My introduction to the legendary Robin Hood was the 1970’s era Disney film. Oh how I loved that fox. Looking back, he was a quintessential Robin Hood. Honorable, yet a rogue. Jovial, yet aggrieved by injustice. It was the perfect combination of traits to make a little girl want to search the woods for a fox of her own.
It wasn’t until last year that I truly considered the literary and historical figure of Robin Hood.
At that time I was reading The Adventures of Robin Hood by Roger Lancelyn Green to my children as part of our homeschool curriculum. We spent several months experiencing the post-Battle of Hastings world of Robert of Locksley, Lady Marian, Will Scarlet, and the other outlaws of Sherwood Forest. It was a wonderful story that breathed life into the enduring characters and timeless themes that have so captured the imagination of generations of writers.
The story of Robin Hood begins well before Green’s 1956 novel. The first literary record of the man known as Robin Hood was written in 1377. Nearly one hundred years later, he appears in a collection of late medieval ballads entitled, A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode. A century after that, Anthony Munday, a contemporary of Shakespeare, wrote two plays about the man who became Robin Hood, Robert, Earl of Huntington. In 1795, Joseph Ritson, an English historian, published Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw. This became source material for many future works of Robin Hood. The tale then winds its way through time in many minor works until we come to the 19th century where several well-known writers fletch their arrows to take on the lore. Alfred Lord Tennyson penned a play entitled, The Foresters, Howard Pyle wrote The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, and Sir Walter Scott worked Robin Hood into his chivalric novel, Ivanhoe.
So was Robin Hood a real person? Historical records say . . . maybe. There are documents from the mid-13th century recording a William Robehod or William, son of Robert le Fevere and a band of criminals seizing property from the prior of Sandleford. There are also recorded instances in the 13th and 14th centuries of numerous outlaws using the alias Robin Hood. If the legend was widely known by that time, it may mean that he lived sometime in 13th century. Aside from the lore and the scanty documents, there is no physical proof that Robin Hood was real. A monument exists in Yorkshire that is said to be the site of his grave, but this is merely a much-abused slab of stone near the priory where, according to the folklore, he met his end. A survey of this area, though, revealed no grave.
Whether or not he truly lived, Robin Hood continues to fascinate and inspire. Like most legends, the story allows us to move from a world of fluctuating grays into one black and white. But the trite oversimplification of his story, ‘Steal from the rich and give to the poor’, doesn’t really ring true with that dichotomy. I prefer, ‘Recover from the greedy and restore to the needy.’
This is the second in a series of posts about classic children’s literature. Next up is a look at fairy tales:
The Blue Fairy Book by Andrew Lang