The Life & Legend of an Outlaw
154 pages. 24 pages of illustrations from medieval manuscripts, early modern books, and Victorian penny dreadfuls. Bibliography and index.
This book is not a biography of Robin Hood, since a biography of a legend would be impossible. Instead, this is a history of the legend of Robin Hood, showing the earliest surviving mentions of Robin Hood and charting how the legend grew and was modified over the centuries.
As the author explains, while there are candidates who might be the 'historical' Robin Hood, we shall probably never know if there was a real Robin Hood. What we do know is that the legend of a robber was already established in popular culture by the 14th Century, but without many of today are considered key elements of the legend: he didn't take from the rich to give to the poor, there was no Maid Marian, and he was not associated with any particular king or woods.
So how did Robin Hood become an Anglo-Saxon hero, the champion of the poorer classes, consort of Maid Marian (rather than Matilda or Clotilda!), dweller in Sherwood Forest, and associated with Richard the Lion-Hearted? Was he a veteran of the Crusades, or sent off to the wars in France to atone for his crimes? Did he die by treachery?
As the author lays out, the legend grew over the centuries as culture (and print technology) grew – from village plays to stage plays, from folk songs to ballads (many preserved by antiquarians), notably memorialized in Sir Walter Scott's novel Ivanhoe, popularized in cheap Victorian penny dreadfuls, and eventually adopted by television and Hollywood.
Along the way, the legend was often shaped for the purposes of those who were telling it. Was Robin Hood a revolutionary, or did he stand ultimately for the status quo? His story was told (and shaped) by democrats, monarchists, socialists, and admirers of the French Revolution! The author does a good job of digging down into the motives of those who told and retold the story.
The final chapters show how the legend was then taken up by Hollywood, in film and television, where it was shaped again by American pre-WWII values (in the famous 1938 film with Errol Flynn), and even by blacklisted American 'Communists' (writing for British TV).
Previously available in hardback, coming soon in paperback.
The author does a wonderful job of showing how a legend is shaped over centuries. Recommended.
Reviewed by Editor in Chief Bill .