Saturday, February 21, 2009

TUCK: Final Look at Stephen Lawhead's Robin Hood Legend

If there is one legendary hero known to nearly everyone in the Western world, perhaps in the entire world, it is Robin Hood. Robin and his band of Merry Men, along with the fair Maid Marian, have been the heroes of numerous movies, novels, and ballads for hundreds of years. Indeed, the only legend that has been more proliferate is probably that of King Arthur and Camelot. T. H. White even had Robin show up in his tale of Arthur, The Once and Future King. Surprisingly enough, or perhaps not, the tale varies enormously from one source to another. At one time or another I wondered which version was the closest to the real one; now I wonder if it's all a conglomerate of different bits of true history in the first place, mixed with generous portions of imagination. In different sources the time period and ruling king changes, some of the characters change, and sometimes the location varies. Robin's social class and circumstances vary, and there are several versions of his last days.

In the King Raven trilogy, Stephen Lawhead creates his own version of Robin Hood, this time placing him in the 12th century under the rule of William Rufus, son of William the Conqueror. This Robin is actually the rightful heir to a fiefdom in The March, a band of Wales that is on the border with England. Tuck is the third volume, this time following Friar Tuck's role and adventures in the whole story. Written in third person omniscient, the narrative will sometimes wander to Robin or other characters, giving the reader a panorama view of all the players and their activities and conversations. While Robin is still the leader and main hero, this time Friar Tuck's role is brought much more to the forefront. His contribution to the final denouement is crucial; more than that I dare not say lest I give away the finale. Friar Tuck is much more well developed as a character in this novel than in most stories; he is usually presented as the somewhat jolly gourmand who is fond of ale and food, but he seems a bit questionable in his true piety and devotion to God. Happily, Lawhead's Tuck has a deeper relationship with his Lord and does seem to want to follow God. He is in contrast to the rich, powerful and power-hungry Abbots and Bishops that scheme to take land and money from the true Britons and Welsh people. Tuck is a servant, a simple priest as he says, but he knows his scripture. Tuck has great depth to his character. Time and again, Robin puts his trust in Father Aethelfrith (Tuck's real name) to perform tasks could affect life or death for the whole group of followers in Robin's camp.

There are the familiar tales of broken promises and subterfuge on the part of the sheriff, the greedy Abbot, and the king, as well as many daring exploits with Robin and his Grellon winning against impossible odds in skirmish after skirmish. One difference in this story, though, is that the forest dwellers recognize that the successes come from the intervention of God. They feel certain that their cause is just, so therefore God is on their side.

Above all, Lawhead presents a convincing case for his version of Robin Hood's story, why it might be the true story and how the other versions may have evolved over time. His use of a ballad of Rhi Bran y Hud and his Grellon cradles the narrative in the form that our earliest known versions came from, the ballads of early minstrels. With an abundance of Celtic, French, and Welsh language thrown around, coupled with detailed cultural ambience that appears to be authentic of the time and the Welsh and Norman peoples, the tale of King Raven (it has to do with a translation like Rhi Bran, which led to Robin donning a terrifying big Raven costume to frighten enemies) sounds plausible.

Those who love legends like Robin Hood and King Arthur will devour Tuck as well as the other two books in the series, Hood and Scarlet. I am sure it would be better if the books could be read in order, but I personally haven't read the first two, and I found it easy enough to follow without the background. Perhaps for someone who actually knows nothing of Robin Hood, it could be confusing to start at the last book. Tuck will appeal to those who thrive on digging into the truth behind any fictional history. I found myself looking up a lot of the words at first, mostly Welsh words. It's something I enjoy. Little touches like a pronunciation guide and a map added to my personal enjoyment in reading. Many extra touches enhanced a story that was already outstanding. It won't appeal to everyone: for one thing, it is over 400 pages long. The style is almost scholarly at times, very much in keeping with the older tales that we have already in our libraries. It only seems appropriate. Tuck is neither a simple read nor a quick one, but it is well worth the time for those who will undertake a new telling of Rhi ban and his Merry Grellon of the forest band.

You can read a sample of the book and a bit of the author's biography in my most recent posting.

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