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Stephen R. Lawhead introduces a new spin on the old tale in Hood, the first book of the King Raven Trilogy. Similar in many ways (think characters and basic plot scheme), this new hero is also extremely different. One major difference is the setting -- Wales in 1093, nearly 200 years earlier than the story we learned as children.
We enter the Welsh landscape as King Rhi Brychan and his warband and begin a trip to Ludenin to swear allegiance to King William, only to be quickly immersed in battle. Only after his son, Bran ap Brychan, rightful heir to Elfael, is thrown out of his kingdom, hunted like a wild beast and presumed dead by Count Falkes de Braose, does the real Robin Hood tale firmly set in.
As Bran is nursed back to health before being brought to his people and put in place as their leader, many things go awry in Wales. Barons de Braose and Neufmarche are pitted rivals, both seeking rule over all of Cymry. William the Conqueror placed his favor with de Braose, yet Neufmarche refuses to settle for less than he feels he deserves. All the while Bran and the displaced citizens of Elfael, in their new village of Cel Craidd, begin measures to regain Elfael for themselves.
Visualizing Coed Cadwr, or Greenwood Forest, the various castles and scenic byways aren’t difficult at all. Along with character development that seems effortless and an accurate historical context, the narration is concise and believable. With these elements, combined with the various points of views, Lawhead is able to tell the story with a realistic pacing.
While Hood, relates the great tale of robbing the rich to give to the poor that is known and loved, it also brings the real political and social struggles of the time to the readers’ attention. Merian, the daughter of a neighboring lord, illustrates the complexities of being a woman in such tumultuous times. While she holds loyalty to her family and people (the Welsh) very dear to her heart, she is, nonetheless, tempted by the glamour and comfort of the Ffreinc lifestyle. Between Merian and Marshal Guy de Gysburne, the social ladder is clearly illustrated. While social mobility was strictly a privilege afforded to nobility, both characters have some desire to surpass the position their family name can grant them.
Due to the historical context, the afterword by the author is great. Lawhead lets readers consume the whole wild tale first. By doing so, we can develop our own feelings on how it does or doesn’t fit expectations, as well as look into the history at the level our understanding requires, before trying to convince us to believe it’s an accurate setting. Many lovers of history and fantasy tales alike will find that a Welsh Robin is just as suitable as an English one. Perhaps even better in some ways.
Hood is still our beloved heroic thief tale, just with a more political framework. While the prose rarely has wonderful moments of greatness, it still relays the story effectively and more enjoyably than a history class could relay the same information.