This is the third and final part in The Raven King trilogy, begun with Stephen Lawhead’s Hood and continued in Scarlet. After publication was delayed for a period of time due to illness, Tuck finally concludes the story in a satisfactorily, though perhaps slightly anti-climactically, way. The key concept behind this particular version of Robin Hood is that it proposes to be the “real” story behind the legends, based on events that originated in Wales and which went on to inspire the later bards and minstrels.
Lawhead chooses to transport the traditionally English tale to Wales due to: the country’s dense forests, the Welsh skill with longbows, and the historical difficulties that the Normans had in conquering territories in eleventh century Wales due to the guerrilla tactics that were used to repel invaders. Wales, circa 1093 (the time period in which this trilogy is set), was a breeding ground for stories that could have eventually grown into the Robin Hood legends that we know today.
This particular retelling of Robin Hood has Rhi Bran y Hud as the titular character, a Prince of Wales who is driven from his home after Norman invaders kill his father and seize control over his lands. Taking to the woods, Bran embraces his role as a leader to the families that have sought sanctuary in the wild, and he becomes known as “the Raven King” to the people known as the Grellon or “the flock”. Joined by his old friend Iwan (Little John), new friend Will Scathelock (or Scarlett), close acquaintance Friar Aethelfrith (Tuck) and his long-time love Merian (no translation needed), Bran uses scare tactics to terrorize and raid Norman convoys and settlements.
After thwarting a plot to overthrow King William Rufus, the outlaws return home in disappointment after the king refuses to return Bran to his rightful place on the throne. Though Rufus has exiled the greedy Baron de Braose and his nephew Count Falkes, the Welsh still have to deal with the sadistic Sheriff de Granville, the corrupt Abbott Hugo de Rainult and their lackey Guy of Gysborne. Although the story is told in first-person narrative (moving away from Scarlett’s confessional account of events in the second book) and drifts between several characters’ points of view, much of the focus falls upon Tuck, the self-described: “poor, humble mendicant whom God has seen fit to bless with a stooped back, a face that frightens young `uns, and knees that have never had fellowship with the other.”
Much like the trilogy itself, “Tuck” is divided into three distinct parts: the outlaws’ rescue of a potential ally, the ousting of the Ffreinc from Bran’s ancestral home, and the final gathering of two armies in order to fight for the freedom of Elfael. As such, the story feels a little choppy, especially when certain plotlines don’t tie together particularly well. Although the lengthy first act involves Bran and his men undergoing a clever but dangerous mission in order to rescue King Gruffydd, the eventual pay-off isn’t particularly rewarding. Likewise, Merian (still rather bland) has a short subplot in which she returns to her brother in order to muster his soldiers, only to be taken under house arrest by her family. Although she argues the cause of Bran and the Welsh with passion, her brother and Bran’s allies eventually come to a decision that they would have reached with or without Merian’s insistence. Likewise the conniving character of Baron Bernard de Neufmarche fizzles out a little bit to the point where I’m not entirely sure why he was necessary at all. The man who was shaping up to be the main antagonist of the series ends up as a minor background character.
As the title would indicate, it is naturally Tuck who keeps the disparate bits of the narrative together. Tuck is often the overlooked character in the legends; often used as comic relief or po-faced pontificating, but here he is warm and kind-hearted, wise and intelligent, witty and pious, and overseeing both the physical and spiritual needs of his little flock. In short, this is one of the best and most humanized Tucks I’ve ever come across. In various incarnations of this character, Tuck never quite seems a “follower” of Robin in the same sense that Little John, Will Scarlett, Much and even Marian are. Though he’s a natural ally to Robin and an active part of the gang, he often comes across as a bit of an outsider, and it’s perhaps because of his affiliations with the church that he never takes on true “outlaw” status.
That same idea is at work here; although Tuck is obviously loyal to Bran and happy to take his commands, there’s also the sense that he answers to a higher power that transcends both sides of the conflict. His course is usually to encourage peace talks, and in fact this makes up the most crucial part of his role to play in this particular installment.
As the other characters go, Bran has come into his own and fully embraced his role as leader to the people, weighing up his victories and defeats and making the difficult decisions in order to protect what he holds dear. It is a bit odd however that so much of the narrative is somewhat distanced from his point of view, particularly considering how prominent he was at the beginning of the trilogy. I wonder if perhaps it would have been more effective if the first book had been called “Tuck,” with the good friar setting Bran on the path to manhood and maturity, and this, the final book, being told from Bran’s point of view in order to explore how much he’s really grown.
Little John and Will Scarlett are fairly low-key here, and although Merian is more prominent, she and her relationship with Bran is still rather one-note. Alan a’Dale is introduced here as a vagabond and minstrel, and given the appropriate role of translator between the many dialects that existed in Wales at this time (furthermore, an epilogue explores his role in adapting the story into the legends as we know them today). Much never makes an appearance, and rest of the cast are a variety of original characters that help join in the conflict for the freedom of their homeland, but who suffer legitimate loss in the struggle.
Heading several of the chapters are the verses to a ballad that one day turns the events recorded here into legend, as well as an informative author’s note that explains several of the concepts and historical ideals used in the narrative.
For what looks like such a large book, the pace is extraordinary quick and flits from scene to scene without any excess dross. Lawhead has a good handle on the distribution of dialogue, setting, characterization, historical context and plot, and never wastes any words when it comes to getting across the pertinent aspects of the story he’s trying to tell. All in all, this has been an enjoyable adaptation of the familiar story, both predictable (not that that’s necessarily a bad thing) and with plenty of clever and unforeseen twists. Focusing on a character that is so often given short-shrift (in the latest BBC series, Tuck wasn’t even included until the third season) this is a warm and memorable portrayal of one of the most iconic and familiar characters in European legend.
I have Hood on the TBR stacks. I’ll have to dig it out and try this series soon.