Robin Hood: Toxic Masculinity Can Be Delightful?

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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.

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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!

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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.

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Visiting Green Gables

Green Gables

Green Gables. It’s real!

I didn’t include Anne of Green Gables in The Book List, because I have read the whole series. . .four times.  But, I just got back from a literary adventure on Prince Edward Island and I want you to know about it.

I am sure you know that Anne of Green Gables (1908) by L. M. Montgomery is the story of a plucky, red haired orphan raised on a farm on Prince Edward Island.  I grew up idolizing Anne Shirley and I never stopped.  I have a picture of one the book covers on my wall to remind me to work harder and be more wonderful.  Throughout the eight book series Montgomery describes the natural beauty of P.E.I. in vivid detail.  It turns out that the houses and scenery she described really exist on the Island.  You can go and visit them, and I did and it was amazing.

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The first view of P.E.I. from the ferry.

On the way from the ferry to Cavendish–the  town where Montgomery grew up and which she renamed Avonlea in the Anne series–we got a little turned around and ended up on this road.

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It looks exactly like the Avenue/White Way of Delight that Anne and Matthew take to Green Gables when she first arrives on the island!

“‘And what DOES make the roads red?’

‘Well now, I dunno,’ said Matthew.

‘Well that is one of the things to find out sometime.  Isn’t it splendid to think of all the things there are to find out about?'”

We did eventually get to Green Gables.  Montgomery didn’t actually grow up at Green Gables, it was the home of her aunt and uncle.  There are plenty of pictures of her at the farm and many descriptions of it in her journals.  Anne tourism is quite valuable to P.E.I, so they turned the site into a national park.  It is absolutely beautiful.  Perched on top of a hill that slopes down to a border of shrubs and flowers and beyond that the real, actual Haunted Woods.

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I can see why Montgomery chose this place for Anne’s home.  There is something romantic about the shape of the land.  Plenty of “scope for imagination.”  You can poke around the farm house, which is furnished with antiques or reproductions from turn of the century farms.  There are two short hiking paths, one goes to the real Lovers’ Lane and the other goes into the Haunted Woods.

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It really does look haunted doesn’t it?  All those pointing, reaching spruce fingers.  Fallen trees are allowed to rot where they are.  It is creepy and beautiful.

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Scenery by Max Ernst.

Apparently, the Japanese love Anne of Green Gables.  A lot.  They show up on tour buses and even get married where Montgomery got married.  However, the location itself is not too commercialized.  You can get silly things like raspberry cordial and Anne dolls, but the merchandising seemed fairly restrained to me.

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Seeing Green Gables absolutely made my heart sing.  I love the idea of literary tourism generally, but I particularly love that people get excited about Anne Shirley.  Apparently, people are going to Sweden to do Girl with the Dragon Tattoo tours.  That book is about sex, violence, crime, violent sexual crime, deceit, loss, failed human relationships, etc.  Not concepts I want to dwell on.  The Anne books are an ode to girlhood, innocence, friendship, imagination, pluck, nature, whimsy, hard work, being kind to people.  Concepts that warm the cockles of your heart.  It felt really wonderful to know that other people love Anne as much as I do and want to honor L. M. Montgomery and the concepts and characters she made so vivid.

And that was just day one.  On day two we set out to find the Lake of Shining Waters.  We made another delightful wrong turn and ended up at a house simply called Anne of Green Gables Heritage site.  Hands down the coolest historical site I have ever been to.  It is L.M. Montgomery’s paternal grandfather’s home and it rocks!

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The Pulpit Stone from The Story Girl.

This house has been continuously owned by the Montgomery family, which means that nothing has ever been sold, which means that it still contains items that L. M. herself played with as a child.  Seriously.

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Magog is real, y’all. Magog is real.

No joke, that is the actual Magog of Gog and Magog, described in  Anne of the Island.  I saw this little china dog and my heart nearly exploded from joy.  It felt like meeting one of Anne Shirley’s own friends.

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Anne’s rosebud tea set.

The actual, legit rosebud tea set that Anne ate off of.  (Shh, I know she didn’t really eat off of it, Montgomery did, but it’s super easy to suspend your disbelief and feel that Anne ate off of these very plates.  She did, guys.  Really, she did.)

The best thing about this little museum/house is the tour guide.  He is a tall, grizzled, old cousin of the author.  He grew up in the house and he is such a wonderful raconteur that even my grumpy-old-man of a father enjoyed visiting this place.  He tells delightful stories about the artifacts, which are just sitting out as they would have been when Montgomery visited her grandfather.  No ropes.  You can touch things.  The proprietor grabs the heirlooms with his big bear paws and waves them about in a way that makes your heart jump.  He has a nonchalant attitude toward the history of the place, probably because he grew up there. Visiting this house is one of the best things I have ever done in my life.  Really.

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Tea cup with mustache guard. Keeps your ‘stache dry when you’re sipping.

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Miniature complete Shakespeare.

Across the road lies another house that Montgomery loved and wrote about, Silver Bush, and the Lake of Shining Waters.

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The Lake of Shining Waters!

This is the spot where Montgomery was married.  Oh, and you can view her wedding dress in another location, the house where she was born.  Anyway, Silver Bush has some neat artifacts, including a quilt made by the author.  I was most thrilled by this one:

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The bookcase where Anne and Montgomery saw Katie Maurice.

Remember, Anne says that in one of her foster homes there was a bookcase filled with china.  It had two panels and in one of them she would talk to her reflection, which she named Katie Maurice.  Well, it turns out that Montgomery lifted that story right from her own life.  She would talk to an imaginary girl named Katie Maurice in this bookcase.  Don’t think for a second that I didn’t pause for a moment to talk to my reflection in this thing.

That was the end of my Anne tour.  It was wonderful.  A Bucket List event for me, for sure.  In conclusion, if you haven’t read Anne of Green Gables (we can’t be friends) you should.  You’re never too old.  Montgomery is witty, so you’ll get a laugh out of it at the least.  I cannot express the impact this series has on my life and personality.  Getting to know Anne Shirley makes you a better person.