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Archers Review recently had the chance to catch up with author Angus Donald, the man behind the Outlaw Chronicles series of books, based on the legends of Robin Hood but with a rather different twist. Here Angus talks about the man Robin Hood was really likely to be, the true hero of his books and an excerpt from the latest in the series, The Iron Castle due out in July this year.
Robin Hood is an archer. In many ways he is the archer. And when I started writing the Outlaw Chronicles more than ten years ago, I was fascinated by this character – the deadly bowman, the hunter of beast and men, who lurks in the wilderness, outside law and society and brings justice to the oppressed people of England with his simple wooden peasant’s weapon.I took two or three lessons with a long bow, to give myself the flavour of the sport, and trailed around the woodland watching other far better bowmen demonstrate their prowess. But I discovered that my skills lay at the keyboard, not at the butts, and I soon retreated to my own domain and began to think about what sort of man a real Robin Hood would have been and to begin my research into the man and the period. I wanted to describe an authentic 12th-century outlaw, a man who had the strength of character, the charisma, to lead a band of medieval outlaws. I quickly came to the conclusion that a real Robin Hood would have had to have been a very tough customer indeed. I began to picture a ruthless man, a brutal man, someone who could command fear and respect from the dregs of society, from desperate killers and thieves who lived outside the law, men who lived harder lives even than ordinary medieval peasants. In short, I began to see Robin Hood as a sort of gangster.
And that is when the central, radical idea for the Outlaw Chronicles was born.
I also realised that my Robin, though charming and very loyal to his friends, wasn’t a very nice man. Gangsters aren’t. He is compelled to do some nasty, brutal things to maintain his position as top dog, and I worried that many of my readers would be put off by this side of his character. And so I invented a sidekick, a foil for Robin, a good guy. Alan Dale. Alan Dale is the true hero of my books. He is a mere youngster at the start of the series, a thief on the run from the sheriff, but he grows into a gifted swordsman and trouvere, a sort of 12th-century poet-musician. Alan has the freedom to travel western Europe at Robin’s behest, playing music for the various noblemen and doing a little spying on the side for his lord. Robin and Alan frequently clash with each other, usually because Robin has done something appalling and Alan is furious with him. But their friendship endures and I am now beginning to write their seventh adventure together called The Bloody Charter, out next summer.
My books are called (in chronological order): Outlaw, Holy Warrior, King’s Man, Warlord, Grail Knight and The Iron Castle. And there is an extract from the last one, which comes out in July, at the bottom of the page.
This, however, is an essay that I wrote about Robin Hood at the beginning of my writer’s journey, and is all about who I think he would have been if he really had existed. I hope you enjoy it.
Robin Hood is a wraith in Lincoln green, a shadowy figure who peers out at us through the dense foliage of the forests of time; hooded, anonymous and yet terribly familiar. But was there ever a real man on whom all the ballads, books and films are all based and, if there was, what would he have been like in the flesh?
Robin makes his first appearance in English literature in a 1370s poem by William Langland known as Piers Plowman. In it, there is a line about a lazy cleric who knows the popular oral stories of Robin Hood better than he knows his prayers. So we know the tales of Robin were a byword by the second half of the 14th century.
Around the middle of the 15th century, the oral stories of Robin Hood first began to be preserved as printed ballads, which were passed around the populace and performed by musicians at public events. These early ballads, however, are not very helpful when it comes to investigating Robin’s life and times. A Gest of Robyn Hode, a ballad printed in the early 16th century, mentions that the king in Robin Hood’s time is "Edward". There were three Edwards on the English throne, from 1272 to 1377; could this mean that Robin was active during this century? Probably not. Other early ballads state that the king is Richard I (r. 1189-1199). So all we can really deduce from the first written forms of the tales is that Robin Hood may have operated at some time between about 1180 and 1370 – a period of nearly 200 years.
Perhaps, then, the law can shed light on England’s most famous outlaw. The first references to a possible Robin Hood figure occur in legal documents in the first half of the 13th century. From the 1230 onwards there are many legal records listing people who fell foul of the law called "Robehod" or "Robert Hood" or "Robyn Hod" and other variants. But none yet has convincingly been shown to be the legendary outlaw. In fact, as Robert was a very common name, as was its diminutive Robin, and as Hood was also well used, it would be surprising if there were not records of Robert Hoods coming into contact with the authorities. Indeed, Robin Hood may not be a name at all – it may be a job description. In some medieval English dialects “Hood” and “Wood” are synonyms, and some writers have suggested that Robert is a pun on the French pronunciation. If so, Robert Hood is just a robber of the wood.
However, our best guess is that there was once a notorious but popular outlaw called Robert or Robin Hood and that he probably lived some time between the end of the 12th century and the beginning of the 13th. And this is the period in which I have set my Outlaw Chronicles, during the reigns of Richard the Lionheart and King John. For me, it is a fascinating period: a time of crusade and Magna Carta; a time of constant brutal warfare but also the flowering of poetry, music and courtly love.
So what would a late 12th-century outlaw have been like as a man? The answer will disappoint those seeking a do-gooding, thigh-slapping, gentlemanly archer. A medieval outlaw would have been a desperate fellow, filthy, ragged, very violent; basically a homeless mugger and murderer. The ballads occasionally hint at the ruthless nature of Robin and his gang. In Robin Hood and The Monk (c1450), the earliest surviving ballad, outlawed Robin is spotted by a monk while praying at a church in Nottingham. The monk reports Robin to the Sheriff, who captures our hero. Later, the monk is brutally executed by Little John for informing on Robin, and Much the miller’s son casually kills a little boy who witnesses this act to stop him giving evidence of the murder. It’s difficult to imagine one of Errol Flynn’s merry men casually slaughtering a child to stop him squealing to the sheriff.
The Robin Hood of my books is a hard man, ruthless, occasionally cruel, and like all real medieval magnates primarily concerned with money and power. But he does have a more noble side. He cares nothing for those outside his familia, his relatives, friends and those who faithfully serve him – those outside are merely his prey. But for the lucky few inside his charmed circle, he will willingly give his life.
Angus Donald, author of the Outlaw Chronicles
This is an exclusive extract from The Iron Castle (out July 2014):
It is September 1203, and Robin Hood and his lieutenant Sir Alan Dale are attacking a French pontoon bridge over the River Seine
"Robin was standing high on the prow like a pirate, his green cloak fluttering out behind him in the breeze off the water, is sword sheathed and a long yew bow in his hands. As I watched, he drew a shaft from the quiver at his waist, nocked it, pulled the cord back to his ear and loosed and I saw the black line of the arrow arc up and down and slam into the chest of a man-at-arms on the pontoon, knocking him back into the press of his fellows. Robin loosed again, and another Frenchman died. Other bowmen among the Wolves were loosing too, dozens of shafts soaring high and smashing into the waiting ranks of the enemy. But the French were taking their toll on us, too. Crossbow bolts whipped and cracked all around, swooping down from the high tower on the eastern bank of the pontoon bridge – now just fifty yards away. I got to my feet and felt my own legs trembling. Thirty yards to go. A quarrel thwacked into my shield and I tucked my shoulder and as much of my body as I could into the lee of its protection. Another iron-tipped missile screamed off my helmet. Twenty yards. I mumbled a prayer to St Michael, the warrior archangel, begging him to keep us safe. Ten yards. Five. Then, with a crash of timbers and a deafening roar from defenders and attackers alike, the prow of our boat smashed into the lashed craft of the bridge. Robin leaped on to the pontoon, his bow abandoned, and his naked sword swinging like a scythe, taking the head clean off a yelling Frenchman Wolves were leaping up from their vessels to get at the French above them. But just as I readied myself to jump, a boat from our own convoy racing in behind us hammered into our bows, and I was knocked from my feet by the unexpected impact. The boat swung around, side on to the bridge, and as I scrambled to my feet, almost blinded by my helmet, a screaming man-at-arms jumped down onto the deck and lunged at me with a spear. I took the point on my shield and Kit cut the legs from under him with a sweep of his sword to the back of his knee, a move we had practised endlessly in the courtyard at Falaise.
I struggled to the prow, my movements slow, my armour weighing down my limbs. I felt as if I was wading through cold honey, as in one of those dreams where everything moves at a crawling pace. I bent my knees and leapt upwards; landing heavily on the deck of a wherry lashed in its position in the bridge. Two men were jabbing at me with spear and sword. I killed the swordsman, Fidelity breaking his neck, but the spear crunched hard into the iron mail guarding my belly. I was winded but not pierced, thank God. I stepped past the spear shaft, and killed the man at the other end, crushing his skull with one heavy blow through his thin helmet. I shoved another man backwards with my shield, trying to make room for the Wolves to come up beside me on to the bridge, and stepped into the press, stabbing, cutting and slicing into the wall of men. There were enemies shouting and jostling all around me. But there were cries, too, of “Locksley! Locksley!” coming from behind me that fired my sprits. I was dimly aware of Kit to my left, his sword jabbing forward, again and again. I cut down a man-at-arms on my right; I blocked a savage mace blow from a knight behind him; shoved the tip of Fidelity through his open visor, punched it home, and he fell away screaming. I felt my familiar battle rhythm coming to my rescue: cut and shove, and thrust and slice; sword and shield acting together in a perfect marriage, as the good Lord intended them to, to batter and pound other lesser men into submission. I hacked and cut. I cursed at my enemies as I killed them, and trampled their bodies under my mail-shod feet as my bloody sword rose and fell.
I glimpsed Robin not three yards away; protected by four Wolves who held off a wall of enemies as my lord sliced with an axe at the thigh-fat cables connecting the bridge of boats. Kit was immediately to my left, finishing a Frenchman I had wounded in the leg. A man leapt at me screaming, and I dropped him with a straight lunge that cracked through his ribs and into the bloody cavity beyond. He fell gurgling, dragging my sword arm down with him. But there were two more of his fellows behind him. I ducked the first sword strike, blocked the second with my shield, hauling Fidelity with some difficulty free of the chest of the dragging corpse. And then . . .
And then something solid and heavy smashed into the side of my helmet – I knew not what – and I staggered back a pace or two. My vision dipped and swum; streaks and flashes of red and black. The world was slowly revolving. Something shoved hard against my shield-side. My bloody sword was flailing madly in empty air, I stepped back another pace . . . and into the void. And, dream-like again, and I felt myself falling, falling for an age, falling for eternity. For hours I hung between the wood and the water, or so it seemed, before my body splashed into the cold, shocking embrace of the river. My helmet immediately filled with water. My eyes, nose and ears terrifyingly awash. And down, down I plunged, sucked down swiftly, head first into the cold, the darkness, into a frigid Hell. I managed to shake loose my shield, but kept a death-grip on Fidelity’s hilt. My heavy mail pulled me down as if I was roped to a mill stone. I kicked my legs in desperation, I clutched at the river with my free hand, grasping, scooping, trying to lift my body, but to no avail, I sank deeper and deeper, my lungs burned for air, the pressure unbearable but growing, growing ever more powerful. My belly twitched; I had to breathe. My whole body craved the air with a desperate, total necessity. But the icy darkness had me in firmly its possession. The ancient waters claimed me. And I yielded to them. I opened my mouth, the river rushed in and all the world turned black.”
Angus Donald’s latest book, Warlord, is available from bookshops and online. Grail Knight will be out in paperback on May 8; and The Iron Castle comes out in hardback on July 3.
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