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Adam Thorpe: Hodd

Commenting on the the film version of Robin Hood in which he starred, Russell Crowe said If you are going to be climbing trees, living in a forest, tramping through gorse bushes and brambles, how clever is it to wear a pair of tights?. He has a point. We do not know if Robin Hood really existed. If he did exist, we are not sure exactly when he existed, where he lived and who he was. Like other legendary characters – King Arthur is an obvious example – everything we know about him is shrouded in mystery. One thing, however, we can be sure of, is that he did not tramp through Sherwood Forest in green tights like Errol Flynn or other Hollywood versions of Robin Hood. Thorpe has given us a more earthy Robin Hood (though with one exception) in this book about the earliest version of the legendary character.

Thorpe’s conceit is to claim an original manuscript about Hood (or Robert Hodd, as he is known in this book, the Robin coming from the word robbing and not from his name). Moreover Robert Hodd is not Robin of Locksley or the Earl of Huntingdon as some later stories have it. Rather he is of yeoman stock and a former priest. This manuscript has apparently been found by a soldier in World War I, who found it in a destroyed church in Belgium which may once have been an abbey. This soldier, a wealthy, amateur scholar called Francis Belloes, published the manuscript in a non-scholarly edition, with copious footnotes (some of which makes comparisons with the situation in World War I and some of which comment on alleged anachronisms). He intended to publish a scholarly edition later but his house, with all its contents, including the manuscript, burned down in 1922. We cannot therefore verify the existence of the manuscript. Belloes claims it as the earliest manuscript reference to Robin Hood, predating by well over a hundred years Robin Hood and the Monk and A Gest of Robyn Hode. The story told in this manuscript/novel however has many features found in later Robin Hood stories.

The story is told by an old monk, some eighty years after the events he witnessed. He had been of yeoman stock. His father had (apparently) been killed when defending his property against the King’s men. He had been brought up by his mother but, in particular, he had been guided by a hermit who had taught him to read and taught him Latin. He had essentially lived with this hermit, who had advised him spiritually and intellectually. For a long period another young man called Edwin (his name is (deliberately) spelled in different ways) lives with them and there is some rivalry between Matthew (our hero) and Edwin. Eventually, Edwin leaves to work in the armaments business and then Matthew leaves, first stealing the hermit’s harp. Much of this is learned later in the book, as Thorpe mixes the Robin Hood story and the story of Matthew’s early life. After he leaves the hermit, Matthew travels around but life is not easy, till he is found by Brother Thomas, a monk at St Edmund’s monastery in Doncaster. Brother Thomas takes Matthew as his servant, enjoying his harp playing and looking after him well. Brother Thomas, who is not averse to the good life, is a portly gentleman and therefore not suited to the ascetic life. His monastery owns extensive forests which they are gradually cutting down to use for fires to make glass for their church and monastery. One day, when Thomas and Matthew are travelling to carry some money from York to St Edmund’s when they are set upon by outlaws – Robin Hood and his gang. Both the money and the harp are stolen and the two barely escape with their life.

Matthew is determined to get his beloved harp back and when he is sent to the glassworks, he leaves to track down the outlaws. He is, of course, caught by the outlaws. Unlike others captured at the same time, he is treated comparatively well as he plays his harp for Robin Hood, a rough but charismatic figure. Hood decides to keep him for that purpose but he is warned if he tries to escape the three middle fingers of his right hand will be cut off. The majority of the novel is about his time with Hood. Hood is very anti-church (we later learn why) but believes himself to be in touch with what he calls the other (also spelt in various ways), which may be defined as something like the spirit world. We meet some of the other characters who will come down to us in the more familiar form and learn rather odd etymologies for their names, particularly the one that Matthew is given. Matthew, under his new name, effectively joins the outlaws and assists in their brigandry. Some of their adventures are similar to those that we know from legend, particularly the capture and rescue of Robin, but in other respects they are a very rough-hewn group, coarse, violent and brutal, and with no intention to rob from the rich and give to the poor but to rob from the rich to give to themselves. Thorpe tells us both, more or less, what happens to the band and what happens to Matthew, which, generally, is not what we have learned from Hollywood and, in the case of Matthew, has a fairly obvious twist.

While demystifying Robin Hood makes for a good tale, Thorpe’s skill is actually to make Robin Hood more than just a violent thug. His visions of the other as well as, of course, his love for the Maid Marian figure raise him above the other outlaws. This mystic aspect to him, however, is disruptive to the band and causes Matthew some concern. Robbing and killing the rich churchmen is so easy when it is just done for personal enrichment. Thorpe also has his fun with execrable puns (Robin Hood seems to be called Hodd, so that Thorpe can pun on his name) and with the often witty and far too clever footnotes by Belloes. It is a fascinating attempt at exploring the Hood legend and continues Thorpe’s interesting exploration of English history.

Publishing history

First published 2009 by Jonathan Cape