Adam Thorpe Home


Publication date: 04/06/2009


Who was Robin Hood? Romantic legend casts him as outlaw, archer, and hero of the people, living in Sherwood Forest with Friar Tuck, Little John and Maid Marian, stealing from the rich to give to the poor – but there is no historical proof to back this up. The early ballads portray a quite different figure: impulsive, violent, vengeful, with no concern for the needy, no merry band, and no Maid Marian.

Hodd provides a possible answer to this famous question, in the form of a medieval document rescued from a ruined church on the Somme, and translated from the original Latin. The testimony of an anonymous monk, it describes his time as a boy in the greenwood with a half-crazed bandit called Robert Hodd – who, following the thirteenth-century principles of the 'heresy of the Free Spirit', believes himself above God and beyond sin. Hodd and his crimes would have been forgotten without the boy's minstrel skills, and it is the old monk's cruel fate to know that not only has he given himself up to apostasy and shame, but that his ballads were responsible for turning a murderous felon into the most popular outlaw hero and folk legend of England, Robin Hood.

Hodd is both a thrilling re-examination of myth and a moving reminder of how human innocence and frailty fix and harden into history.

It took me five years to find an approach that would take me into the medieval world without a sense of compromise; I wrote it in a kind of trance, like a past-life regression. I like footnotes: not everyone does. They remind you that the story is a document, soiled and transposed. The past is retrievable only through a fog of interpretation, but its lights wink.


Daily Telegraph

Jane Shilling: May 23, 2009

The fictional device of "discovering'' and transcribing an ancient manuscript is probably as old as bibliophilia itself. Yet in skilful hands it remains an engaging frame for a novel: there is something of the cosiness of the fairytale incantation of "Once upon a time...'' about the ritual of an "editor's'' foreword, painstakingly explaining how he first came by the worm-eaten document that he is about to offer to the public.

Adam Thorpe's Hodd comes wrapped in a double layer of editorial mystery. The introduction, signed "AT'', describes how "a translation from the Latin of a lost original that now exists only as a printer's proof... came into my hands by complex chance some years ago''.

The translator, Francis Belloes, was a wealthy amateur scholar. He was "born in Wiltshire in 1890; read history at Trinity College, Cambridge; fought in the Great War'', after which he returned to Trinity where he taught medieval history and lost his ancestral home - and with it the original manuscript of the present translation - in a fire and died penniless in Paris in 1936.

There follows a "translator's preface'' written by Belloes in 1921, explaining how he rescued the manuscript - a 15th-century handwritten copy of an earlier Latin original - from the ruins of a Somme church in which he sheltered during battle.

The document is the memoir of an unnamed author who appears to have spent most of his adult life in the abbey of Whitby. In 1305, when the original manuscript was set down, the author was 94, but he writes of a period almost 80 years earlier when, as a homeless 14-year-old minstrel, he fell in with the figure who came to be known in folklore as Robin Hood.

There are, the two editors note, vivid parallels between the events in the "confession'' of the aged author and a 15th-century ballad, Robin Hood and the Monk. Nor is Robin Hood himself an unambiguous figure. "Hob the Robber'' was a generic term for a criminal as early as the mid-13th century, and the Robert Hodd, Hode or Hodde of the memoir is not the romantic bosky aristocrat of 19th-century romance but a violent maniac and leader of a desperate band of men.

Our narrator is only 14 when he first encounters the outlaw whose destiny he is for a while to share. His whole life so far has been a series of adventitious encounters. When his father is slain by King John's soldiers he is entrusted by his mother to the care of a hermit who lives in a cave on the rocky seashore near the abbey of Whitby.

Here he is taught to write and play the harp until one day, disgusted by having witnessed the drowning of a sailor whom the hermit did nothing to help, he steals his master's harp and sets off to seek his fortune.

But fortune proves elusive and he is rescued, near-starving, by Brother Thomas, a venal monk with a fondness for high living and pretty youths, who adopts the boy as his page and takes him on a visit from his monastery at Doncaster to the order's house at York. It is on their return, travelling through empty heathland, that Thomas and his page are ambushed by Hodd's gang; their money, horses and the page's harp are stolen, and in his determination to retrieve his most precious possession, he falls into their hands.

What follows is a narrative of extraordinary complexity - part old man's apologia for his sinful younger self; part anatomy of the legendary figures of Hodd and his band, who appear here as prototype existentialists with a particular fondness for inventively horrible actes gratuits (Hodd believes that he is "more than God'', and is obsessed with a force he identifies as "the Other''); part imaginative evocation of medieval England in all its danger, squalor and teeming human drama (the old memoirist complains bitterly that "Rare are those places without the common people, so crowded is Yngelond'').

Adam Thorpe's novel is richly enjoyable on many levels; readers familiar with medieval literature will admire the virtuoso skill of his elegant pastiche (with scholarly footnotes) of middle English; its world view trembling always between dread and delight. But no prior knowledge of the Robin Hood legend is necessary to appreciate the lustrous prose, the humanity and the exuberant inventiveness of this strange and lovely book.

Times Literary Supplement

Henry Power : June 5th, 2009

Robin Hood's entry in the original Dictionary of National Biography was entirely devoted to arguing that its subject did not exist. This testifies to the unique position he holds in English public life. J. C. Holt pointed to this curious fact in his definitive Robin Hood (1982), and has since written an entry for the new DNB, in which he is cautiously optimistic about the possibility of identifying the original Robin. The most probable candidate is a fugitive named Robert Hod who failed to attend the York Assizes in 1225. But recent scholarship has failed to bring much clarity to the subject. Indeed, the best scholarship (like Holt's) has stressed that, even if the legend has a single source, it also has countless tributaries.

A handful of medieval ballads recount aspects of the myth. The earliest of these is Robin Hood and the Monk, which survives in a manuscript miscellany written around 1450. In this account, Robin goes to Nottingham to attend Mass (frustrated at not having been able to do so for a fortnight). There he is recognized by a "gret-heded monke", and captured by the sheriff's men. Little John and Much the Miller's Son set out to rescue him, first finding and killing the monk and his page: "John smote of the munkis hed, No longer wolde he dwell; So did Moch the litull page, Ffor ferd lest he wolde tell." (John struck off the monk's head, No longer would he live; Much did the same to the little page, For fear that he might tell.) In the early ballads Robin and his men aggressively reject ecclesiastical authority.

But he is loyal to God and to the King, and has no urge to redistribute wealth. For all his forest-dwelling, he is in some respects a conservative figure. These days he is associated primarily with robbing the rich and giving to the poor (and is constantly invoked by leader-writers). This endearing sense of social responsibility was a development of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when another ingredient was added to the mixture. Robin was of noble birth: the wayward but socially responsible scion of a landed family (often thought to be the Earl of Huntington).

The English, it seems, prefer their class warriors to come out of the top drawer. By the time Shakespeare refers to the story in As You Like It, the Greenwood has become a pastoral playground for well-born youths: "They say he is already in the forest of Arden, and a many merry men with him; and there they live like the old Robin Hood of England: they say many young gentlemen flock to him every day and fleet the time carelessly, as they did in the golden world."

Adam Thorpe's new novel, Hodd, is concerned with a less pleasant version of Robin, and - to a far greater extent - with the emergence and metamorphosis of the later myth. The reader is presented with the translation of a narrative purportedly written in Latin around 1305. Its author, a monk in his nineties, associated in his youth with a vicious outlaw named Robert Hodd. He first meets Hodd when he and his master are robbed on the road between York and Doncaster, and his harp is stolen. Determined to recover it, he sneaks into Hodd's camp, and is taken prisoner. His skill as a minstrel endears him to Hodd, who insists that he join the outlaws. Following some lively argument, he becomes known as "Moche, the lyttel mynstrel sein". This nickname has apparently become over the centuries "Much the mylner's son". It is he, in other words, who murders the monk's page in the ballad (the stanza quoted above serves as the epigraph to Hodd).

The narrative is thus intended not as a tale of merry deeds in the Greenwood, but as a work of spiritual autobiography. The ageing monk recounts his adventures with Hodd "that future ages may understand the gravity of my sin". Murder is not his only sin; he has also subscribed to Hodd's heretical ideas. As he first approaches the camp, in darkness, he collides with the reeking severed head of a deer, suspended from the bough of a tree: "I knew then that this wood was given over to pagans, whose practices and superstitions still lie about the country in embers".

The hero of the early ballads is a pious man, prepared to risk capture in order to attend Mass; Hodd is a dangerous heretic who believes he is beyond sin, and presents himself as an elemental creative force: "Every leaf is honouring me ... each one, numbering thousands upon thousands, is acknowledging and honouring my presence, for they are part of my inmost being, and they praise me as their father".

It is possible that Thorpe has Robert Graves's account of Robin in mind. In The White Goddess, Graves associates him with pre-Christian English religion, and identifies him in particular with Robin Good-fellow, "an ithyphallic god of the witches with young ram's horns sprouting from his forehead". Hodd's forehead bears the scar of a public branding for heresy, which he forces the young minstrel to touch: "it felt as hot as a coal from Hell, and yet fatty and slippery as a leper's flesh".

The major source of the narrator's guilt here is that he bears ultimate responsibility for the myth of Robin Hood. At Hodd's request he composes a ballad about the escape from Nottingham, and it is clearly this that has developed into Robin Hood and the Monk. In his extreme old age, he still hears travelling players singing "a mangled version of mine own [ballad] on Hode, as well as others proliferated from this single seed".

He is obliged, he tells us at the outset, to acknowledge authorship of this version of events, just as "fathers of crippled infants or disgustingly wanton youths can scarcely sever that blood-tie". Throughout the narrative, he frets about paternity. As a youth, he attaches himself to and disengages himself from a series of father figures: the hermit who teaches him to play the harp, the monk he betrays, Hodd himself. His own fickleness anticipates that of his song.

Thorpe keeps Hodd at arm's length. The narrator, whose name we never discover, does not set down his experiences until some eighty years after they took place - and when he does so they are viewed through the distorting lens of his renewed religious beliefs. Besides this, we read this account not in the original Latin, but in a translation made by an amateur scholar in 1921. The translator, Francis Belloes, was a shell-shocked veteran of the First World War, who discovered the manuscript in a bombed church on the Somme. Thorpe himself introduces the narrative, explaining that the typescript of Belloes's translation came into his hands "by complex chance some years ago". The manuscript was destroyed in a house fire in 1922.

Belloes tells us in his own preface that he keeps on his desk a piece of medieval window-glass rescued from the ruins of the bombed French church. The function of this "thoroughly opaque" fragment is to remind him of "the truth of translation: that it is never (and should not ever suggest itself to be) entirely transparent". The version he offers is distinctively his. He renders the narrative not into modern English but into a 1920s version of the medieval language. But his register is not stable.

Sometimes there is a beautiful simplicity to his prose; sometimes he resorts to mannered archaism. But then, Belloes is an unstable character - incapable of separating his current scholarly project from his recent experiences in France. His footnotes - around 400 of them - further assert his presence, alerting the reader to relevant works of early twentieth-century scholarship and bringing his own experience to bear on the text. When we learn, for example, that the outlaws communicate over long distances by causing fragments of glass to flash in the sun, he is reminded of a similar technique used in the trenches. The reader, though, remembers the fragment that sits on his desk - and of the need to approach this narrative with caution.

Thorpe's palette is restricted by his decision to cohabit with a 1920s translator as well as a fourteenth-century narrator, but he manages his words as deftly as ever. Indeed, the novel's relatively limited vocabulary is turned to its advantage, nicely capturing the narrator's wide-eyed bewilderment at the world into which he is cast (or, perhaps, which he is recalling).

When Hodd speaks, it is as though his "lips were sucking on a plum or a sloe, not forming words". One outlaw's cleft lip resembles "a straw pressed upon wet clay". And when Hodd claims that he is a "boundless sea of spirit", the narrator is caught in his gaze and "felt I was bathing (no bigger than a shrimp) in that illimitable ocean". He is perhaps most effective in his matter-of-fact accounts of the violence meted out by Hodd and his men. The murder of the monk is a case in point: "Litel Johnn without thought brought down with both hands that sharp and weighty sword upon the plump neck beneath the cloth, that all of it was cleaved through quite, flesh and weave together."

In his notes, Belloes often draws on his recent experience of war in order to elucidate such violent episodes. When the narrator speaks of his obedience to Hodd's violent commands, Belloes remarks that he has "witnessed the same strange phenomenon, whereby perfectly decent men can become cruel or even savage in their obedience to higher authority, in the miserable conditions of the late war". The parallels go further. When Hodd is set on by the Sheriff's men, we are told, "the church of St Mary's was [now become] the market of Bagdad, the famed metropolis of the Muhametans".

The reference to contemporary bloodshed in Iraq is unmissable, and the connection is reinforced by other passing references to conflict in the Holy Land (the action is set shortly after the Third Crusade). We are asked to consider the difference between a society in which violence is part of daily life, and one which picks fights outside its borders.

As Belloes puts it, in a footnote to the same episode, we flatter ourselves that we are more civilized than our medieval ancestors, because we prefer "our violence to be thoroughly organised and in foreign parts (though of far more horrendous cost in lives and damage)". Meanwhile, the narrator bemoans the increased bloodiness of his times. Although his Hodd is a more authentic figure than Robin Hood, Thorpe never allows us unmediated access to the past. Accretions of myth are stripped away, only to be replaced by something equally distorting .

Hodd is unlike any of Thorpe's previous eight novels, although it has features in common with many of them. Much of his fiction has considered the deep scars left by war. He pays close attention to the process by which experience is translated into narrative (a concern for every novelist, but one to which Thorpe gives unusual attention). He has an uncanny ability to create and inhabit a peculiar consciousness - this was particularly evident in his debut, Ulverton (1992), which had twelve narrators. But Thorpe is still not as well known as many lesser writers of his generation, partly because of his refusal to produce the same novel twice. It is his rare gift for ventriloquism that has resulted in such a diverse output; Adam Thorpe has never written as Adam Thorpe. In Hodd, he is even less himself than in previous novels (despite his brief cameo at the start), channelling his narrative through two distinct subjectivities. The result is a fascinating and complex novel - as remarkable in its way as Ulverton, but in no way resembling it.


M John Harrison: June 20, 2009

It's 1305. In an abbey near Whitby, a monk called Matthew perches "on the outermost bench of life's cloister". Age has buckled his fingers, but he takes up his goosefeather pen in a last attempt to correct the popular myth of the outlaw called Robbert Hodd, "now appearing under the false coin of Robyn Hoode". This is not an academic task. At 14 years of age, Matthew lived with Hodd and his men in the dark copses and uncultivated heathland (later glamourised as "thick, wild forest") of the north-east of England. There, as a boy jougleur with a stolen harp, he wrote and performed the first fictionalisation of Hodd's exploits.

Driven by the guilt he feels over this very modern act of viral marketing, the old monk strips away layer after layer of his own self-deception and in doing so tells a curious story of fathers and sons or, rather, fathers and son: the fathers adoptive, false or feigning; the son dependent but undependable.

Hodd presents itself as the translation of a Latin manuscript "of quite extraordinary significance to the deep culture of England", recovered from a church on the Somme during the First World War. In support of this scholarly framing fiction, Adam Thorpe offers more than 400 footnotes. Matthew's tone is unabashed pastiche medieval. His wild spelling ("Hodd" shifts into "Hodde" and "Hode"; "Robin" becomes - of course - "Robbynge") gives every name a flickering quality, as if, in those days, individual identity was still only a tentative idea. The narrative itself, tangled by guilt, distance and monk-speak, is as difficult to penetrate as Hodd's fastness in the wood; however determined the narrator is to tell the "truth", some part of him is equally determined to lose it in the complex intercutting between the three crucial periods of his life.

The son of "mere cottars rustici dressed in hodden grey, and their bread coarse", Matthew loses his father early, thereafter apprenticing himself to a religious hermit who lives on the beach somewhere along what is now called Robin Hood's Bay. This figure, starved, exalted and "salted like a herring", teaches him to write, using a stick on the wave-swept sand; and to play the harp, which he does with some talent. Life is hard. The waves sweep Matthew's lessons away. Disgusted by the hermit's adoption of a second apprentice, he takes the harp and makes off. But Matthew will never be any good on his own, and he experiences hunger and despair before finding security as the page of a monk from St Edmonds Abbey, Doncaster. At the abbey, he sings like a girl, rubs honeysuckle ointment into the monk's buttocks and pursues the vocation of scrivener, until outlaws rob them both on the road and Matthew begins his life with the third of his masters.

Bandit and minstrel are made for one another. On Saint Narcissus's Day in Hodd's encampment, Matthew sings him the song which will make his name. Hodd tells Matthew: "You are one of the chosen. I choose you. Rise, and be blessed as one of us." But the Greenwood is a clearing in a copse, smelling of smoke and urine, the Merry Men a bunch of puzzled thugs, and "Li(t)erl John" less a trusty second-in-command than a competitor for power. Hodd, raddled with alcohol and the Heresy of the Free Spirit, obsessed with Issabel, the daughter of a merchant he once held for ransom, is already at the end of his reign. His madness leads him on a doomed adventure into Nottingham - the heartland of the English imagination - and though he returns after only a week or so in the Sheriff's prison, he has lost his authority. His speech is "full of fantastic words that none there understood".

There's a lot of story here. By the end of it, Matthew is back in a monastery. His life, it's clear, has been a search for the best of parental substitutes: a solid, institutionalised ideology. But he's still obsessed by that pair of apparent opposites, the hermit and the outlaw, each embedded in their own symbolic psychic landscape. Throughout Hodd , the waves and the beach, the bleak, clean regimen of the sea-wind, are opposed to the hallucinatory entanglements of the wood. "True" literacy, learned in that "foam-belaboured school", is opposed to Robbynge Hodd's "false" rhetoric, his claim to shamanic perception of a metaphysical truth. The author's enthusiasm is invested here too. In the histories of Hodd and the hermit there's a real sense of medieval people living in their filth and uncertainty and disease, infested with maggots and ideas, trying to manage it all with the tools of extreme religion, which so resemble the tools of lunacy.

Adam Thorpe has defined writing as a way of surviving the solitary confinement of the writer's situation, by "dreaming up a different existence (fiction) or shaping memory into significance (poetry)". Hodd - a story, we must presume, already only a version of itself - allows us to watch both processes as they remake a reality that, in a sense, never existed. But it's also a novel of sly and powerful ironies in which, at every turn, a kind of visionary fundamentalism trumps the humanity of its narrator. All Matthew ever wants is a father, and all he ever gets offered is ideas. We don't know whether to laugh or cry at this lifelong vulnerability.

Ottawa Citizen

Debby Waldman: January 17, 2010

Contrary to what countless purveyors of cheery children's tales would have you believe, Robin Hood was not a friendly fellow and neither were his followers. In fact, about the only time they were truly merry was when they were drunkenly robbing and torturing travellers along what passed for a highway in 13th-century Britain.

According to the narrator of Hodd, U.K. author Adam Thorpe's inventive new novel, Hood was a sadistic, delusional, power-hungry narcissist nursing a long-standing grudge against the Catholic Church for branding him a heretic. It did so literally, with an "h" burned between his eyes. Of course, given that Hood saw himself as "more than God," and preached what can best be described as medieval mumbo-jumbo about spirits, creation and throwing away God "as the snake discards its skin," it's not surprising that the Church had a problem with him.

Readers are likely to have a problem with Thorpe's narrator, who is as delusional as his onetime mentor, though without the sadistic tendencies. Moche, as he was nicknamed by the great robber himself, is about as credible as O.J. Simpson, a self-pitying but charismatic whiner who presents himself as a victim even though it's clear he knows the trouble he's getting into and has no interest in resisting.

Moche is a mere 13 when he encounters Hood. An orphan serving as a page in a monastery, he's travelling with his master, a monk, when Hood's men rob them at knifepoint, relieving them of £100 and Moche's beloved harp. The two should be grateful that they manage to escape with the clothes on their backs and all their limbs intact, but the misguided Moche is determined to reclaim his harp. His entire identity is tied up in the instrument which, he eventually reveals, he himself had stolen several years earlier from his first master, a beach-dwelling hermit who taught him to write.

Back at the monastery, Moche decides to sneak into Hood's camp and retrieve the harp. That he's caught comes as no surprise. What is unusual is that unlike Hood's other prisoners, who are tortured, murdered or made to dress in women's clothing and dance together, not only is Moche spared, he becomes Hood's favourite confidant.

The two make an ideal pair, deluded narcissists who fill a void in each other's lives. Hood needs a disciple who won't threaten or challenge him. Moche is itching for a father figure who won't be lured away by a more talented or appealing youngster. And thus unfolds the perfect symbiotic relationship, at least until Hood's delusions of destiny and his not-so-merry men's internal power struggles conspire to topple him from his self-established throne.

In this, his ninth novel, Thorpe (Ulverton, The Standing Pool) has come up with an ingenious way to insert humour into what would otherwise be a straightforward narrative about a homicidal gangster. He works off two conceits: first, that late in life Moche wrote a confessional detailing his tortured upbringing, his not-always-successful attempts to come first in the affections of those he sought as mentors, his adventures with Hood, and his many disappointments. He has an endless capacity for disappointment, which is useful, given that everyone he encounters seems to do him wrong.

The second conceit is that early in the 1920s, the confessional falls into the hands of a "wealthy, amateur scholar," a Brit named Francis Belloes, who translates it from Latin. The hilariously pretentious Belloes has no concept of consistency. He can't settle on one spelling for any of his main characters: Hood becomes Hodd, Hodde, Hod, Hode and Hoode. Richard, a tradesman at the monastery, has even more variations, among them Richerd, Rycharde, Rycherd, Ricchet, Riccherd, and Richet. More amusing, though, are the countless footnotes in which Belloes provides explanations that are intended to sound scholarly, but are just silly.

There's a reason that academic papers aren't considered page-turners: All those footnotes slow you down, and that's certainly the case here. And while the olde English grammar lends authenticity to Moche's voice, it doesn't make for easy reading.

Those looking for a fast-paced action story about Robin Hood are bound to be disappointed, but readers who want to time-travel 800 years into the past to live vicariously through an entertainingly self-absorbed adolescent Hood groupie now have the ideal means by which to do so.


David Robinson: March 30, 2010

[Hodd is a] scintillating take on the legend of Robin Hood which effortlessly takes the reader inside the medieval world. In extreme old age, a monk recants his folly in writing ballads that cast the outlaw leader in a heroic light. The reality, he shows, was entirely different - the real Hood he encountered was nothing more than a heretical psychopath. Like Wolf Hall in rethinking conventional interpretations of the past while still retaining a convincing sense of both time and place.

Mail on Sunday

Simon Shaw: May 30, 2010

Ridley Scott's film Robin Hood is likely to be one of this summer¹s box-office successes, but if you prefer your history served with grisly authenticity then I can recommend this dark and ingenious literary version of that most enduring of English myths. Thorpe's outlaw, Robert Hodd, is far removed from the image of a hero crusading against tyranny: Hodd is cruel and egotistical, presiding over his ruthless gang of forest cut-throats like a medieval Charles Manson. This is life as it was really lived in the Middle Ages: nasty, brutish, short, and not a pair of green tights in sight.


Philippa Gregory : August 27, 2010

I am reading Adam Thorpe's Hodd - a fictional account of Robin Hood, alongside David Baldwin's biography Robin Hood: The English Outlaw Unmasked. It's fascinating to compare the two treatments. Baldwin finds his way through the medieval world, explaining the gaps in the manuscript, and Thorpe has written the manuscript we are missing. It's a wonderful historical jigsaw puzzle and perfect to be read side by side.

Southern Reporter

April 7, 2010

Shortlist for inaugural Walter Scott prize is announced

The shortlist for the inaugural Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction has been announced, comprising seven novels with settings ranging from ancient Rome to pre-war Czechoslovakia. The winner will be announced at the festival in June and will receive £25,000, making it the biggest UK literary prize to be judged outside London. Making it onto the shortlist is Hodd by Adam Thorpe, Lustrum by Robert Harris, Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant, Stone's Fall by Iain Pears, The Glass Room by Simon Mawer, The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds, and Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel [the eventual winner]. The prize has been sponsored by the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch, who share kinship with Sir Walter Scott…

The prize will be awarded on June 19 as part of the Borders Book Festival. The strength and breadth of entries for the first year of the prize - which is the fifth richest book prize in the UK - indicates a growing appetite for historical fiction in direct contrast to a waning of the study of history, said judging panel chairman Alistair Moffat. "The best way to understand the past is often to read a novelist rather than an historian," he said. "We need to know where we came from, what kind of people our ancestors were. And that's one reason people are reading historical fiction in greater number than ever before. What people in the past believed - such as the absolute certainty about Heaven and Hell in the Middle Ages - is every bit as important in telling us what they were like as what they left behind in the historical record."

Matthew Keeley : December 2016

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.

Although 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.