Fiction Book of the Month: David Pilling on The First Arrow

Robin Hood is brought back to historical reality.
David Pilling
Home » Author interviews » Fiction Book of the Month: David Pilling on The First Arrow

We think we know about Robin Hood, but your story doesn’t follow the narrative in Robin Hood The First Arrow, does it? You know, the one about Robin Hood speaking with an American accent, or wearing tights.

My version is based on the early medieval ballads of Robin Hood, mixed with a few slivers of historical record. The character himself is inspired by ‘Hobbehod’, a mysterious real-life fugitive who fled justice at the York assizes in 1225. Hobbehod’s real name was Robert Hood: ‘Hobbe’ was an old north-country version of Robert, or even (intriguingly) a name for the Devil.

Historians such as JC Holt and Maurice Keen have tentatively suggested that this man could have been the historical Robin Hood, but not much is known of him. Dr David Crook has tried to identify him with a Robert of Wetherby, an outlaw hunted down and beheaded in Yorkshire at about the same time.

Wetherby was evidently notorious, and warranted special attention, but there is no clear link between him and Hobbehod. As Crook said, they were two men sharing the same very common first name, on the run from the law in a very large county at about the same time. I decided to compromise and feature Hobbehod and Wetherby as reluctant associates, rather than the same man. As a writer of fiction, I have that luxury, of course!

Modern versions of the legend bear virtually no resemblance to the early traditions. One would struggle to identify Kevin Costner, American accent and all, with the original rough outlaw of Sherwood and Barnsdale! The image of Robin in very tight tights originates from 19th century music hall, when female dancers and actors would play the character in tight-fitting costume.

And Robin Hood was an aristocrat, wasn’t he and lived in a huge castle just outside Nottingham?

The original Robin Hood of the ballads is described as a ‘yeoman’ i.e. middle class, one step above the peasantry, but certainly not any kind of aristocrat. He was gentrified in the late 16th century by a playwright, Anthony Munday, who turned Robin into a distressed Earl of Huntingdon. This image has stuck over the centuries, along with the populist image of ‘Robin of Locksley’, established in Sir Walter Scott’s hugely popular novel Ivanhoe. The oldest ballad cycles don’t mention Huntingdon or Locksley, and have virtually nothing to say of Robin’s birth, origin or family, or how he came to be an outlaw.

Your novel, The First Arrow, was the first of four. Do you enjoy writing series?

I do. Not only because it makes better financial sense (people enjoy reading a long series), but it is more fun to write separate episodes than a single doorstep novel. Writing over a longer period of time allows the story to breathe, and gives the author time to expand the storyline.

Why did you write this book – did you want to correct the historical aberrations that have seeped into our culture?

To an extent. The older versions are darker and grittier, and I wanted to revive that element and bring it to a modern audience. Robin Hood has become something of a cartoonish, anodyne figure, bouncing around the forest in tights, which seems a shame. The medieval stories are tough and unsqueamish, with a streak of cruelty, even sadism, that we might find difficult to stomach. For instance, at one point Robin cuts off Guy of Gisburne’s head and disfigures it with his ‘Irish knyffe’! There is also a genuinely shocking scene in Robin Hood and the Monk, when the outlaws murder a little boy to prevent him telling tales to the sheriff. The killing is dealt with in a mere couple of lines, completely offhand, and never mentioned again. It clearly gave a medieval audience no qualms whatsoever – so far as they were concerned, the outlaws were simply being pragmatic. The differences between the medieval world and ours are fascinating.

Why do you think the tale of Robin Hood is loved by each generation?

I think the story draws upon some very basic themes. The heroism of the individual, standing up to tyranny, straightforward action and adventure. Robin is a very malleable character, and can be endlessly re-invented to suit each generation . That is the key to his longevity, while other medieval ballad heroes such as Hereward the Wake and Eustace the Monk have fallen by the wayside.

Were there any historical novelists that you drew inspiration from?

Very much so. It would be easy to reel off the usual suspects – Bernard Cornwell, Conn Iggulden etc  – but also I tend to go back to older writers such as Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson and even Scott. There was a certain elegant simplicity to their writing, and a knack for writing action and battle scenes without spraying blood & guts all over the mead-hall. George MacDonald Fraser is another big influence, though his Flashman novels would be seen as very un-PC these days (indeed, they were written with that in mind…)

What’s your latest series?

I currently have two on the go. One, The Northman, follows the adventures of a Scandinavian bard or ‘skald’ in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest of England. Much like Hobbehod, the character is based on a real person, Thorkell, about whom we know very little except a few fragments of surviving poetry. The other series, The Champion, chronicles the life of a wandering knight of Aragon during the turbulent reign of Edward I, ‘Longshanks’ or the Hammer of the Scots.

If you were to be asked to update the novel, is there anything you’d change?

I would probably make it a bit longer, and flesh out the historical backdrop a little more. The early reign of Henry III (the story begins in 1225) was a very troubled time, especially in northern England.

David Pilling is the author of Robin Hood: The First Arrow, published by Sharpe Books.