The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood
I’ve noted that the Alice books were the absolute favorites of my childhood, bar none. Later on, I wrote about how Kipling’s Jungle Books were number two. I got to thinking about Robin Hood for some unrelated reason recently, and I immediately recalled the number three book of my childhood canon: Howard Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, of Great Renown in Nottinghamshire. I don’t recall exactly, but I must have encountered it a little after I first read the Alice books and around about the same time–or perhaps slightly earlier–that I read The Jungle Book. What I do remember is that my favorite uncle got me several books in the Children’s Illustrated Classics series by J M Dent & Sons Ltd around about 1974 or 1975. One was The Heroes, by Charles Kingsley, one an edition of the Arabian Nights, and the third Pyle’s Merry Adventures of Robin Hood.
This series, fiendishly difficult to find today, were hardcover books about eight by twelve inches. They had the original text of the works in question along with line drawing illustrations. Two especially nice features of the books were that definitions of words that might be hard for children were given in the margins of the pages, so that you could figure them out as you read without needing to ask a parent or consult a dictionary; and second, that there were appendices that discussed the historical background of the books and the authors. You couldn’t really have a better series for budding readers, and I regret that the series seems to be long out of print.
The Arabian Nights, for whatever reason, didn’t grab me that much. I read parts of it, but I don’t think I ever finished it. Being a Greek mythology buff from the time I was old enough to read, I read and re-read The Heroes. Preeminent among these three, though, was The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood. I don’t know why, but it captivated me intensely, and I read it far more times than I read the other two put together. Not only was I obsessed, but I viewed it almost as holy writ. I don’t recall how or why, but I had the impression that Merry Adventures was actually a more or less literally true historical narrative, and that not only were Robin Hood and crew actual people who really existed, but that Pyle’s stories truly happened as told. When I made the occasional attempt to read other versions of the Robin Hood story, or watch a movie, I was quite offended that they diverged from Pyle’s canonical book!
Of course, with adulthood, I realized that Robin Hood is a mashup of many historical, semi-historical, and completely legendary stories of late Medieval England, with more than a dollop of assistance from later writers beginning with Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe and continuing to the present. I have also come to appreciate other versions of the story and have seen many cinematic versions (of varying quality). Still, I have a fond spot in my heart for Pyle’s book.
A big part of this is that Pyle actually went back to the old ballads, following their storylines closely, sometimes quoting them almost verbatim. The tendency of authors ever since Walter Scott has been to try to make a consistent narrative arc for the Robin Hood mythos, generally along the following lines: Robin of Locksley is a young man of good and noble birth, fiercely loyal to Good King Richard the Lionhearted. When Richard leaves to fight in the Crusades, Evil Prince John, Richard’s nasty and conniving brother, seizes Robin’s land, forcing him into hiding in Sherwood Forest. The Sheriff of Nottingham and Guy of Gisbourne, as Prince John’s lackeys, are Robin’s archenemies. Meanwhile, Robin gathers his band of Merry Men to help him wage what amounts to a guerrilla insurrection against John. Little John is Robin’s right-hand man, and other Merry Men that pop up consistently are Alan a Dale, Will Scarlet, a nephew of Robin, Will Stutley, Friar Tuck, and others. Maid Marian is Robin’s lady love, whom he has to meet with in secret. After struggling against the Sheriff and Prince John, Robin enters a climactic archery contest in disguise, is unmasked, and just as he is about to be imprisoned and/or executed, he is saved by the sudden appearance of King Richard, returned at last. Prince John is deposed, the Sheriff is imprisoned, Robin at last marries Marian, and everyone lives happily ever after.
Pyle’s book bears little resemblance to this narrative, traditional as it has become. Like the ballads, Pyle’s book is episodic, each chapter being a self-contained narrative. About half of them are “origin stories”–why Robin became a fugitive (the explanation is very different from the Scott-influenced version), how he meets various of his Merry Men, and various adventures Robin and others go on (e.g. infiltrating the Sheriff’s household to work for him, going in disguise as a curtal friar, and so on). The episodes are often quite funny–typically, Robin gets into a fight with someone, gets his posterior handed to him, and, being a good sport about it, takes the victor on as a Merry Man. Most of the action, including the famous archery match, take place some ten years or more before the time portrayed in Scott-influenced stories, being set mostly during the reign of Henry II, Richard Lionheart’s father, with only the very last chapter featuring the latter monarch. The Sheriff of Nottingham is prominent, but not as much of a nemesis as often portrayed, and Guy of Gisbourne appears in only one chapter near the end. Maid Marian does not appear at all, being mentioned only once in an offhanded comment by Robin.
The episode that stuck in my mind the most was the chapter on Robin’s death. Instead of living happily ever after under King Richard, Robin actually goes off to crusade with him. It is established in Pyle’s version that Robin killed only two men in his career as an outlaw–one in self-defense at the age of eighteen, and Guy of Guisborne, also in self-defense, since Guy was essentially an assassin hired to kill Robin. After the crusades, though, Robin is hardened and loses his youthful joviality. He settles down to a boring life as a law-abiding citizen, but seems to miss the freedom of the greenwood, and is obliquely implied to suffer from what we’d now call PTSD. He falls sick and goes to Kirklees, where his cousin, who is prioress there, out of jealously of him, bleeds him (the typical treatment for illness at the time) but lets so much blood that he dies. In his last moments, he asks Little John, weeping by his side, to bury him where his arrow lands, and takes one last shot with his bow out the window. At his behest, John forgives the prioress and buries Robin where the arrow has stuck in the ground. I don’t know why, but I always found that to be dreadfully sad, and always was deeply moved by it.
The only real critique I have, as an adult, of Pyle’s book is that he does display a subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) anti-clericalism and anti-Catholicism. I didn’t see that as a kid, but then again, I was a kid, and I didn’t become Catholic until I was twenty-six. It’s mildly annoying in reading it now; but then again, Pyle is typical of Protestant Americans of his day, and this is mild enough in comparison with the book’s many virtues that it does not mar the work as a whole. By and large, the book has aged well since it was published and is something I can enjoy as much as an adult as I did as a child. Deep in my soul, and the soul of every child who loved Robin Hood, there will always be exciting adventures and merry feasting in a Merrie Old England that may not have ever existed, but should have.
Part of the series “Your Own Personal Canon“.