When one considers that approximately 8 out of every 10 actors has played Robin Hood at one point in their careers, one could be forgiven for thinking that there is little left to tell about the Hooded Man, Robin of Loxley, Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men. But demonstrating how a good story in the hands of a good writer can always have the power to surprise, Angus Donald sets us straight with Outlaw, the first of a series of novels that tells the tale of Alan Dale, a soldier and trouvère, who serves none other than Robin, Lord of Sherwood, ‘the Godfather’ of the Forest.
The boy thief Alan is already a wanted man when he is delivered into the service of the outlawed Robin by his desperate mother. A thief who has narrowly escaped losing his arm to the harsh justice of the Sheriff of Nottingham, a man also responsible for hanging Alan’s father, Alan has nowhere left to go. Lord Robin provides a haven to such waifs, strays, thieves, wronged men and enemy longbowmen, all wanted one and all. Hidden away in forest manors or even caves, Alan and other men are trained to fight for Robin, to rob the Sheriff’s men and to avenge lost families and homes. Unlike the others, though, Alan is a born minstrel and so he is also taught to be a troubadour by the courtly Bernard. One of Alan’s greatest pleasures is to sing alongside Robin and his betrothed, Lady Marie-Anne, Countess of Locksley, from whom Alan also learns the ideals and arts of courtesy.
Despite the glimpses of courtly love, poetry, song, Templar knights and feasting, this is not the Robin Hood of 1950s Hollywood. It’s not even the Robin Hood of Russell Crowe. The outlaw here might be a charismatic leader and at times a likeable man but he is merciless. In this tough and dangerous world, where his followers must fight for survival in wolf-infested forests, suffering the hellish cruelty of petty Norman lords, not to mention the secret treachery of comrades, there is nothing more tough and dangerous than Robin himself. There are acts he commits here that are so horrible they were difficult for me to read. There are other men that we know from the legend, such as Friar Tuck and Little John but not even they can stomach Robin Hood all of the time. If there is a mystery, arguably it’s why Friar Tuck would choose to follow such a godless man.
Above all, Outlaw is an adventure story and it is a quick and furious read, with exciting skirmishes and battles as well as vivid reconstructions of a life spent in the hall of one’s lord. It’s a novel rich in colour, predominantly green for the forest, white for snow and frost and red for blood, and the blood and gore flood by the gallon.
While the names of most of the characters are familiar, their lives as they are presented here are fresh and their futures uncertain.
This is the first in a series of novels and, as such, there are signs of a storyteller settling down into his stride and voice, but this is an excellent debut novel and I can’t wait to follow Alan and Robin on crusade with Richard the Lionheart in Holy Warrior and King’s Man. I have no idea what to expect but I do know it will keep me on the edge of my seat.