Friday, July 24, 2009

What we're reading.

What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the name Robin Hood? Merry Men, Maid Marion, Errol Flynn fencing his way up a circular staircase, tights, feathers and Bryan Adams songs? Whilst modern interpretations of the Robin Hood myth have pervaded popular culture for over two centuries in poetry, literature, theatre and cinema, Adam Thorpe’s latest novel Hodd, is a completely different animal.

The time is thirteenth century England and the tale that unfolds is related to us by Thorpe’s narrator, the elderly monk Matthew, scribbling his confessional memoirs by candlelight around the year 1305. Ridden with guilt for popularising Hodd as a hero of the common man in his younger days, Brother Matthew attempts to set the record straight with a ‘true’ account of Hodds doings. We follow his misadventures as a young would be jongleur, a singer and player of the harp, and companion to Brother Thomas a gluttonous, blasphemous, drunken monk (there‘s always one), who is taken captive by the enigmatic outlaw Robert Hodd (or Robyn Hodde, or Robin Hood) . But none of your feather-in-the-cap-bright-green-merry shenanigans here.

Thorpe’s Hodd is a brutal anarchist, a man who is as at home with acts of sudden motiveless slaughter as he is among the grey, misty confines of his woodland hideout. Not a whisper of any charitable handouts to be found within these pages, Hodd is a man who believes himself above any law of Man or God, fired by his belief in the Doctrine of the Free Spirit (a familiar heresy in medieval Europe which places him beyond sin), Robert and his not-so-merry men selfishly pillage and rape as they see fit.

Little John (another member of Hodd’s criminal brotherhood and a constant competitor for the mantle of leadership) is here too as is Will Scarlett but no sign of the eponymous Marion or indeed many of the other characters that are considered central to the Robin Hood canon. Yes, Hodd goes armed with his famous English Longbow but rather than piping the ace at royal archery contests, we have him, in one early episode, using a well aimed arrow to staple the hand of a helpless quack doctor to a tree branch. Thorpe has much to say about the inequalities of life in the middle ages and paints an unflattering picture of the clergy and landowning nobility of the day, however those of you looking for clearly defined good guys and bad guys will be disappointed.

Overall Hodd presents us with an absorbing and disturbing re-imagining of a familiar folk hero. Thorpe’s use of a pseudo-Chaucerean English and fast lean narrative add much to our immersion in a world where beauty and simplicity of life went hand in hand with constant danger and a keen awareness of the nearness of death. If you like your fiction uncompromising and your novels historical, then Hodd is definitely for you.


Hodd by Adam Thorpe
Published by Jonathan Cape, in store now

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