The evolution of Robin Hood

  • February 26, 2010

{mosimage}Hodd by Adam Thorpe (Random House UK, 320 pages, $34).

The Robin Hood most of us grew up with was a perfect hero for bookish kids. He was cheerful, generous and just. He surrounded himself with merry men, had a loyal, clever, cute girlfriend and together they robbed from the rich and gave to the poor.

If we thought about it later, we might have regarded the Robin Hood of childhood books, movies and cartoons as a gentleman who had taken sides in the class struggle.

Robin and his band were a kind of vanguard of the oppressed, while the evil Prince John and Sheriff of Nottingham represented the narrow interests of those who controlled the means of production (agricultural land) with an iron fist. It was an industrial-age fairy tale dressed up in supposedly medieval, Lincoln-green tights.

Monty Python made that point, hilariously.

Adam Thorpe gives us quite a different take in Hodd. In this version, what happens between Sherwood Forest and Nottingham is a 13th-century spiritual struggle paralleled by a 20th-century psychological breakdown.

{sa 0099503662}Thorpe does the 13th century better than any other living practitioner of English prose. His first novel, Ulverton, covered 350 years of unwritten English history in the evolving language of the medieval countryside. That book starts in Old English, carries on in Middle English and winds up in the nearly modern English of Shakespeare and Milton.

But Thorpe is not only interested in England 800 years ago. He’s also interested in the world we live in now and how we got here.

Hodd is a 13th-century story sifted through the mind of a man suffering post-traumatic stress syndrome, grief and loss.

The premise of the novel is that it is a Latin manuscript — a confession, by a monk who as a 14-year-old rode with Robert Hodd and Little John, participated in highway robbery and murder, and then wrote the first ballad of Robin Hood before reforming his life and joining the abbey of Whitby.

This manuscript is translated by Francis Belloes, an Oxford scholar who has barely survived his time as a soldier in the First World War. In the footnotes we gradually learn of Belloes’ state of mind, and the loss of his friend Alec in the muddy, rat-infested trenches of France.

Belloes was betrayed by England — by all those who told him he would fight for a noble cause. His shrapnel-damaged Latin manuscript tells the story of another innocence betrayed. The young Moche is betrayed by the hermit who educated him and instilled in him the ideals of medieval Christianity, then betrayed again by Robert Hodd, a runaway priest who has invented an egomaniacal, Nietzschean spirituality of vengeance and environmentalism.

Hodd might seem a quite implausible anachronism. It’s hard to read his speeches about the failures of Christianity and his replacement spirituality of nature without thinking of 21st-century environmentalism.

Thorpe gives us no easy answers. But he does have a measure of right and wrong. Violence, vengeance and lies never add up to the good.

Hodd is a challenging read, but it is more than worth the effort.

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