Book Review: Outlaw by Angus Donald
I have to admit I have avoided reading this book for a long time through a misguided combination of jealousy and the desire to avoid disappointment. The jealousy spring from my own desire to write a novel that portrayed Robin Hood in a realistic light that was true to the spirit of the original medieval ballads about him. In those works Robin is about as far from Kevin Costner’s version of the character as you can get. There is plenty of robbing-not necessarily just from the rich-and very little giving to the poor. Murder and mutilation is a fact of life (as it was at the time) and unlucky people who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time-rather than in some way “deserving” their fate-often end up with their throats cut by our the band of “merry men”, in one episode regardless of the fact the victim is a child. In many ways Robin acts like a modern day gangster and that is exactly what comes across in Angus Donald’s book.
He does much more though and manages the almost impossible. Alongside the original ballads pretty much all the various (and at times contradicting) traditions that have grow up around Robin since are incorporated into one compelling, action packed and plausible narrative. So there is a Mariann and a Tuck, as well as a Guy, Robin operates both in Yorkshire and Nottingham and the “purist’s” problem of a medieval sheriff somehow acting like a baron is elegantly dealt with. The author creates an authentic picture of Twelfth Century England in which all these elements play and keeps the reader enthralled there as the action (and there is plenty of it) unfolds. The violence is frequent and unflinchingly brutal, but the tale is told from the perspective of Alan a Dale, following his development from thieving boy to accomplished Trouvère, which allows elements of medieval culture to be incorporated beyond the swordplay and fighting. As a bit of a language nerd, I particularly enjoyed the way the author demonstrates the medieval origins behind some of the idioms we use today such as “fast and loose” and “being caught red handed”.
In many ways this is the quintessential novel for fans of the medieval period. Like a modern Ivanhoe, all the elements you would want to see are here: Outlaws, castles, knights, a Jewish character, damsels in distress, dungeons, sieges, battles, witches and Templars, its all here but woven together in a way that avoids cliche.
The marketing for the book draws parallels with The Godfather, and this is particularly apt but it is more than just a tale of gangsters in chain mail: At times it slides deep into the territory of that other classic of 1970s cinema, The Wicker Man. As these are two of my favourite films, suffice to say that I was far from disappointed by the book.
Suffice to say, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, and my regret now is that I avoided it for so long. The good news is that I now have a whole series of these books to look forward to.