The fifth novel in Angus Donald’s superb series of Outlaw Chronicles powerfully mixes medieval legend and history in a brutal, bloody stew of warfare, vendetta, feudalism and fanaticism. Moving between the outlaws’ Sherwood lair and the heretical castles of southern France, Grail Knight brings alive the months following Richard the Lionheart’s death in 1199, written from the perspective of Sir Alan Dale, a young knight in the service of Robin of Loxley, otherwise known as the much feared Robin Hood.
While I would suggest that you read the Outlaw Chronicles in order, beginning with Outlaw, it is possible to read each as a standalone novel. However, this would deny you the enormous pleasure of watching young Alan Dale grow from an untamed, fatherless thief into a bold knight with men of his own and one of Robin Hood’s most trusted companions as well as husband to his adored Goody. Grail Knight benefits enormously from a read of the previous novels, not least because it marks a turning point in some of their themes and stories. As a result, don’t read this if you don’t want to know what happened before to Alan and Robin.
One strength of the series is that each of the novels is very different – battling for survival in Sherwood Forest, going on Crusade, following the trail of the captive Richard the Lionheart into Germany and Austria and, in Warlord, the previous novel, to war with France. Warlord introduced the charismatic and powerful symbol of the Holy Grail, the quest of knights of legend, and it forms the focus of Grail Knight. Facing new and old enemies, Alan and Robin set out to find the Grail’s hiding place in the heartland of the Cathars in southern France. The Companion of Grail Knights they lead is a mixed bunch indeed. Each has his (or her) own motive for finding the Grail but despite the tension that this causes they also uphold, rather against character in some cases, the chivalric code of honour that seekers of the Grail are required to achieve in order to succeed in their quest. Religious purity or even Christianity, though, has very little to do with it. This is Robin Hood after all, a man with his own legend built around him with its touches of paganism and Green Man of the woods.
Despite the light promised by the Grail, this is a dark and dangerous world and this atmosphere is conveyed perfectly by Angus Donald, here just as in the earlier novels. Menace hangs over Sir Alan’s household in the ghastly form of Nur and now this comes to a head. Also, we continue to see both the best and the worst of the Knights Templar and Hospitaller. With the Lionheart dead and war with France paused, many knights in England and on the continent are leaderless and in pursuit of their own goals. Perhaps more than the other novels, Grail Knight demonstrates the fragility of life – the safety line is cut and we can’t expect all to survive the hunt for the Grail. As a result, the novel both thrills and shocks. It is also violent and horrific in places. This Robin has not been sanitised by Hollywood. The style of the narrative, written as if in hindsight, adds an atmosphere of foreboding. Everyone the old Alan mentions is very much painted with the past tense.
I have loved each one of the Outlaw Chronicles and I am continually astonished by the course that we are led on. Alan is a finely developed, knowable character while Robin is an intriguing shadowed figure, much more difficult to know. Little John and Friar Tuck both get a makeover and are very surprising. The repercussions of Grail Knight linger in the mind and without doubt it is every bit as good and unputdownable as its excellent predecessor Warlord. Above all else, Grail Knight is a superb, thoroughly entertaining adventure story and a fine addition to a fabulous series.