As a kid, I fell in love with Robin Hood. Errol Flynn swashbuckling through the forest all clean and pretty. The collected stories that I read over and over again. The 50s TV show (written by blackballed Hollywood writers with a decided anti-McCarthyism bent) with the stirring theme song:
Robin Hood, Robin Hood
Riding through the glen.
Robin Hood, Robin Hood
With his band of men.
Feared by the bad, loved by the good.
Robin Hood, Robin Hood, Robin Hood.
Okay, its more stirring with the music. (You can listen to the song here.) Growing up, the legend of Robin Hood was everywhere as the ultimate hero who stood up for the little guy against evil oppressors: corrupt sheriffs and greedy churchmen. We all knew the stories of loyal Little John, the strong right hand man; tipsy Friar Tuck; Will Scarlet, handy with a sword; Alan A-Dale the minstrel; and the chaste, beautiful and smart Maid Marian, Robins enduring love. After stirring adventures, good King Richard arrives in time to pardon the outlaws, give them lands and titles and marry Robin and Marian.
Its an iconic tale of good vs. evil and happily-ever-afters that attracts artists back to the theme over and over. Numerous books have updated the story or tinkered with the timelines. Directors have put their own stamp on the story from the Mel Brooks satirical Men in Tights to the most recent Ridley Scott entry, where yeoman Robin is responsible for the Magna Carta. Its very hard to bring something new or fresh to the story.
Which brings me to Outlaw by Angus Donald. All the traditional pieces are in place: time, setting, characters. The story is told in first person by Alan Dale as an old man recounting his youthful adventures with the outlawed Robin:
With this instrument, the Lord wiling, I will write his story, and my story, and set before the world the truth about the vicious outlaw and master thief, the murderer, the mutilator, and tender lover, the victorious Earl and commander of an army, and ultimately, the great magnate who brought a King of England to the table at Runnymede and made him submit to the will of the people of the land; the story of a man I knew simply as Robin Hood.
Yes, you read right the vicious outlaw and master thief, the murderer, the mutilator. Robin, in Donalds tale, is a mafia don. A younger son of nobility, outlawed for torturing and murdering a priest who abused him. According to Friar Tuck a cold-hot man with the raging power of anger but the icy control of a calm man the most dangerous of all. Our first glimpse of Robin is him holding court, in a scene reminiscent of The Godfather. Peasants bring their protection money (food, drink, armaments, supplies.) Robin settles disputes between neighbors and metes out justice to an informer, by cutting out his tongue. The Merry Men are a bunch of tough enforcers.
In this story, Robin Hood steals from the rich, but not because he identifies with, or wants to help the poor, but because well theyre rich. You know the answer to the old joke about why the thief robbed the bank? Thats where the money is. And Robin needs money. He uses his stolen cash to fund his loan-shark business, with the local Jews as fronts (usury being forbidden to Christians.) As the story unfolds, we get a picture of a complicated man: educated for that age, shrewd, intelligent, ruthless, a brilliant strategist with a chivalric love and a taste for good music. Robin, a scion of the ruling class, is a man with a plan. Ailing King Henry II and his likely heir Richard are bankrupting the country with their wars. Robin plans to buy a title from a desperate ruler, restore his respectability and marry his loyal love Marie-Anne.
While trying to accomplish this goal, Donald gives us a rollicking story: ambushes, intrigue, a traitor, and strange denizens of the deep forest; court life, troubadours and Templars. We learn about medieval weapons, class divisions, food, clothing, and pagan rituals. Its fast-paced with well-developed characters, plot twists, and an exciting climax. I read the second half of the book straight through. Its a well-told tale. Id recommend it to anyone who likes historical fiction and enjoys a different take on an old story.
I put off writing this review until I had puzzled out, Why? If it wasnt the characters, plot or writing; what struck me as wrong? It came to me after watching a special on the History Channel about the origins of Robin Hood. Over and over, Robin is portrayed as a man of the people, a free yeoman who falls afoul of the law by poaching the kings deer to feed starving people. In later years, he is sometimes promoted to a small landholder. The Ridley Scott movie returns him to his yeoman roots.
Angus Donald makes a bold choice in his characterization of Robin. Its new, fresh, different and probably realistic for the times. It makes sense that a well-educated nobleman, who knew the way his class thinks and acts, could marshal the men, command the loyalty and plan the campaigns that Robin did in this book. But I didnt like him. I felt (some) sympathy for his plight, but, in the end, he was just another rich guy using the poor as a stepping stone for his personal ambitions. The fact that he was charismatic and wronged didnt take away from his casual brutality and selfish ends.
Todays world is full of selfish people: CEOs making mega bucks as they send American jobs overseas; corporations paying no taxes on billions in earnings; captains of dirty power industries not only polluting our environment, but taking taxpayer subsidies to do it; congresspeople who wont raise the taxes on the rich a measly 2%, but will slash nutrition programs for poor women and children and home heating oil subsidies for the elderly. I dont want to read about another selfish person being held up as a hero. I want a modern-day Robin Hood (or better yet thousands of Robin Hoods) to stand up to power and make things better.
Maybe in the go-go 80's, Donalds mafia boss Robin would have resonated; but now, it doesnt do it for me. As an adult, Im fully prepared to have my childhood icons challenged and love to see artists try different takes on tired themes; but (for me) this was the wrong Robin, at the wrong time. I want my Robin: the good guy from my youth, the yeoman bowman, who stood up for the poor and oppressed, who fought corruption and won the girl. I want a better world and a better Robin.
Please note: I received this Advance Reading Copy of Outlaw through the Early Reading Program of LibraryThing.com. The opinions in this review are my own.
Author: Angus Donald
Publisher: St. Martins Griffin, New York
ISBN: 978-0-312-67836-4, Trade paperback $14.99
ISBN10: 0-312-67836-3, Hardback 26.99