Felons in the Forest: Adam Thorpe’s Radical Take on Robin Hood

We all know Robin Hood. For many of us, the name “Robin Hood” summons a vision of an exuberant Errol Flynn; others might see Disney’s talking fox, Cary Elwes with a raised eyebrow, a swashbuckling Kevin Costner, or even one of Howard Pyle’s classic illustrations. A few poor souls may even recall Russell Crowe’s dour soldier. Robin is versatile: We usually find him eluding the Sheriff of Nottingham and confounding Prince John, yet if he appears with King Arthur and Merlyn, we’re not really surprised. However he might look and wherever he might pop up, we know Robin Hood as a brave outlaw, a defender of justice, and a champion to the oppressed.

Adam Thorpe’s novel Hodd claims that everything we know is wrong, beginning with the outlaw’s name.

Thorpe transforms Robin Hood, bandit lord of Sherwood, into Robert Hod, cruel bandit, notorious heretic, vicious murderer, and lurker by the wayside. Hod’s story (or perhaps that should be Hodd? Or Hodde? Thorpe’s narrator writes with that genuine medieval disregard for standardized spelling) comes to us through the confessions of an elderly monk, never named, who spent a year of his youth following the bandit. The aged monk—I’ll call him Much, as this becomes his nickname after he meets Hodd—tells his story in order to atone, for not only did Much aid Hodd in the commission of vile crimes, not only did he spend a year in thrall to his outlandish heresies, but he also ensured the outlaw immortality by writing the first of the many ballads and poems devoted to his exploits. Much has lived long enough to see his old master become a folk hero.

hoddAlthough I’ve enjoyed other books by Adam Thorpe, this 2009 novel had me nervous: I’ve loved the Robin Hood stories my whole life, and I had no desire to read a book that took apart the legend for the sake of cynicism or shock value: changing every hero to a villain and replacing every noble deed with a foul one does not make for a particularly interesting story. Thankfully, Adam Thorpe is a far better writer than that; his book is an evocation of medieval England, a dark adventure, and a meditation on the myths we create about the world and about ourselves.

As a novel about the past and another era’s perspective, Hodd needs to seem convincingly medieval, so I’m glad to report that Much truly does sound like a thirteenth-century monastic. His understanding of his own story depends on his understanding of the world and of God’s plan for it. Much is a pious man, but he’s absorbed his era’s misogyny, its distrust of foreigners, its loathing of infidels, and even its tendency for overlong digressions. Indeed, we frequently encounter annotations from the book’s fictional editor noting where he has excised such extraneous text as “ a spasm of righteous polemic lasting a full two leaves, with many scriptural citations.”

Even when the editor leaves Much’s words alone, the narrator does not sound like a modern writer. Thorpe is a fantastic mimic, and I enjoyed just about every word of the book, but not all readers will wish to spend three hundred pages in Much’s head. Here is his account of meeting Hodd:

I recognised him as the very villain (calling himself the chief) who had taken my master’s purse and examined the coins most lustily. His eyes were still somewhat swollen in their sockets, as one sees in drowned men, and the blemish on his brow most like a splash of molten wax. I did not realise that drunkenness was so deep in him that it not show upon the surface, until he was angered.

As the quote above suggests, in almost every way the man described in Hodd is the antithesis of the Robin Hood that you and I know. Where legend gives us a charitable thief, Thorpe gives us a grasping robber; where poetry and song give us an eloquent rogue, Thorpe provides a ranting lunatic. The Merry Men who traditionally surround Robin are here a band of cutthroats, madmen, and sadists. Will Scarlet is disfigured, Little John disloyal, Friar Tuck absent, and Maid Marian nonexistent.

What’s most distressing about this gang of criminals is that there’s some traditional backing for this portrayal of Robin Hood. As the author points out in his Introduction, the oldest Robin Hood stories, including ballads like “Robin Hood and the Monk,” portray the bandits as brutally violent and indifferent to their victims’ suffering. Just as modern retellings of the Odyssey discard Odysseus’s murder of a Trojan child, later tales reshaped and reformed Sherwood’s outlaw. Mythmaking may not always be innocent—I only wish this lesson were not so relevant to today’s world of fake news and media distortions.

After this description of the book, its characters, and its themes, you may be forgiven for thinking that this version of Robin Hood is not very fun. While it’s true that this book would not be my first recommendation for a conventionally pleasant trip to Sherwood Forest, Hodd was one of the most enjoyable novels that I’ve read this year. The daring raids, thrilling escapes, and awful perils of a classic adventure are all here, but they’re joined with introspection, irony, and a very wry sense of humor.

There’s a lot more to say about Hodd—though I’ve alluded to the book’s medieval style, I haven’t mentioned the frame story about the discovery of the monk’s manuscript, nor have I brought up the sad tale gradually revealed by the fictional translator’s footnotes and marginalia. Hodd is a demanding and enjoyable novel; while it will never sit comfortably alongside more traditional Robin Hood stories, it deserves attention as one of the best tales of England’s most famous criminal. Adam Thorpe has robbed from a rich past and presented a gift to today’s readers.

Matt Keeley reads too much and watches too many movies; he is helped in the former by his day job in the publishing industry. You can find him on Twitter at @mattkeeley.

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