Review: Outlaw

Outlaw
Outlaw by Angus Donald
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Outlaw, is an enjoyable, even memorable, re-imagining and re-exploration if you will, of the Robin Hood legend. All our favourite fiends, friends and enemies are here – ‘Maid Marion’, Friar Tuck, ‘Little’ John, the Sherrif of Nottingham, and Guy of Gisborne – there’s action and adventure a-plenty and it all takes place in and around Sherwood Forest.

But forget what you thought you knew of Robin Hood. There’s no swinging happily through Sherwood Forest’s lush, leafy glades, no slapping thighs while dressed in Lincoln green. He still robs from the rich of course, but he keeps more than a bit for himself, as you would. This Robin Hood is a successful leader, an inspiring personality, a friend, a lover – but he’s also a constant, threatening presence; you’re never entirely sure what he believes or what he will do next. It is the last throws of an older England, an ancient, honest England fighting to survive against the overwhelming odds of the all-conquering Normans.

However, the story is perhaps more about the young Alan Dale. From an impoverished childhood and an early – not entirely successful – career as common thief in Nottingham, he becomes involved with the real thieves and outlaws of Robin Hood and Sherwood Forest. Typically, one (Nor)man’s thief, is another (English)man’s freedom fighter and Alan Dale is inexorably drawn to the outlaws through necessity and curiosity. The book follows battles to remain alive, his ‘education’ at the hands of themtough forest outlaws – but also from a whole host of troubadors, Knights, lords and ladies – through many adventures up and down England, leading to the Outlaws’ final confrontation in Sherwood, with the seemingly superior forces of the Sherrif of Nottingham. It’s not really a surprise that he survives, of course; he has already made clear that he is narrating this in the latter days of a long life, but it is genuinely interesting, not to say tensely exciting, finding out how he is to do it.

And there are many here who have been forced to leave their families, their hearths and homes by so called law-men, by bullies who claim power of life and death over you in the name of the King…And there are many here who have been injured, humiliated and denied your natural rights as free Englishmen.

Yet there is another all-conquering force at work in this book’s (not so) Merrie England; Christianity. It seems there are many ordinary free Englishmen who are still unrepentantly Pagan and in this, the book reminded me a lot of the struggle to keep the pagan faith alive, that is central to another book I read recently, Viking: King’s Man, by Tim Severin. Indeed, ‘Little’ John is clearly Viking inspired.

Christianity is obviously the religion of the rich and powerful. It is a ‘top down’ religion, closely bound up with and indeed cynically used by, the Normans. Used to instil a fear of their ‘betters’ – and a fear of the consequences of revolt – in the ordinary people of England. As a Norman comments on a speech Robin Hood makes on the eve of battle;

“He talks like a ranting priest, but he rants about the most extraordinary Godless, unnatural things: Freedom from the Church? Freedom from our rightful lords, who have been set above us by God? What nonsense, what dangerous, heretical nonsense.”

However, the older, Pagan beliefs, are closely associated with the fields and forests and wild places. An honest, down to earth faith. As a denizen of Sherwood, living in a seemingly Christian society, this Robin Hood uneasily straddles the two faiths. But, as a true man of the people, he is more Pagan than Christian. Or is he? Several times through the book, just as Alan Dale seems to have got a fix on Robin Hood’s values, or what he believes; Robin moves in another mysterious way. He seems to hate Christianity and perhaps with good reason, for Christianity is bound up with the Normans, the two forces combining to oppress the ordinary, hard-working, pagan worshiping English people. Robin’s honest, down to earth people need a hero, they need a new King Arthur and Robin Hood is it.

Was he a real person? He is surely, historically speaking, more a fantasy figure, than a real, historically provable figure. Robin Hood is almost certainly a coalescence of the ordinary people’s collective hopeful imagination – hoping for inspiration, help and comfort against the oppressive regime of the Normans and the voracious march of Christianity. Much in the vein of King Arthur, who is mentioned many times in ‘Outlaw’; Robin Hood is a rememberance of a glorious ‘golden’ age of England, now lost, the return of which needs an Arthur-like spear-head figure. Robin Hood.

Was he real? Probably not. But if he had been, he would certainly more like Angus Donald’s Robin, than all the Hollywood or tv studio versions you’re more familiar with. Looking forward to getting hold of the next in the series.

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