05 July 2011

Books Update: Page head separator

For the last few weeks I've been reading Hodd by Adam Thorpe. It's a dense text, bleak in its outlook and not an easy read, but I enjoyed it.

Superficially, it's a revisionist retelling of the Robin Hood legend, set in an authentically violent, slimy, pustule-ridden Middle Ages, following a young minstrel (later a monk, whose confession in old age we're supposedly reading) as he's pressganged into a thoroughly vile horde of wilderness-dwelling thieves, murderers and rapists led by a charismatic Antinomian heretic, Robbert Hodd. The ballads in which the protagonist later admits to his crimes become notorious, and over the eight decades which he somewhat implausibly lives through in his cloister, give rise to the romantic legend of Robin Hood and his Merry Men.

It's a nice conceit, but a relatively small part of the story's subject matter. Though he's no miller's son, the minstrel / monk (whose true name we never learn, unless the Guardian's reviewer managed to spot a clue I didn't) is nicknamed "Much" during his time with the robbers -- their thuggish ranks also include a "Lytl John" and a "Will Scerlock" -- and his greatest crime is that recounted in the ballad Robin Hood and the Monk. This isn't a spoiler, as the relevant stanza's printed as the epigraph to the novel:
John smote of the munkis hed,
No longer wolde he dwell;
So did Moch the litull page,
Ffor ferd lest he wolde tell.
But that's about it. Aside from a passing mention of him giving money to a group of beggars, the priest-turned-heresiarch Hodd has nothing particular to relate him to the Robin of legend.

Instead, the story is about the orphaned narrator's search for a surrogate father -- Hodd being one of three he destruct-tests during the course of the novel -- and his jealousy towards his pseudo-sibling rivals. It's about love and hatred, guilt and penance, the twin dangers of concealment and honesty, the constant effort to rediscover old truths or to fabricate new ones. It's a deep-immersion simulation of the medieval worldview, and most especially of its religion -- orthodox and heterodox -- which is treated with complexity and a wilful refusal to make judgements easy for the reader.

There's an odd, seemingly pivotal account of an encounter with a woodland lunatic whom the narrator mistakes for a "green man" of the Antipodes. I'm sure this means something important, but I can't quite work out what.

To me, the most interesting aspect of the novel was literally marginal: the fake scholarly apparatus (including square-bracketed Latin words of dubious meaning, elenchi in the text and footnotes) which allows us to believe we are reading a translation from a lost Medieval Latin MS, also allows for the possibility that the entire narrative was concocted in the 1920s by a traumatised, shellshocked and perhaps syphilitic medievalist who lost a close friend, possibly a boyfriend, in the World War I trenches. Oddly no review of the book I've seen so far comments on this possible reading, though the novel's bleakness, its savagery and its obsession with death, disease, mud, mutilation and the imagery of Hell make far more sense in this context. (There's a further dusting of fiction in Thorpe's "editing" of the narrative as well, and of course it's just as much a document of the author's own time.)

Hodd is a clever, unsettling and complex novel, but it's only tangentially a retelling of the story of Robin Hood. It's done little to illuminate my understanding of the legend, even in its medieval context, but it has made me feel quite intrigued about reading some of Thorpe's other works. Ulverton and Still come recommended, so I may well give one of those a try.

Finally, you'll be pleased to know that the double "d" in the title reminds me of Eddie Izzard impersonating a carpet-sweeper (starting at 4m 35s), which provided some much-needed amusement during the more uncompromisingly grim passages.

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