Robin Hood


Robin Hood
   The merry outlaw Robin Hood, skilled in archery and singlestick fighting and a master of tricks and disguise, has been popular from the 14th century till today; in early sources he is localized (if at all) in Barnsdale (probably Yorkshire, possibly Rutland), and in later ones in Sherwood Forest. Various companions are named, notably *Little John, and in one ballad a 'King Edward' appears.
   None of the many attempts to provide a historical identity for him is wholly convincing; the clues are too slight and contradictory, and 'Robert' and 'Hood' were both common medieval names. The opposite approach, which, relying on his green clothes, sees him as a woodland spirit, is untenable; throughout the tradition Robin is merely a human being whose adventures, unlike Arthurian material, contain no magic or marvels (Keen, 1977: 21922). The third possibility is that 'Robin Hood' was simply a fictional figure typifying banditry, just as 'Jack Straw' and later 'Captain Swing' typified revolt; there are medieval instances of the name being applied to rioters and robbers, and of criminals using it and *Friar Tuck's as aliases (Knight, 1994: 25, 105, 108-9).
   Rhymes about Robin Hood are mentioned in the 1370s; the 38 extant ballads date from the 15th to the 17th centuries, most dealing with a single adventure, with much similarity in situations. They do not explain Robin's past, nor why he was outlawed; only two mention his death, murdered by the Prioress of Kirklees. They show him robbing the rich, but only once giving the proceeds to a poor man - though in 1500 a Scottish chronicler says this was his usual practice, and it is now seen as the defining trait of his character. In the ballads, Robin gleefully defies middle-ranking authority figures such as sheriffs and abbots, though he honours King Edward; the chief emphasis is on the loyalty between him and his companions, their exciting adventures, and the freedom of forest life. In some, he acts with a ruthlessness which modern presentations conveniently ignore.
   Acting was as important as verse in transmitting the tradition. In Tudor times, throughout southern and midland counties, Robin and his followers appeared in local pageants organized by churches as fund-raising events, often at *Whitsun; men in costume would parade through the village or town, or visit neighbouring ones, to collect money. Bishop Latimer was once furious to find a church where he intended to preach closed for this reason. Associated amusements included archery, wrestling, mock combats, and folk-plays about Robin's fights and disguises (three short scripts survive), and the whole event could form part of the *May games.
   The idea that Robin was no ordinary outlaw but an impoverished Earl appears first in Richard Grafton's Chronicle at Large (1569) and was elaborated in plays by Anthony Munday (1598-9) and Martin Parker's ballad, 'A True Tale of Robin Hood' (1632). These sources shift the period to that of Richard I, and Munday invents a love-triangle between Robin, *Maid Marian, and Prince John. Variations on these ideas appear from the early 19th century onwards in plays, novels, children's books, and films; Robin becomes a symbol of gallantry, patriotism, freedom, and justice.
   Various barrows and huge rocks are named after him in many parts of England besides those where tradition says he lived; like other heroes, he was popularly endowed with gigantic strength. There is a tomb in Kirklees Park (Yorkshire) alleged to be his; 16th- and 17th-century antiquarians mention an inscribed gravestone there, but their acounts are inconsistent with one another and with the existing monument (Keen, 1977: 179-82). There is no reason to suppose it is authentic.
   See also *Friar Tuck, *Little John, *Maid Marian.
   ■ The ballad texts can be found in Child, 1882-98/1965, and in Dobson and Taylor, 1976. For the May plays, see Wiles, 1981, and Hutton, 1996: 270-4. Keen, 1977, argues for a fictional hero embodying a popular longing for social justice. Knight, 1994, stresses the multiplicity of the legend; Knight 1999 reprints all the main sources. John C. Bellamy's Robin Hood: A Historical Inquiry (1985), and J. C. Holt's Robin Hood (1982;, rev. edn., 1990), seek a real-life original.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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