonathan Cape Ltd
ISBN: 978-0224079433

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Like every other English child I was brought up on tales of Robin Hood.

Robin Hood, Robin Hood riding through the glen,
Robin Hood, Robin Hood with his band of men.
Feared by the bad, loved by the good,
Robin Hood, Robin Hood…

The theme music to the 1950s TV series starring Richard Greene says it all. The legends and myths surrounding Robin of Loxley, faithfully recreated in all of the outings from Walter Scott's Ivanhoe through the Errol Flynn films, to the BBC's recently lamented Jonas Armstrong depict the Outlaw as Saint.

Fighting for the rightful king Richard and the lives of the poor against the tyranny and misrule of bad King John, Robin, one-time squire of Loxley has deserted his manor to live in the forest harrying the Prince John's tax collectors and any other wealthy nobles who stray upon his paths. The money collected is distributed among the local poor. The arms acquired are used to fight for freedom against the wicked Sheriff of Nottingham and the malevolent Guy of Guisbourne.

Robin is joined in Sherwood Forest by Friar Tuck, Much the Miller's son, the bard Alan'a'Dale, Will Scarlet and the mighty Little John, ace wielder of the quarter staff.

And then of course, there is Maid Marion. Oddly, I can't remember exactly how she comes into the story or why (other than to provide the obvious love interest!).

These are the tales I heard, literally at my father's knee, but they are not mere stories. They are part of our English heritage. There is a whole tourist industry founded upon them…and they speak to we natives of England as we like to believe it once was.

And, of course, there's probably not more than a word of truth in them.

There is a word though. Robin Hood did exist. Most of the stories date from the ballads of the early 1500s, but the earliest reference is in Langland's poem Piers Plowman dating to 1377. Serious historical research has found some details of an outlaw by the name of Robyn (or Robert) Hode or Hodd (or various other spellings depending upon the hand)… but it seems he was not quite the hero of legend – but an outlaw pure and simple, living off his wits, taking where he could, harming anyone who threatened him.

This, more likely, Robin is the Hodd of Adam Thorpe's novel. The tale Thorpe gives us goes back to the mediaeval ballads and in particular Robin Hood and The Monk and weaves a whole new plot around the event of Little John and Much killing a monk and his page.

A young monastic servant sets off with his master, Brother Thomas, to return home from York to St Edmunds at Doncaster. En route they are set upon by felons. Thus our narrator falls in among the thieves and gains an insight into their lives and mysteries.

It is a premise full of promise – which unfortunately Thorpe then does everything in his power to undermine.

Accepting that he needed a narrator for his plot, I will freely accept the device of a young monastic servant being taken prisoner by Hood's gang but somehow surviving to write his tale many years later. I can see that having Robin as a prototype Cathar heretic with delusions of grandeur lends drama and a sense of power to the persona, and goes an unnecessary distance to trying to find however unjustifiable a moral basis for the life of an outlaw that might have otherwise arisen from sheer personal greed. These could still work within the idea.

Where the whole falls down however is in the completely unnecessary notion of needing a reason for the manuscript to have come to light (which gives us a completely pointless divergence in to the early 20th century wars in France at beginning and end of the novel) and, even worse, the treatment of the presentation of the manuscript as an academic (or semi-academic) translation of an original.

The latter is particularly irksome as it results in virtually every page being littered – and I use that word in its most pejorative sense – with footnotes. There may well be some gems amongst them, but by page 20 I'd given up reading them in favour of at least trying to follow the plot. They are intrusive in the extreme and detract, rather than add to the feel of the book.

The memoir device fails in two other respects.

Firstly, the teller feels the need to wander off into his own past before and after his involvement with Hodd, which again feels a little like padding without adding value to the central tale. The shame of that is not only what it does to this novel, but the short-sightedness that misses the fact that properly worked it could have provided a separate tale entirely. Alternatively, playing our monastic harper as the main protagonist, with the Hodd episode being merely that (an episode) could have produced a similarly more readable result.

Secondly, the use of dated language really should be used more sparingly and consistently than it is here. I've no objection to archaic words and expressions being used in context, nor to the random choice of spelling for words and more particularly place and people names. However, I do feel that a single writer would be consistent in his choice of spelling, however obscure that choice might be. The attempt to include as many variations on a theme leant less rather than more verisimilitude.

As a result, although I trust the research that went into it, like the story-line and am encouraged to dig deeper into the legends with an open mind about the real Robin Hood, I found Hodd quite hard going and can't in all conscience say that I enjoyed it.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

For a graphic take on the legend try Outlaw or if you don't mind your heroes being transplanted in time and place try Stephen Lawhead's Hood.

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