Longsword by David Pilling

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Rise of the Wolf!

I don't usually do book recommendations and/or reviews, but couldn't ignore the new Robin Hood novel by Steven McKay, titled Rise of the Wolf. McKay has done something very different with the ancient story, as I tried to do with my own Robin Hood mini-series, and given Jolly Robin a much-needed shot in the arm.

Rise is the third in the Forest Lord series - the first two were called Wolf's Head and The Wolf and the Raven - and follows the further adventures of Robin Hood and his gang as they are hunted by the nefarious Guy of Gisburne. So far, so standard, you might think: Gisburne has been Robin's stock enemy since the Errol Flynn movie back in the 1930s, and featured as such in almost every version of the tale ever since. Perhaps the most memorable screen Gisburne was Robert Addie in the 1980s ITV series Robin of Sherwood, though McKay's version is very different from Addie's inept blusterer: the Gisburne in Rise of the Wolf is a snarling, deadly, one-eyed mercenary, burning for revenge on Robin and willing to do anything to get it. 

Mr McKay...
McKay's masterstroke was to pluck Robin from his comfort zone of the Richard I/John era and propel him forward in time to early 14th century, and the troubled reign of Edward II. Robin and his men are outlawed as a result of their part in the failed rebellion of Thomas of Lancaster, Edward's cousin, and condemned to be hunted like animals in Barnsdale Forest. This is true to the oldest surviving medieval ballads, in which Robin meets 'Edward, our comely king' - probably supposed to be Edward II, who was said to be very 'comely' or handsome, and who did embark on a tour of the northern forests towards the end of his reign. Intriguingly, there was a man named Robyn Hode among Edward's retinue when he went north, though he is described as a porter or 'valet de la chambre' rather than a former outlaw.

By placing Robin Hood in an entirely new environment, McKay succeeds in shaking off most of the well-worn clich├ęs: Robin is still hunted by the Sheriff and Gisburne, but the story takes place in a grim, gritty and entirely believable historical and political framework. This is no pantomime with men in green tights bounding through the sunny greenwood, waiting for their heroic king to come home and pardon them. The king is an incompetent, albeit a likeable one, and his nobles a bunch of bloodthirsty, self-interested marauders. England itself is a dirty and wretched place, which is no more than a faithful portrayal of the unspeakable conditions of the time: the early 1300s witnessed several terrible famines in England, appalling weather conditions, and a drawn-out, unwinnable war with Scotland that left much of the north country desolate and stripped of life.  

McKay's novels are the first (that I'm aware of) to relocate the legend in Edward II's reign. This is perhaps a bit surprising, since the theory of the 'historical' Robin Hood being one of Lancaster's rebels has been around for almost 150 years. It was first suggested by Joseph Hunter, a 19th century antiquarian, who claimed to have discovered proof that one Robert Hood of Wakefield, a Yorkshireman living in the early 14th century, was the real man behind the legend. Sadly, on closer analysis Hunter's theory doesn't stand up, for there is no proof that Robert Hood was ever an outlaw or rebel. 

That said, there remains the coincidence of Edward II's progress in the North, and the presence of a Robyn Hod in his household. Recent research has uncovered a man named John Littiljon, of Methley in Yorkshire, serving as a captain of archers in Lancaster's rebel army, as well as a William Scarlet, another Yorkshireman, among the rebel host. In purely historicist terms, then, it seems the early 1300s did have some kind of influence on the content of the ballads, though the actual process of history melding into fiction remains a mystery. 

So much for the history. Whatever the truth behind the legend, McKay's series is a brave, uncompromising step in the right direction, and the perfect antidote to recent feeble screen Robin Hoods. If there was any justice - which, as Robin Hood could tell you, there isn't - these books would be turned into a series of films. Until then, enjoy the printed word, and the rise of the wolf...