Blast from the past, No.2: Outlaw

From time to time I like to do a blog about some of the books in my back list. This week, I’m remembering the first novel I ever wrote, the tale of a gangster-ish Robin Hood and his loyal trouvère (personal musician) and friend Alan Dale. Yes, this week I’m talking about Outlaw, Book 1 of what turned out ultimately to be 10 Outlaw Chronicles.

Outlaw - Angus Donald

I started thinking about writing a historical fiction series in about 2003 – nearly twenty years ago. I was a huge fan of Bernard Cornwell at the time and particularly his Arthurian trilogy the Warlord Chronicles. In a way, Outlaw began as what you might call “fan fiction” – I was so deeply moved by the Warlord Chronicles that I desperately wanted to emulate them. But, instead of Arthur, I chose Robin Hood, England’s other great mythical hero. I even copied the narrative structure of the Cornwell trilogy, with an old man, near death, writing down the adventures of his youth.

Once I had decided to do Robin Hood in the style of BC’s Arthur, I began reading and thinking about the period and researching the legends and ballads about the outlaw. It quickly became obvious that there never was a man who resembled our modern idea of Robin Hood – stealing from the rich and giving to the poor; battling evil Prince John in the name of his absent brother Richard the Lionheart. It seemed to me that I was dealing with an entirely fictional person. So I decided to make the historical background – late 12th century and early 13th century Europe – as authentic as I could, and to fit my fictional heroes into the real history.

This approach is one I would recommend to anyone who wants to write histfic. History gifts the fiction writer some truly amazing stories, which make the job so much easier to do well.

Robin Hood fights Little John with a quarterstaff in an iconic scene

The main characters in the legends are all in my novels: Little John, Much the miller’s son, Alan a Dale, Guy of Gisbourne, Will Scarlett, Friar Tuck, and so on. I tried also to stick to some of the iconic elements of the Robin Hood stories – so in Outlaw, Robin and Little John fight each other over water. In my novel, over the moat of a castle, rather than on a log. And John is teaching Robin to fight. I also thought it would be fun if Robin went on crusade.

But it was the research into the Robin Hood legends that allowed me construct my gangster-ish hero (or perhaps anti-hero). I read the ballad of Robin Hood and the Monk (c1450) and was slightly shocked to discover that Robin and his gang behave almost exactly like criminals in later centuries. Indeed, they behaved like the mobsters in the Godfather movies. Robin’s men murder a monk for informing on Robin to the sheriff and because a page-boy witnesses that murder they also kill the child. So my Robin Hood became “the Godfather of Sherwood”, who extorts money from travellers and from local peasants in exchange for “protection”. That meant he was not a very nice man.

To counteract this disagreeable side of Robin’s character, I made him ultra-loyal to his own people – he will die for them. And he sticks by Marie-Anne’s side, and – Spoiler alert! – raises her son as his own, even though she has been raped by the Sheriff of Nottinghamshire, and the child is his. But he is still not a very likeable guy – so I made the decision to make Alan Dale the real hero of the stories, and the set up is that AD (incidentally these are also my initials) initially looks up to Robin but gradually comes to realise what an absolute bastard he really is. However, because he has sworn an oath to Robin to serve him till death, he is bound to the brutal but brilliant outlaw for the rest of his life.

What I had not expected, when I wrote Outlaw in 2008, was that I would still be writing about Robin and Alan thirteen years later. Robin Hood and the Caliph’s Gold came out in March 2020 – just over a year ago. And the most recent book in the Outlaw Chronicles series, published in December 2020, is called Robin Hood and the Castle of Bones. I think this pair novels will be the last adventures for my two evergreen heroes. But you never know . . .

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