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"Outlaw" by Angus Donald

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fljustice
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"Outlaw" by Angus Donald

Post by fljustice » Sun April 3rd, 2011, 6:28 pm

This review was originally published on my blog. I'm giving away a copy until Wednesday April 6, 2011.


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 50’s 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, it’s 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, Robin’s 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.

It’s 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. It’s 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 Donald’s 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…they’re rich. You know the answer to the old joke about why the thief robbed the bank? “That’s 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. It’s fast-paced with well-developed characters, plot twists, and an exciting climax. I read the second half of the book straight through. It’s a well-told tale. I’d recommend it to anyone who likes historical fiction and enjoys a different take on an old story.
END OF FORMAL REVIEW. BEGINNING OF PERSONAL REACTION.
But it left me feeling dissatisfied.

I put off writing this review until I had puzzled out, “Why?” If it wasn’t 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 king’s 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. It’s 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 didn’t 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 didn’t take away from his casual brutality and selfish ends.

Today’s 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 won’t 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 don’t 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, Donald’s mafia boss Robin would have resonated; but now, it doesn’t do it for me. As an adult, I’m 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.


The details
• Title: Outlaw
• Author: Angus Donald
• Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin, New York
• Published: 4/12/2011
• ISBN: 978-0-312-67836-4, Trade paperback $14.99
• ISBN10: 0-312-67836-3, Hardback 26.99
• 352 pages
Faith L. Justice, Author Website
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Rowan
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Post by Rowan » Mon November 7th, 2011, 7:43 pm

Hi Faith, my friend just told me of this book today. I see that our library has it so I thought I'd pop over here and see if anyone had read at least the first of the series and you have. :) I think I'll pick it up after I finish my current read, just to see if it suits me. I agree with your assessment of the over all Robin Hood, so don't think you're alone. Robin Hood is an iconic character, whether he was one man robbing from the rich to give to the poor or twenty that did the same thing over a period of time, and isn't someone to mess about with. But it seems that sensationalism is the "in" thing right now.

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Post by SGM » Mon November 7th, 2011, 9:04 pm

I, too, grew up with Robin Hood on TV -- sorry but Errol Flynn came later for me and it took me years to adjust to him. I didn't realise how few episodes there actually were because they seemed to be on for years. Family from abroad always wanted the opportunity to watch the TV show.

I was walking through my local park during the summer and a woman was singing the Robin Hood song to her baby in the pram. I mentioned that that particular song tended to date people. But she replied she had just got it on CD for kids and thought it was wonderful.

I also have fond memory of Delboy (Fools and Horses) standing on the deck of a rusty old ship trying to find his way to Amersterdam singing it in To Hull and Back and I must admit it is also a favourite TV moment.
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Post by annis » Tue November 8th, 2011, 1:14 am

I didn't take to this novel at all, and haven't felt inclined to track down the other two in the series. I much preferred Adam Thorpe's dark, brutal but brilliantly conceived literary novel Hodd, which came out about the same time as Outlaw, though it wouldn't be everyone's cup of tea either.

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Rowan
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Post by Rowan » Tue November 8th, 2011, 1:39 pm

Actually that one sounds good, too, annis. LOL

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Post by parthianbow » Tue November 8th, 2011, 3:44 pm

I really liked Outlaw, and the succeeding two books.

I've heard of Thorpe's Hood, but having not enjoyed two other of his books, I'm not sure I'd want to read it. But Annis has recommended it....decisions, decisions!
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Post by annis » Tue November 8th, 2011, 6:36 pm

Horses for courses, Ben :) Hodd is not a historical adventure in the style of Outlaw, but a pyschological study set in a harsh medieval world. I thought it a brilliant bit of writing, but I suspect a lot of people would find Thorpe's vision of Robin Hood just too unremittingly bleak.

Here's a comment I made about the book earlier:

Hodd, a violent, psychotic wolfshead who self-medicates to ill effect with magic mushrooms and birch-leaf brew, takes as his acolyte a young boy desperately searching for a father-figure. Raised by various men of God, young Moche is both repelled and attracted by Hodd’s blasphemous philosophy, and becomes a member of the outlaw chief’s band. As a repentant elderly monk, he confesses his part in starting the Robin Hood legend. Rigid, unforgiving religion has a lot to answer for in this ironic story about the creation of popular mythology.

There was an entertaining review in the Times comparing Outlaw and Hodd when theyfirst came out, but I now find that the Times has gone to a subscription model, so I can no longer access it- darn!
Last edited by annis on Tue November 8th, 2011, 6:45 pm, edited 2 times in total.

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Post by fljustice » Thu November 10th, 2011, 3:29 pm

Hey! Ben and I made it into the Wikipedia article on Outlaw with our reviews:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Outlaw_(novel)
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Post by Carla » Sat November 12th, 2011, 6:11 pm

Congratulations on getting into Wikipedia!

I was somewhere in between on this one, I think. I came away thinking of it as a sort of action film in book form, more fantasy than historical, what with the pagan religion and horned helmets. I did like Bernard de Sezanne the cowardly troubadour :-)
My review is here: http://www.carlanayland.org/reviews/outlaw.htm if interested.
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Post by annis » Sun November 13th, 2011, 12:33 am

When I say that I didn't take to Outlaw, I should also say that I did see its appeal as an entertaining historical adventure - the whole pagan angle just didn't quite gell for me, though I could see where Donald was coming from with Green Man/King of the Wood mythology being such a strong element in English legend. (Remeber Herne the Hunter popping up periodically to the strains of Clannad in the Robin of Sherwood TV series?)
Last edited by annis on Sun November 13th, 2011, 12:47 am, edited 1 time in total.

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