I suppose most of you are aware that today is Tuesday not Monday. Oops. The only excuse I have for not getting this post out on time is that these past few days have been one of those times where life just got in the way. I was going to get this post written and up yesterday when I got home from work – late, but still Monday – until I realized that I was so tired my brain was not functioning properly. So I made the decision to wait until I could write something decent and trust that you would forgive me for being a day late. You forgive me, right? *puts on irresistible “I’m sorry” face* Aw, thanks! You guys are the best! *hugs* Now that we got that out of the way, here is my post:
Two weeks ago I began a new series, this time looking at the legendary figure of Robin Hood. In that first post we explored whether or not the famous outlaw was based on a real person and, if so, who could he have been. This week we are going to look at the way his story has evolved over time to become the legend that we all know and love.
The Evolution of a Legend
Like any good myth or legend, the tale of Robin Hood has morphed over the centuries with each retelling. The Robin that we are familiar with today is not the Robin who was originally passed down through grand oral tradition. In the earliest ballads – such as “Robin Hood and the Monk”, “Robin Hood and the Potter”, “Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne”, and most notably “A Gest of Robin Hood” – there are very few similarities to the actual person of Robin Hood that we now know and love.
Robin was originally described as a yeoman. While there is some uncertainty as to what exactly this term meant for Robin since it was a word used for several different types of men, it is clear that he was not the noble he later becomes. This early version of Robin was also a lot more violent; it was nothing for him to kill those who got in his way or behead his enemies. He would even pick fights with his friends, which at this time included the familiar names of Little John, Will Scarlet, and Much the Miller’s Son.
Another interesting difference between this early Robin Hood and the one of today is that he was not the head of a great uprising and he did not steal from the rich to give to the poor. He mostly stole money from those he saw as corrupting the church. Robin was a devout Catholic in these early ballads and tended to target bishops, abbots, sheriffs, and other figures that he saw as corrupt. And while there are instances of Robin helping out the poor and being generous to those he comes across, overthrowing social order was in no way his original goal.
By the 15th Century, Robin Hood had become an integral part of the May Day celebrations, often being labeled as the King and being heavily featured in plays and processions. It is through these May Games that the characters of Friar Tuck and Maid Marian are believed to have been introduced. Tuck appears in a play called “Robin Hood and the Friar”, but Marian has a more interesting introduction to the legend. The character of Marian was orginially from a French pastoral play called Jeu de Robin et Marion, but this Robin was not Robin Hood. When her character became a part of the May Games where Robin Hood already had such a presence the two characters were gradually melded into the same story.
With the violence and less than honorable actions of the early Robin Hood it is unsurprising that he was not always looked upon favorably by all. As people sought to improve his reputation changes began to creep into the story. This is when he began to be known as a friend to the poor and as someone who spoke up for social injustice. By the 16th Century, Robin had been turned into a noble and found his permanent home in Sherwood during the time of Richard the Lionheart.
During the 17th and 18th centuries many new ballads were written about the outlaw and his Merry Men. Origin stories for the characters were created and a new character found his way into the canon: Alan a Dale. During this period the old stories were also modified and became more campy with Robin almost always being bested by the tradesman he is fighting and then asking that man to join his band of Merry Men.
It is always fascinating to look at the ways legends have changed over time. In the case of Robin Hood some of those changes have been quite drastic. The basic elements – his outlaw status and archery skills – were always there, but his character and moral code, parts of him which we now take for granted as basic canon, were not. I am sure as time goes on and there continues to be change in social and political practices, the story of Robin Hood will continue to change as well. He is a character that stands for justice against corruption, and as that ideal changes with the times, so to will its hero.
What parts of the Robin Hood legend were you familiar with? Did you know of his less than noble beginnings? What are your favorite pieces of the legend? Least favorite? Let me know in the comments.
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