Adam Thorpe's "Hodd" is a difficult book to classify, and I suspect I'll devote more time in this review to explaining what it *is* than what it's *about*. The general idea behind "Hodd" is that the author posits to have found a translation of a Latin document that was in turn discovered by the (fictional) Francis Belloes in a destroyed church during WWI. Belloes was unsure what to do with the damaged manuscripts, and so ended up translating them by himself after becoming intrigued by the repetition of the word "Hodd" throughout the pages.
In this fictional translator's preface, he tells us that the ur-manuscript is long gone, and that the copy he found was itself copied in the abbey of Whitby before being hidden in the Picardy Church where he found it; perhaps because its contents were considered too inflammatory. This is the presentation of that document, which he has linked to the oldest surviving documents of Robin Hood, having noticed that it contains several parallels with the ballad "Robin Hood and the Monk" (the first record of that ballad dated in 1450, a century and a half *after* this document is said to have been written).
This is a document that claims to be the confession of a ninety year old ex-minstrel monk, (whose real name goes unmentioned in the text, though the blurb calls him "Matthew") looking back over his life and his stint as an outlaw under the leadership of Robert Hodd. The writer claims that he is not only the character of "Much" who appears in the ballads, but the man who was responsible for writing the ballad in the first place, the one that went on to make a national folk-hero out of Robin Hood. This is something that he bitterly regrets, having known the "real" Robert Hodd: heretical, violent, cruel, and most probably mad.
In short, this is the fleshed out "true story" behind the events of the ballad "Robin Hood and the Monk," inspired by the single line in which Much kills a page boy. In the ballad itself, this event is given no moral commentary, yet here, the circumstances behind that murder (and its aftermath) is the whole point of the confession.
Much recounts his life under the care of a brother monk, and the day in which they are robbed by a band of outlaws, including Robert Hood. The boy eventually decides to return to the forest in order to steal back his precious harp, only to be caught by the outlaws and initiated into their gang. Robert Hodd in particular takes him under his wing, and soon the boy is dubbed "Moche" (because he's "not much to look at") and introduced to Hodd's heretical belief system of pantheism and self-godhood, which was known at the time as the "Brethren of the Free Spirit," best described as a sort-of mystical anarchy.
From there the book draws together the threads that make up "Robin and the Monk", though the narrator also discusses his own childhood, particularly in regards to the aesthetic holy man that teaches him how to read, write and play the harp.
The defictionalization is carefully created, what with extensive footnotes by both Thorpe and Belloes, a preface by Belloes in which he explains certain stylistic choices of his translation, (such as his avoidance of modernizing names, breaking the text into paragraphs and inserting speech marks) and the deliberate repetition of certain words and phrases within the confession itself, as well as segments that are said to have been lost due to the damaged manuscript, or purposefully abridged in order to skip over the monk's sermonizing. All of this is done in order to give the book a sense of authenticity: that it really *is* a long-lost transcription of a much older text.
The footnotes also cite other secondary sources, including many of the old ballads (in fact, it's a strange omission that the ballad in which this book was based on isn't included in its entirety, especially since at least a passing knowledge of it is required in order to get the full appreciation of the story here).
Obviously, this is very a scholarly book, one whose appeal may be lost on some. There is a difference between a "good" book and an "enjoyable" book, and this definitely falls into the former category. As such, it all depends on your tastes. This is by no means a romanticized version of Robin Hood: everything here is dark and smelly and dirty and slightly unhinged - much like Robert Hodd himself. Ultimately though, it is a very simple tale told in excessive detail, and although it reads almost exactly like a document of its time...well, it all depends on how you would feel about an reading ancient document that isn't actually an ancient document.
Although it seems extensively researched, a couple of anachronistic words did creep in, such as references to friars, peasants and the crusades, words that were not used until many years after the reign of King Richard.
Likewise, there is a bit of a glitch in the time period. The events of the confession take place in 1225, set just after King Richard's reign, but there is no historical evidence whatsoever that a Robin Hood figure existed at this point in time (in fact, the earliest ballads place him many years *prior* to Richard, under the reign of an unspecified King Edward). By Richard's day, he was already a well-known folk legend. Yet because Thorpe wants to connect Much's confession with the ballad that *did* first come into circulation at this point in history, he's forced to put Robin's origins in the early 13th century, rather than place all the action further back in the past.
You probably don't care about any of this. Essentially "Hodd" is a uniquely presented story that enthusiasts of the Robin Hood legends or just history in general will find intriguing. Though the pacing is slow (like most first-person historical accounts) it paints a vivid picture of time and place, as well as how real felons of that time may have acted and believed in. Early renditions of Little John and Will Scarlett (and a cameo from Allan-a-Dale) are present too, and despite the digressions and somewhat needless side-plots that Much recounts in the account of his life, Thorpe captures the voice of a 13th century monk looking back over a life full of regret, sorrow, insight and hard-won experience.
- Paperback: 320 pages
- Publisher: Vintage Publishing; 1 edition (13 May 2010)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0099503662
- ISBN-13: 978-0099503668
- Product Dimensions: 12.7 x 1.9 x 19.7 cm
- Boxed-product Weight: 222 g
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