Hodd, By Adam Thorpe

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The Independent Culture

When Robin Hood first appears in English literature he is a violent, wilful and uncharitable outlaw, having more in common with Tony Soprano than Kevin Costner. But that poem, "Robin Hood and the Monk" (c.1450), comes nearly a hundred years after his first fleeting mention in Piers Ploughman (c.1377), which makes it clear that his "rymes" were already popular throughout England. The question of where these tales came from has puzzled researchers ever since. Adam Thorpe's new novel attempts to answer this question, and a few other medieval mysteries as well.

Thorpe introduces Hodd as a translation of a lost manuscript, found in the crypt of a church during the Battle of the Somme: "A bulky, stained and occasionally illegible manuscript, stitched crudely together with gut."

"Hodd is not the medieval thing itself," Thorpe tells us, "but a translation from the Latin of a lost original, that now exists only as a printer's proof. This startling document came into my hands by complex chance some years ago. The translator's name is Francis Belloes..." And so begins the fiction.

It is the Year of Our Lord 1225, and the narrator, a young monk and harp-player, is travelling between York and Doncaster (spelt with typical medieval carelessness as Dancaster, Danncaster and Dancasster) with his master brother Thomas, the cellarer of St Edmund's Abbey. Not surprisingly they are set upon by felons, one of whom turns out to be a certain Robert Hode, who is no bumpkin with a bow, but a troubled man of troubled times.

He is anti-Church, anti-establishment, and clings to a heretical belief in the individual that chimes interestingly with the modern age. "He told me, not that he was God, but that he was more than God" and that "God is merely an invention....'There is no sin,' he repeated, his words blurring deliciously [suaviter] inside my head. 'The one who is perfect, who has attained perfection, cannot sin even if he wished to, for everything he does is necessarily perfect.'"

Believing the individual beyond reproach, Hodd indulges in excesses of violence and power that lead ultimately to his downfall. He would end up a forgotten outlaw were it not for the unwilling narrator, who sits with him on his deathbed, and hears the tale that brought him to outlawry. "Thus did he recount his earlier years, saying I must turn it into song... [but] on fleeing the camp [I] vowed never to sing of him – but you patient reader, shall see what became of that vow!'

Thorpe has done an admirable job of researching and recreating the world Robin Hood might have inhabited, as well as the idea of a lost manuscript. Footnotes comment on marginalia; comments added in other hands, guesses at indistinct words, the original Latin phraseology, and other scars that medieval manuscripts bear, such as the stain of a wheat stalk used as a bookmark. His narrator (like most medieval scribes) is realistic in his pious verbosity, but the story suffers under the weight of this construct, for medieval narratives work very differently to the modern novel.

Thorpe tries to lighten the medieval style with frequent intrusions from his fictional translator, who squeezes 408 footnotes into the 307-page manuscript. Some of these are funny, many fascinating (wearing your coat any higher than the calf risked denoting a peasant; sexual coupling in the manner of a dog was punishable by ten days fasting). But they serve to slow down a narrative that is already ponderous. There are moments of beauty in Hodd, but ultimately this is a novel that is clever more than exciting; it entertains more by craft than by guts.

It is a tale that fails the medieval narrator, as well, as he attempts to undermine the ballads that glorify the dead outlaw. Hodd ultimately proves, again with many modern parallels, that reality cannot compete with myth.

The first volume in Justin Hill's 'Hastings Trilogy' of novels will appear next year