Stephen Knight: Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography

This review originally appeared on Green Man Review.

Ahhh, I see you’ve been muckin’ ’bout the Estate library again! What were you looking for? Robin Hood material? Go widdershins by the card catalog, go down the stone stairs, and you should find some books there. Did you know that Stephen Knight has a new book on him just out? Bloody fine too, it is! So let’s grab a couple of pints of Robin Hood and discuss it.

Robin Hood’s a myth, a fiction invented by countless storytellers down the centuries. Sure. Now go ahead and explain why, according to the press release that came with this book, he is the only person of a fictitious nature in the Dictionary of National Biography? Answer: the press release is wrong. Any number of definitely mythical or quite likely mythical people, such as Merlin (called Merlin Ambrosius) and King Arthur are in this reference work. What makes Robin Hood unique is that his tale is not tied to a specific time or place, but evolves as the story is told and retold over the years. Furthermore, though it can be argued that both Merlin and Arthur might have some basis in historical fact, there is no proof ‘tall that Robin Hood ever existed. But that he never existed in flesh doesn’t mean that he’s not real. Confused? Good. Hopefully I’ll leave you less confused by the end of this review.

(The Dictionary of National Biography doesn’t help the confusion any by, as Knight notes in this book, stating that Robin Hood’s name means a ‘mythic forest elf’, whose true name of ‘Hodekin’ might mean he would be related to the Norse god Odin.)

Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw, also written by Stephen Knight, was published ‘nigh onto a decade ago. As I noted in the the review of it, “the best part of this book is Knight’s tracing of the development of Robin down through the centuries. For example, the folk of the late Middle Ages saw him simply as an opponent of centralized authority, whereas the Elizabethans gentrified him to support the aristocracy and to oppose what they saw as a corrupt Catholic Church. One of the more interesting tales was Robin of Sherwood was a British TV series of the early 1980s, about the adventures of Robin Hood and his band. Strictly speaking, the series was about the Saxons and Normans, but it was explicitly Celtic in nature. Even the music, from the Celtic band Clannad. And the central thesis of Robin being the ‘son of Herne’ was Celtic, since Herne was a Celtic deity.”

Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography is an extended look at what Robin Hood has become in various guises, ranging from a nationalist rallying point (in 1555, the Scottish parliament banned all annual celebrations involving Robin, Little John, the Abbot of Unreason, or the Queen of the May, as plotters against the Scottish Crown were using them as the basis of a populist uprising) to his transformation by Disney into a cartoon fox in the 1973 Robin Hood feature, not to mention Daffy Duck playing him in a 1958 cartoon. If this sounds like Stephen Knight is veering into the territory that Jack Zipes has staked out, rest assured that Knight is less of a raver (by a minor degree) than Zipes is. Knight’s purpose is not to slam Disney or the Warner Brothers for cultural (mis)appropriation of this character, but rather to examine what purposes Robin Hood has served for each group that has used him in some way. Why does he have such a strong appeal?

If anyone’s qualified to write this book, it’s Knight. He is, no doubt, the world’s most knowledgeable expert on Robin Hood. His first book is considered the definitive look at this outlaw/hero. In a real sense, this current work is a substantial revision of that earlier work; however, it represents a fundamental change in how Knight treats Robin Hood, as here he’s not interested in the historical roots of this mythical being. According to an interview conducted on the Web site of Cardiff University, where he teaches, ‘The obsession with identifying the ‘real Robin Hood’ is a futile and misguided effort… The genuine Robin Hood is a worldwide figure of myth — he represents a utopian vision of liberty which tends to thrive especially in illiberal contexts like the late seventeenth century, the early nineteenth century and most recently, the 1980s.’

There are but four chapters here: ‘Bold Robin Hood’ which covers the early years; ‘Robert, Earl of Huntington’ which covers the noble version; ‘Robin Hood Esquire’ which details the romantic outlaw; and ‘Robin of Hollywood’ which, well, covers the screen versions. A bang on the ear to the author for acknowledging the Robin of Sherwood series, though I’m not sure that the series had a ‘vague ecological libertarianism’ to it! If Knight suffers from anything, it’s a deep-seated belief in cultural conservatism, which shows up in his dislike for such reworkings of the myth such as the 1991 Robin Hood film, which cast Patrick Bergin as the once and future Robin Hood and Uma Thurman as Maid Marian. All that bleedin’ sexuality is too much for him, I guess. For me, this is the weakest of the chapters, as I find it hard to separate what I feel about the films from what he interprets them to be. Not his fault ‘tall, but still worth noting.

Any of you who are fans of the various novels and tales that make up the written version of Robin Hood will find much to chew over in Knight’s ‘Robin Hood Esquire’ chapter. Dealing with the late 1700s, when there developed both ‘clear continuity and clear change in the Robin Hood tradition’, Knight gives a more than credible examination of the literary tradition regarding this outlaw (or hero, depending on your belief). That there are a lot of written tales is certain — well over a hundred reviews here at Green Man refer to him in some manner! Most of these tales are, in part, what a major feature of Robin’s mythic biography comes from: he is quintessentially English, and an avid foe of the Norman French who ruled England after 1066. Even Scott in Ivanhoe buys into this idea of making the Normans evil!

I don’t think that Knight’s fond of Homer Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin, but I’ll be frelled if I can be sure, as he gets a wee bit too jargon-y (‘homosocial’) for his own good here. He does acknowledge that The Merry Adventures of Robin made the story more accessible than, say, Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe did. But he should be slapped hard for stopping his look at the literary Robin Hood in 1892. Yes, 1892. Some of the most interesting novels on Robin have been written after that period, including, but not limited to, Parke Godwin’s Sherwood and Robin and the King, James Goldman’s Robin and Marian (which deals with what happens when a hero grows old), Robin McKinley’s The Outlaws of Sherwood and Richard Kluger’s The Sheriff of Nottingham (in which Robin is completely absent!). Where in the frell is the last century?

Well, in a bad bit of editing, the material on the literary tradition post-Victorian period is here. Not where I’d look for it, but in the bleeding wrong place. Where is it, you ask? Would you believe in the middle of the ‘Robin of Hollywood’ chapter? What the frell?!? It’s actually a well-written section that does touch on Parke Godwin (‘credible’), The Outlaws of Sherwood (‘an identifiably feminist position’), and Jennifer Roberson’s Lady of The Forest (‘Marian is sexually desirable’), whose sequel, Lady of Sherwood, we’ve reviewed. A good, strong look at Robin Hood over the recent past, but one that very much belongs in the ‘Robin Hood Esquire’ chapter. I don’t know who goofed, be it author or editor, but someone did!

All in all, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography is a worthwhile addition to the library of anyone interested in Robin Hood. No, it’s not as interesting to read as the fictional accounts of him are — how much nonfiction is? — but it will give you a better appreciation for how our Robin Hood came to be. Even Knight notes this, saying of Robin McKinley: “In her preface to her Robin Hood novel, McKinley quotes historian James C. Holt’s thesis that ‘the tales of Robin Hood have always reflected what the teller and the audience needed him to be at the time of the telling.'” Knight may not be terribly overjoyed with the present Robin Hood versions, but he at least acknowledges their existence. If he’d been of the Harold Bloom bent, he indeed would have stopped his tale a century ago!

(Cornell University Press, 2003)

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