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Hodd By Adam Thorpe

It’s hard to think of an English folk hero with more reasonance and broad appeal than Robin Hood, as testified to by the sheer number of times his story has been turned in to films and TV series. With Ridley Scott’s version, starring Russell Crowe, hitting the big screen this year, and the BBC’s primetime adaptation reaching its third series, Adam Thorpe’s new novel is a timely reminder that the origins of the story almost certainly have very little to do with men in green tights, dispossessed nobility or doing anything for the benefit of the nameless poor.
Hodd is certainly an ambitious piece of work: it purports to be the English translation of copy of a Latin manuscript, discovered by a British army officer in a bombed out church during the Great War. Said officer, also a scholar, takes it upon himself to translate and annotate the manuscript, and we also have occassional interjections by Thorpe himself and several other ‘unknown hands’. It’s so utterly consistent and compelling that you feel if Adam Thorpe had teamed up with a master forger instead of a literary agent, quite a few people might have been convinced to rewrite history for real!
The narrator of our tale, a monk nearing the end of his life, is telling his story in an attempt to lighten his burdens. It’s a multi-stranded narrative, encompassing both his childhood and his education by a local hermit on the Yorkshire coast; and his teenage years, when he fell in with the bunch of unprincipled and disheveled outlaws led by the man known as Robert Hodd. During the course of the story it turns out that our narrator is in fact the outlaw who came to be known as Muche, the Miller’s Son; not only that, but as a witness to Robert Hodd’s adventures, he later originated the ballads that formed the basis of the Robin Hood legend. It’s hard to imagine a greater irony for our decrepit old monk: knowing that he has glorified and immortalised a man he first worshipped, then despised, with ballads that he only performed in a desperate attempt to earn a crust.
Robert Hodd is a religious heretic, a murderer and a brigand. His outlaws rob and kill for their own gain and even keep a harem in the woods. Robert Hodd would kick Robin Hood into the middle of next week and then cut his throat. While your initial reaction to these revelations may be disappointment, it swiftly becomes fascinating to see how Thorpe has mapped the common elements of the main Hood legends on to his own version: the merchant’s daughter with whom Hodd becomes obsessed is clearly Maid Marian, leading to the fateful trip to Nottingham during which Hodd is captured; Little John, meanwhile, is a rival rather than a trusted lieutenant.
All of this is delivered in an utterly convincing medieval style – with occasional theological digressions, authentically inconsistent spelling and a Chaucer-like grasp of the correct idiom. For sure, the numerous footnotes may sometimes make the book feel like a genuine source text, especially when concerned with Latin translation or similar, but after a while this all adds to the total authenticity of the experience, and on reflection it wouldn’t be the same book without the academic trappings.
Hodd may not be an easy read compared with a lot of historical fiction, but it’s brilliantly conceived and so convincingly executed that one can’t fail to be impressed.
By Simon Appleby

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