Robin Hood: A Darker Telling

Do you know about tinker’s marks? Gypsies use them, too. Even plain old tramps when there were any still on the American roads. They’re the marks that say, ‘Kind Woman Here, This Dog Bites, Move On, This Is A Cop’s House.’ I think there’s some sort of mark on the doors of the Green Man here, that says ‘Uncanny Travelers Welcome. If you’ve walked a far road from a strange place, come on in.’

The Robert Graves Memorial Reading Room has a fireplace surrounded by overstuffed armchairs. It’s a grand place to curl up and read on autumn nights, but it’s also where the insomniacs and transients gather when it gets close to midnight. If you can’t sleep, or you’re trying to avoid actually leaving the building because you don’t have a place to sleep –this is the place to be. And when it’s late in the year and late in the evening, the stranger stories get passed around and read aloud.

We had this fellow here a while ago — I think he bribed MacKenzie with some old books to let him spend the evening by the fire. He called himself a story teller and he had this leather satchel full of very old, tattered ledgers –the kind you keep accounts in, entered with a steel nib at a lectern. Though, to tell the truth, he didn’t look like he could read or write — scarred face, eye patch, a leather jacket and one of those pointy leather caps you sometimes see in Howard Pyle’s Robin Hood illustrations. Which I guess may be why MacKenzie asked him to read to the late night crowd from those old ledgers. MacKenzie’s got a funny sense of humour. And a soft spot for storytellers, too.

So, these books — they were journals. This guy sat down cross-legged on the hearth and spread the musty volumes around his knees like a deck of cards. He claimed they were transcriptions of real histories, copied over and over, retold, retranslated, never quite forgotten. They were Robin Hood stories, of course, narrated to some anonymous scribe by Hood himself. But they were not the ones Pyle illustrated –definitely not Merry Adventures. Not the wronged nobleman, not the cheerful brigand nor amiable freedom fighter, either; no, the guy he was reading about was like some ancestral Saxon highwayman, the kind that takes your money and your life and then sells your corpse to the rag and bone man.

The Robin Hood he told us about was a psychopath, plain and simple. Sure, he stole from the rich — that’s where the money is, as some bank robber said. From the sound of it, the only things he gave to the poor were early graves and social diseases. He had a real personal hatred of the Sheriff but I don’t think it was about anything special. Hood just hated authority. He and his feral buddies would stalk the Sheriff’s men just for the fun of killing them. They’d strip them to the skin when the poor sods were dead, and mutilate the bodies –the narrator claimed the Sheriff had once scarred Robin’s face, so every man at arms that Robin murdered had his nose chopped off and his face slit from top to bottom.

The nastiest part was that the nameless scribe had written down Hood’s story in the first person — a boastful list of murders, robberies, good old-fashioned tricks like setting a cottage roof afire with the terrified farmer still inside. He told that old one about going to the Fair disguised as a one-eyed man to take part in an archery contest. But instead of winning the prize, this Robin Hood lost — then waited for the real winner after the contest, and gouged out both his eyes.

Our guest read it all out with a matter-of-fact glee. You could really imagine this clever, bestial outlaw recounting his deeds to some terrified clerk. And the storyteller kept glancing up with a slantwise grin as he read, that one eye blue as a gas flame, amused to be regaling us with tales of murder and rapine in a hero’s name.

That guy was one authentically Uncanny Traveler, I’ll give him that. He had that funny Somerset accent, where ‘s’ is said with a slur that turns it into ‘z‚ — an old, country accent, that remembered wood smoke and wet thatch and ale drunk before it was quite ready. Not only could he read, he had a compelling voice, too — a sort of rough velvet buzz, like his voice box had been damaged once and healed over a long, long time. When he lifted his head to look over his audience, I could see a scar around his throat, as well — like a rope burn. Of course.

When he was done, we were all sort of stunned, except MacKenzie. Nothing bad fazes him unless it happens to a book. He looked round, calmly stroking the cat asleep on his lap, and told us all sternly that Truth was not only stranger than fiction, it was scarier. Then he sipped his whiskey, turned his gaze on the smirking storyteller, and said, ‘But you’d better go now.’ And the guy up and went, satchel on his shoulder, leather jacket swirling round him like a cloak .

What really chilled me was that as he passed me, he looked down and sort of tipped up his eye patch like a salute. And under that patch was a perfectly good, perfectly cold, blue eye.

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