Preliminary thoughts on Hood, by Stephen R. Lawhead

I’m in the middle of reading the first of Stephen R. Lawhead’s The Raven King trilogy, Hood. It’s a slightly different take on the Robin Hood story – it’s set in Wales. This is causing me a slight amount of hesitation.

I have nothing against Wales. I think Wales is wonderful and I want to go there someday. But Robin Hood is from Nottinghamshire. Maybe South Yorkshire. And there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be.

Oh, Lawhead has a relatively persuasive argument about why the “original” Robin Hood might have been from Wales – citing the Saxon and then Norman-now-English adaptation of Arthur as a national hero as precedent. But the two cases are not entirely similar – and, to me at least, not similar enough to make it a fully logical connection.

The biggest problem I have with his argument is the assumption that the Robin Hood stories couldn’t have been original to the early 13th century. I don’t know why it’s always assumed that people of the Middle Ages weren’t original and creative thinkers, but that seems to be one of the underlying themes: the stories must come from an earlier source because there’s no way there would have been inspiration in the 13th century.

Yes, it’s true that most of what we think we know about the Robin Hood stories are later (sometimes much later) additions and interpretations. Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks have a lot to answer for. But the ballads themselves reflect quite a lot of 13th and 14th century ideas about life, authority, humour, etc – why try to dismiss them or cram them into an earlier culture?

And, even more, there’s one aspect of Lawhead’s interpretation that doesn’t help: the very name of his main character. His “Robin” is Rhi Bran, a prince of one of the Welsh “kingdoms”. I don’t know enough about Welsh history outside the English occupation to know how valid a Welsh kingdom is on its own, but it’s made pretty clear in the book that “Rhi” is a title. He is Prince Bran. The phonetic resemblance isn’t enough for me to justify turning “Rhi Bran” into Robin. Robin is, and has always been, a nickname for Robert – a name meaning “fame-bright”. Bran means “Raven”. It fits with the “raven king” idea that Lawhead has come up with. It doesn’t fit with the story he’s trying to adapt.

And it’s even more glaring when many of the other names are Welsh variants on the familiar names: Iwan = John, Merian = Marian, etc. But Robin, the main figure, has a name so different that it jars on me every time I read it.

There may be a point later in the trilogy where Bran inherits something more closely related to “Robert”, which would go a long way toward appeasing my onomastic nature. But for right now, it’s proving to be a minor hindrance in my enjoyment of the book.

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