Robin Hood

Week 9: Medieval Heroes - Assignments - Reading - Resources - Images

Background Reading

Robin Hood is a character of legend although it is quite possible that there is a historical figure at the root of these legends. If there were a historical Robin Hood, he would have lived in medieval England, perhaps in the late 12th or the 13th century. Songs and stories continued to be told about Robin Hood throughout the Middle Ages and early modern periods of English history. The long life of these legends makes it impossible to reconstruct an actual biography from the episodes contained in the popular legends. There are still some folklorists who would not even insist that there ever was an historical Robin Hood. Yet while the life of Robin Hood may be purely a legend, it is a legend located in a very real geography: Sherwood Forest is a real place, just north of Nottingham, which is a real town, about a hundred miles to the north of London.

Over the centuries, Robin Hood was re-imagined and re-invented over and over again to suit different times and different audiences. He remains a popular character today, and has been the subject of some major Hollywood films (most recently Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves starring Kevin Costner, in 1991, where Robin Hood comes with a Muslim companion, Azeem, played by Morgan Freeman -- with a Mel Brooks spoof, Robin Hood: Men in Tights, with Isaac Hayes playing Asneeze, in 1993). When you read the Robin Hood ballads this week, try to forget -- if you can -- some of the Hollywood and cartoon versions of Robin that you may have encountered, and see what figure you can discern in the texts of these old songs. How was Robin depicted in the traditional ballads? How is he like the Robin you might expect... and how is he different?

Because the Robin Hood character is first attested in popular ballads, there is no "definitive" account of Robin Hood, no "original" story. It seems clear that many of the elements of the story that are popular today were comparatively late additions to the story. One of the oldest elements of the story is that Robin Hood was an "outlaw", a criminal who had no choice but to live in the wilds of the forest. Some of the crimes that Robin commits are robbery, poaching on the king's deer, and even murder. Yet he also displays great loyalty to the members of his outlaw band, risking his life to rescue them from the hands of the Sheriff. Robin is also famous for being a "trickster", and he loves disguises.

For example, Robin's love interest, Maid Marian, is not found in any of the older ballads, and the importance of King Richard and Robin's "secret" identity as a nobleman also seems to have been added to the tradition later rather than earlier. So is the idea of Robin "stealing from the rich to give to the poor." This week, you will start out by reading a comic book that contains most of the elements of the legend that are popular today, such as Maid Marian and King Richard. Then you will read some of the early ballads and see what - if anything - the old Robin Hood has in common with this new one.

Child's English and Scottish Ballads

Most of the Robin Hood stories you will be reading this week are actually songs, ballads, which were collected by Francis J. Child in the 19th century. Some of the ballads clearly go back hundreds of years into the past.

Francis J. Child (1825-1896) is one of the major folklore collectors and editors of the 19th century. Using previously published materials, unpublished manuscripts, and field research, he assembled a five-volume collection of over three hundred English and Scottish ballads, which in many cases feature multiple versions and variants of the "same" song. Oddly enough, Child was not especially interested in the music for the ballads, and instead provides the lyrics of the songs only, with commentary. In just a few cases does he provide a musical transcription of the melody. The "Child Numbers" are still a standard way to refer to the ballads (in your readings for this week, the Child Number is provided in parentheses for each ballad). Child's Ballads are also the source for one of the units on English folk traditions coming up later in the semester.

What is a ballad? The word generally refers to a dramatic narrative episode which is put to music. The characters are rarely described in depth (although they may already be very familiar characters to the audience), and the plot is often choppy (once again because the storyline may already be well known to the audience). Ballads frequently contain a good deal of dialogue between the characters, and there is often a refrain that recurs from stanza to stanza.

Although Child's work is the definitive modern edition of the ballads, he was preceded by the highly important work of Thomas Percy, whose Reliques of Ancient English Poetry was published in 1765. As soon as printing was invented, ballads were being printed, often as individual "broadsides." As a result, there is a continual back-and-forth between the oral tradition of folksinging and the literary adoption of the ballad as a form of printed text to be written (and read) rather than sung (and heard).

The Merry Men

In order to keep up with the different stories, you will want to be acquainted with the different characters who figure in the Robin Hood stories. Here is a brief introduction to the characters you will meet:

In the comic book version, you will meet some other characters who are popular in more modern Robin legends, but not in the traditional ballads:

Modern Languages / Anthropology 3043: Folklore & Mythology. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:52 PM