I’ll admit I was skeptical about the premise of Stephen Lawhead’s King Raven trilogy, not because the setting and characters have been transposed from England to Wales, but because I couldn’t quite see the point of such a change. However, Lawhead provides an interesting afterword in which he defends his decision; citing the difficulty that the Normans had in conquering territories in eleventh century Wales, as well as the passionate temperament of the average Welshman, their use of guerilla tactics, the density of their forests, and their early expertise in the use of longbows; all of which could serve as possible evidence that the earliest tales of Robin Hood originated outside of England. Over time, they were adapted and Anglicized into the quintessential English tales that we know today.
So, I was sold on the premise of this latest retelling of the infamous outlaw’s life, and the change in location to Wales and time-period to the year 1093 means that Lawhead can effectively utilize the historical context of William the Conqueror’s son William II, who expands into Wales in order to exploit its resources to fund his wars in France.
(Funnily enough, the modern day tendency to place Robin in the time of King Richard the Lionheart is itself a recent innovation, as is the portrayal of a Saxon Robin fighting the Norman conquerors regardless of the fact that the two groups were more or less integrated by Richard’s reign. Rather, the earliest ballads mention Robin living in the time of an unspecified King Edward, and so to push him back into the eleventh century is a more accurate placement of the legendary figure, making the conflict between the Britons/Normans less anachronistic).
In this scenario, King William gives leave for the Baron de Braose and his nephew Count Falkes to launch an invasion into Wales, much to the displeasure of the wily and ambitious Baron Bernard de Neufmarche, who has his own plans for the country, not to mention the fury of Prince Bran, who is forced to flee for his life from those attempting to snuff out any rebellion. It is between these three opposing forces that the conflict of the story arises: the invaders’ attempt to secure their hold over the newly conquered territory; the prince’s attempt to free his land from the oppressors, and the baron’s as-yet-unknown plans for the chessboard laid out before him.
Bran ap Brychan is the heir to the throne of Elfael, a small but wealthy cantref on the borders of Wales, though this particular prince has little interest in the responsibilities of his birthright. A disappointment to King Rhi Brychan, Bran lives by the philosophy that if he can’t please his father, he may as well please himself. Indulgent, lazy and capricious, most of Bran’s energy goes into bedding the local women, and it is a dalliance with one Lady Merian that makes him late in joining his father’s war-host, who are marching to London to swear fealty to King William.
It is for this reason that Bran is spared from the massacre that follows at the hands of Ffreinc invaders who intercept the Welshmen, lead by Count Falkes de Braose who claims to be acting with permission of the King. Naturally, Bran himself is soon fleeing for his own life, traveling with several companions to London in order to plead his case to King William. Once there, he is told that there is only one way in which to regain Elfael: to buy it back, at the cost of six hundred marks.
It’s a clever twist on the usual storyline of Robin Hood having to raise the money for King Richard’s ransom; instead Bran has to literally buy back his kingship — and naturally his funding comes straight from the coffers of the invaders! As the story continues, the familiar points of the legends begin to connect: Bran goes from the luxuries of the nobility to the depths and mystery of the forest. Merian is parted from her love only to be reunited with him in an entirely unexpected way. Bran eventually accepts his responsibilities as a leader to his people and comes up with plans that link him to the famous “Hood” of the title. Characters are given nicknames that align them with the familiar characters of the legend (though personally, I think the story would have worked just as well without these little winks to the reader). Essentially, many the plot elements remain comfortably familiar, whilst others still manage to be unique and inventive.
Some ideas don’t work as well. The idea of Bran running around the forest dressed as a giant bird to try and scare people is somewhat ridiculous, and the fact that the outlaws hang dead animals from the trees before ambushing a convoy makes no sense — surely it would only serve to put their enemies on their guard. However, for the most part the situations and events flow nicely and are consistent with what we know about both the characters and the historical context.
Lawhead shows a deft hand when it comes to portraying the two opposing sides, for as of yet no character is completely over-the-top evil. The suffering that the Welsh peasants undergo isn’t simply because the Baron gets his kicks out of torturing them, but due to his demands that they build a market town on the orders of his uncle. If he can’t appease his uncle, he may loose his recent acquisition, and he’s desperate enough to torch several farms in order to coerce the peasants into labor. Everyone has a viable, though not necessarily sympathetic, point-of-view, and the core situation has an internal logic that is so often missing in Robin Hood tales in which the bad guys are evil just for the sake of it.
On the other hand, the characterization is rather weak. Whenever a new character turns up, they are introduced via a lengthy description outlining their physical appearance, background and personality. It feels more like a character profile that one would read on a website for a television show. It completely breaks the “show, don’t tell adage,” and even then some of the characters are little more than cardboard cutouts: Little John/Iwan’s character goes no further than being loyal and large, and for one of the most beloved heroines of all time, this Merian is a bland, rather petulant disappointment. Will Scarlet has yet to be seen (though I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that he appears in the second book: Scarlet) and Guy of Gisborne’s role is little more than a cameo in the final few pages. I doubt Much will turn up any time soon. So far, the saga’s most fascinating character is the completely original Angharad, a wise woman living in the forest that nurses Bran back to health and introduces him to his destiny. Likewise, Friar Tuck is brilliant — just the right blend of sincere piety and mischievous anarchy. I’m looking forward to the book named after him!
As for the protagonist himself, Bran spends too much time either running away from his responsibilities or being told what to do by other people to make any impact as a bonafide hero, but he shapes up for the finale, and there are two more books in which to develop him as a character (which hopefully includes making more of the relationship between himself and Merian, which as of yet is as shallow as a paddling pool).
Lawhead’s prose is smooth and elegant, and he is retrained enough to avoid the pitfall that most historical authors stumble into: the need to include every tidbit of information that he learnt whilst researching for the novel. Instead, we get just enough to make it feel authentic and rich, without having to sit through endless paragraphs of political intrigue, detailed landscapes, and descriptions of various weapons, clothes, food and customs.
I enjoyed Hood more than I thought I would. It takes the spirit of Robin Hood and spins a new story with the bare bones of the legend. Certainly a promising start, my appetite is certainly whetted, and Scarlet is already on the top of my “to be read” pile, soon to be followed by Tuck.