Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Boys will be boys

There is something to be said about the continuing appeal of Robin Hood. What's not to like? There's the whole "rob from the rich, give to the poor" thing, the young men hanging out together in the forest thing, the romance with a spunky girl thing. Robin keeps popping up in movies, on television, and in many, many variations in print. What's the original source? Is Howard Pyle's 19th century version the one upon which most modern interpretations are based?

Despite Robin's ongoing popularity, I'm not sure I'd offer The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood to a young reader who wanted to read more about Robin and his band, inspired by the recent movie (or that utterly ridiculous television program). There's something distinctly old-fashioned about the Robin in these stories. He and his band of merry men are really just man-boy thrill seekers without much purpose. They seem constitutionally unable to remain quietly in their bosky refuge. The rob-from-the-rich motivation isn't particularly emphasized and Maid Marian isn't in the picture. The episodic novel spends a number of chapters bringing the band together -- Little John, Will Scarlet, Alan a-Dale, and Friar Tuck each arrive in turn -- and then a few more chapters with various bits of derring-do (much archery abounds). The Sheriff of Nottingham is thwarted. Then, Richard the Lionheart shows up, demands that they all take up some adult responsibilities and the book is over. There's an odd epilogue describing the death of Robin Hood.

So, the pleasure of this book for me is its reader, Christopher Cazenove, who -- sadly -- died earlier this year (this obit says that he is most well-known for his work on Dynasty, but I remember him from The Duchess of Duke Street). Cazenove is wonderfully good. The language is really dense (lots of "quoths" "thithers" "dosts" and the like), and he reads smoothly and confidently. His narrative (non-dialog) voice is pleasing to listen to. The novel contains a fair number of "action sequences" of fighting or archery contests and Cazenove reads these with enthusiasm and definite changes in pacing.

The many characters in the stories are consistent and occasionally clever -- Friar Tuck is a bit of a boozer, the Sheriff shouting and gravelly, Queen Eleanor's young page boyish, Richard the Lionheart suitably regal. A lot of songs (poetry) are in the text, and Cazenove delivers them all in his slightly reedy tenor voice -- once or twice he sings in the character of a non-singer (i.e., not all of them are sung by the troubadour, Alan a-Dale). And someone must have composed the music for them, as each one is different. The whole package is completely professional.

I'll admit I didn't listen to this under optimum circumstances. I absorbed the stories in fits and starts -- including a week-long hiatus. So, maybe it didn't hang together for me as a novel because I didn't give it the chance to. I'm not sure that I'd ever want to read this (to my knowledge I've never read anything by Howard Pyle), this is one of those where it's best to leave the heavy lifting to more capable readers ... like Christopher Cazenove. (I see that he has read Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient, a book I have long wanted to read. Add it to the metaphorical pile.)

The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood by Howard Pyle
Narrated by Christopher Cazenove
Blackstone Audio, 2006. 10:36 (unabridged)

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