on 23 May 2011
A REVIEW OF `ROBIN HOOD' BY HENRY GILBERT
I respectfully ask readers to ignore any other reviews of Henry Gilbert's `Robin Hood' which dismiss it for its failure to capture the interest and imagination of very young children. Let me be frank. Although the legend of Robin Hood is one that has fascinated young and old alike for centuries, Gilbert's telling is not really suitable for youngsters owing to its length, depth and use of language.
And so, having stated what this particular version of `Robin Hood' is NOT, let's state what it IS. In his telling of an English legend, Gilbert has produced a compelling, exciting and worthy novel. First published in 1912, `Robin Hood' surely deserves to be regarded as a very important book, it being the first significant twentieth century account of the immortal outlaw's adventures. The 1900s would embrace Robin Hood like no other. Thanks to the new mediums of cinema and television, he of the Lincoln green clothes would be brought to life in endless new interpretations ranging from Disney's cuddly fox to mullet-cropped Kevin Costner in the 1990s. It is a love-affair that continues into the new century with fresh versions being presented in the form of a popular BBC1 family adventure series and Russell Crow's more brutal cinematic outing. That all of these retellings of Robin Hood's legend owe a debt to Henry Gilbert is surely beyond question.
What makes `Robin Hood' such a good read is the sense of time and place that it consistently generates. Chapters typically open with lush descriptions of greenwood forest throughout the seasons. There is also a strong backbone of historical fact, with genuine figures and events from the past being intertwined with Robin's antics. For examples, both Richard The Lionheart and some of the more grisly elements of medieval medicine rear their heads at different stages. Gilbert also avoids glossing over some of the grimmer realities of life for the masses in The Middle Ages. The barbarous treatment of the villeins by their lords gives convincing motivation for Robin and his men to live outside of the law and provide their own brand of justice.
Although technically a novel, structurally `Robin Hood' reads like a collection of short stories with recurring characters. This allows the various episodes to adopt distinct flavours. This ranges from humour (when Robin disguises himself at The Sheriff of Nottingham's expense) to dark tragedy (when a central figure in Robin's life is callously murdered). However, throughout the novel, there is a tremendous sense of action and adventure, with arrows flying with pleasing regularity and accuracy. Indeed, Gilbert's vivid description of the fizzing, whirring arrows is one of the book's highlights.
Of course, not everything flies faultlessly from the bow. New readers are advised to deflect their eyes away from the chapter titles, which often provide some real plot spoilers. Similarly, the decision to give the piece authenticity is over-played in the use of what Gilbert considers to be medieval phrasing. At times, with all the "thee"s and "thou"s it is all a bit too stilted to allow the story to flow (although I did find myself smiling at the number of times Robin was described as "saucy" following some act of bravado!). Finally, am I being unfair to have expected Robin's epic-sounding battle with sea-pirate, Damon The Monk (!), to have been afforded far more words than a mere sentence or two in the final chapter?
Nevertheless, for a 100-year-old book describing some renegade do-gooder who may or may not have really existed, `Robin Hood' is cracking stuff! Yes, it will not find favour with today's youngsters, but why should it? That is the job of the latest BBC version. However, for readers who love swash-buckling tales of derring-do (such as those by Alexandre Dumas, Anthony Hope et al.) `Robin Hood' is a hidden gem. Does it hit the mark? Squarely in the bull's eye.
Barty's Score: 8.5 / 10
on 5 June 2011
Having studied English and German, I've found this book a real pleasure to read. For example, the phrase "Thou knowest" stands for "you know." It's also full of humour, e.g. "thy (your) heads, though thick, will not be thick enough to withstand his hoof (my horse's)."
I strongly recommend it, together with Ivanhoe, both edited by Wordsworth.