This was my first encounter with Adam Thorpe and I can honestly say it’s one of the oddest books I’ve ever read. As a piece of literature it’s creative, subversive and intelligent. As an evocation of a historical period it’s utterly convincing, conjuring up the mixture of religious fervour and folk superstition that formed the medieval mindset. And yet, while I admired the achievement, I can’t honestly say I enjoyed it.
Looking back over his life, an elderly monk remembers his youthful ambitions to be a minstrel and how, for the sake of a harp, he fell in with a group of outlaws commanded by the self-professed visionary Robert Hodde. Convinced that neither God nor the Devil exists, Hodde leads his men in a heretical existence, where the only sin is to claim that sin itself is possible. They believe that everything has been formed from a sea of divine essence, which will consume all things again after death. Falling under the spell of Hodde’s beliefs, the impressionable narrator finds himself questioning his previously firm Christian faith, and wondering whether Hodde really could be the chosen prophet he claims to be. When Hodde is captured by the sheriff’s men in Nottingham and consigned to the castle prison, the boy will find that he has a central role to play in the ensuing rescue and its brutal aftermath. Ordered to use his minstrel’s skills to make a ballad of the episode, he complies; and the ripples flowing outward from that act unexpectedly mutate and crystallise, into the stuff of popular legend.
This is Robin Hood as you’ve never seen him before (Lady of the Forest could be based on an entirely different legend). The story drops us into a bleak and grimly plausible medieval England, tilled by serfs and impoverished cottars, where people scratch a living from the earth and starve if the harvest is poor. Disfigurements, leprosy and death are all common sights and a journey of any distance through open country involves a very real risk of robbery and death. In his characterisation of Hodde / Hood, Thorpe goes back to the very earliest known ballads about Robin and his men. His novel takes its general plot from the ballad of Robin Hood and the Monk, which was written down in circa 1450, but derived from an earlier medieval oral source. Hodde and his men are creatures of their time, rather than products of a later romanticised, chivalric culture. They are not jolly, public-spirited liberals, but a violent and desperate bunch of ne’er-do-wells, living a hard life in isolated wasteland, who certainly do not give to the poor and are quick to maim or kill.
Thorpe manages to get inside the medieval mind to an extent I’ve rarely seen, and his story is infused with assumptions and beliefs that feel utterly foreign. This happens from the very beginning of the novel, when the narrator speaks of ‘the upper seas‘, introducing you to the medieval concept (of which I was unaware) that above the clouds there is actually another sea; that mariners who sail too far off the map will find themselves sailing up into these seas in the sky; that stars are actually the distant lights of creatures living in the deeps; and that birds can pass in and out of the air and upper waters, as cormorants dive into the lower seas. It’s bewildering, and throughout the book we find a similar disconnection from the modern mind: the known world is transformed into a battleground of good and evil, where angels, devils and goblins play an active role. The following section gives a flavour of the whole (the narrator is condemning the persistence of pagan superstitions among the country people):
The times are dangerous, therefore, if the fashion be for forest-dwelling, or sleeping in waste places thick with imps and demons, or e’en travelling to the sinister haunts of witches and sorcerers and pagans (and similar human servants of the Devil), such as giant rings or circles of stones – wherein the common folk go to be cured of their maladies, hideously mistaking that cold rock for the warm mercy of the Lord.
The novel is like a series of Russian dolls, presented as a tale within a tale within a tale. We begin with Thorpe himself in the introduction, where he tells us that, by chance, he discovered the following translation from a lost Latin original. Then we move to the introduction written by the translator, Francis Belloes, who claims to have discovered the original manuscript in a church in the Somme during the First World War. Then we have the novel itself (which, if you want to carry on the theme, is itself a later copy of an earlier original). Both introductions are scholarly and the text itself is presented as an academic document, complete with lacunae, footnotes and words or phrases left in the original where the translation is disputed. In homage to the narrator’s erratic medieval spelling, names constantly change their form from one sentence to the next.
Of course, in many ways Thorpe is being extremely clever. The whole point of his novel is to explore the way in which the narrator’s real experience has been transformed in its retelling, like a game of Chinese whispers gone wrong across the centuries. And the form of the novel mirrors that conceit, because we only reach the story through several layers of interpretation – the original narrator, the later medieval copyist, Francis Belloes and Adam Thorpe himself. But, at each stage of the interpretation, the preceding manuscript has been lost, so ultimately how can we trust the authenticity of the document which is presented to us? How can we tell whether each copyist or translator has adjusted the meaning and contents of the original to suit his own time?
So yes: it is clever. But I couldn’t help feeling that the story itself, with its unremitting, bleak grittiness, was making no effort to draw the reader in; and that the form of the book, emulating scholarly editions of medieval texts, also created a barrier between reader and story. Some people don’t need to lose themselves in a story to enjoy it; but I think I do. Here, I felt as if I were continuously being held at arm’s length.
It’s hard to know what else to say. With this book, nothing can really prepare you for the actual act of reading it: much of its interest – and its frustration – lies in its language and structure. If you enjoy a challenge, or are familiar with medieval ballads and visionary poems, then you will probably savour the chance to read such an imaginative take on the greatest of English folk heroes. Alternatively, you may find the sheer strangeness of the novel rather alienating. Personally, it took me back with a jolt to a rather difficult week at university when I had to analyse Piers Plowman and the Peasants’ Revolt. At any rate, this is not a cosy, cheerful, undemanding historical romp. It feels more brutally authentic to its period than virtually any other novel that I’ve read. Its historically appropriate language and its completely unsentimental approach reminded me at times of A Dead Man in Deptford, although that had a sly wit and an energy that I didn’t find here. Taking all this into consideration, I have to conclude like this: Hodd made me think. It twisted my mind into new paths, it made my head ache, and it’s lingered with me in a way that a lesser book wouldn’t have done. I didn’t enjoy it, but I appreciated it.
I’d be interested to know if you’ve read this, or anything else by Adam Thorpe, and how you liked it. He’s obviously a writer of immense intelligence and imagination and I’m just sorry that, in this particular instance, I didn’t quite gel with his work.