The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, Howard Pyle, 1883
Look who it is! Robin Hood himself. What’s he doing here in the 1880s? I will explain.
The earliest surviving mention of the name Robin Hood dates to the 1370s. The legend was maintained in a slew of separate ballads composed in the two proceeding centuries. Originally Robin was simply a clever outlaw, not a kind, generous socialist. Walter Scott, in the unreadably racist Ivanhoe, recast Robin Hood as a hero. The original Robin was a yeoman, a farmer who owned his land. Scott changed his motivation, status and time period. Robin became a Saxon knight and Social Justice Warrior who stole from evil Norman conquerors to return England’s native wealth to its native people. Oopsy, Scott forgot that the Saxons were also Germanic conquerors.
Anyway, Scott’s 1820 novel initiated the long tradition of reimagining the medieval outlaw in whatever form of heroism happened to jive with the time. In 1973 Disney knew the people needed a sexy, anti-authoritarian fox. We still do. We can thank Howard Pyle for that fox. In 1883 he did his best to combine the various Robin Hood ballads into a continuous narrative called The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood. The text still seems episodic, but that doesn’t necessarily detract from the tale. Pyle attempted to preserve the humor, rhythm and some of the fun language from his source material. I think he did a smashing job. He generated renewed interest in the Robin Hood myth that never died out. Thanks, Howie!
You will recognize Pyle’s Robin. He is kind and generous to his friends, always ready to prank an enemy, the best archer in the land, and he has a keen sense of economic injustice. He relieves wealthy travelers, especially fat friars, of their riches. Sorry, he does not redistribute to the poor. Instead, he uses the money to maintain his gang of outlaws. He needs this troop to protect him from arrest, because he’s a murderer, arguably in self-defense. No one can serve a warrant on Robin Hood, because he is a mafioso and his thugs will give you “cracked crowns and broken bones.” So, maybe you wouldn’t entirely recognize him.
The murder Robin committed weighs heavily on his heart, so he and his gang perform elaborate jests upon their enemies rather than harm them, which is fun for us. Not content with the number of scrapes they get into with the Sheriff of Nottingham and his minions, Robin and his Merry Men are quick to perceive insults and start bashing random people with staves over silly disputes like who will cross a bridge first. This is how Robin jumps doughty fighters into his gang. Little John and several others join the group after proving their fighting prowess against Robin or another Merry Man. It gets a bit repetitive. Although, I do appreciate Robin’s ability to laugh at himself when he is bested.
In between bashings, Robin maintains his horde in style. They feast in the forest on the King’s deer—naughty boys—and use the riches they steal to keep themselves well provided with ale. Have I already gone on a rant about the unimaginable horribleness of the British royalty not allowing poor people to hunt? Evil. Anyway, when the Merry Men tire of their comfortable lifestyle they wander around Sherwood until they find someone to bash with a stick or prank or both. Now, you may be thinking that you don’t want to read about men who can’t stop bashing sticks into each other. I did get frustrated with them. Medieval medicine was mostly nonsense. One shouldn’t walk around cracking crowns and breaking bones, especially in this era. But wait, the story has a saving grace: Pyle’s writing style!
Pyle’s prose has a lovely rhythm. It reminds me of footsteps. Thus, you feel as if you are walking through the woods with Robin. Combining that rhythm with pseudo-medieval language, he achieved such a charming effect. For example, “So saying, he strode away through the leafy forest glades until he had come to the verge of Sherwood. There he wandered for a long time, through highway and byway, through dingly dell and forest skirt.” Ah! Doesn’t that just make you want to quit your job to go wander through a dingly dell? His tone is so jolly and fun that I couldn’t help but enjoy myself, in spite of the goofy men constantly trying to prove their manliness. Isn’t that weird? It’s ok though. It’s ok to turn off the intersectional feminist part of your brain for a moment to enjoy jolly tale. Take a break. Turn it back on right after, though. We need you in the fight. Or, if you’re not comfortable with that, give this one a pass. You do you.
The most objectionable part occurs in the epilogue, when Pyle had the difficult task of disposing of a character who is too pure, noble and manly, and far too stout a fighter to be defeated by any man. So, of course, Robin is undone by the treachery of women. A vile Prioress bleeds him to death. Blergh.
Excepting the ending, I really enjoyed this one. It’s as charming as the fox in the Disney film. The story may be full of men attacking each other, but it’s also full of joie de vivre, a certain sweetness, and a vibrant appreciation of the beauty of nature. I almost forgot to tell you that the men refer to each other as “sweet chuck.” Just a cute little pet name. They call deer “dainty brown darlings.” Here’s another fun quote for you: “The bright light faded from the sky and a glimmering gray fell over all things. From the deeper recesses of the forest the strange whispering sounds of night-time came to the ear.” Just an small example of what I liked about this novel.
You may like The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood if:
- you’re a nature lover
- you like mischief
You may not like The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood if:
- there are absolutely no circumstances under which you would consider reading a story that is mainly about men bashing each other with sticks
Final Thoughts: I liked it! Robin Hood is a fun character. I’m glad Pyle helped repopularize him.
P.S. Thank you, thank you, thank you to my wonderful friends Rachel and Alex for being completely perfect at portraying Robin Hood and Friar Tuck.
I have quite a soft spot for Pyle’s Robin Hood. It was the first classic book I read as a young girl that I completely fell in love with! I loved reading your thoughts. The writing does indeed have a certain cadence that makes it charming. And you have to love Pyle’s cozy, cheerful attitude.
I absolutely agree. Thanks for reading!