Britain's most famous folk-hero (see Folktales); his adventures have long passed into tradition and almost form part of the Matter of Britain. The connections between the real RH, the Legends of his life and possible mythological origins are complicated and obscure. The basic story as perpetuated in many books, movies and tv series is nonfantastic. RH is shown as a dispossessed lord (usually treated as the Earl of Huntingdon), possibly a Saxon who fell foul of the Normans in the century or two after their conquest of England (the commonest period is during the reign of Richard I). He retreated to the woods, Sherwood Forest being the usual venue, where he gathered about him other hunted men (see Companions), the best-known being Little John, Friar Tuck, Allen A Dale, Will Scarlet(t) and Much the Miller. His sweetheart was Maid Marian. The outlaws stole from the rich but supported the needy (see Robin Goodfellow). In some stories RH eventually recovers his earldom. He was betrayed by the Prioress of Kirklees Abbey who poisoned him. As he lay dying he fired an arrow into the air, asking to be buried where the arrow fell. His traditional burial place is at Kirklees in Yorkshire.
This legend, with minor variations, has been the subject of many poems, ballads and books dating back to the 14th century, the oldest extant being Robin Hood and the Monk (?1450), although the most complete text is A Gest of Robyn Hode (written ?1400; ?1510). The tale was given modern currency by Walter Scott in Ivanhoe (1819), and the adventures were developed in all their glory for children in Robin Hood and Little John, or The Merry Men of Sherwood Forest (1840) by Pierce Egan (1814-1880), which began the RH industry. Other books of associational interest include The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood (1883) by Howard Pyle, Robin Hood (1927) by E C Vivian, The Chronicles of Robin Hood (1950) by Rosemary Sutcliff and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1956) by Roger Lancelyn Green. (see also The Adventures of Robin Hood; 1955-1959). As the Underlier of the good-natured Trickster rebel, RH also appears in Silverlock (1949) by John Myers Myers and The Last Unicorn (1968) by Peter S Beagle, while in The Sword in the Stone (1938; rev 1939 US) by T H White RH (as Robin Wood) is one of the Mentors of the young Arthur.
The more mystical and pagan associations with RH emerge through his connection with the May Day festivities, where his adventures form part of the elaborate Morris Dance routines. It was these celebrations, traditional from the 15th century, that brought together RH and Maid Marian, who is the personification of spring (see Seasons; Virginity) and who consorts with RH as the Green Man. This shows RH more as a Trickster, but also as a Lord of the Greenwood, protector of beasts and forest, akin to Herne the Hunter but potentially greater, almost a Lord of Faerie and also almost a Hidden Monarch. RH thus becomes part of the Matter of Britain, a Mythago, with his forest as a Polder of the old world. Plays for these festivities started to appear around 1475, although a much earlier play, Jeu de Robin et Marion (?1283) by Adam de la Halle (circa 1230-circa 1287), which appeared first in Norman France, linked the names if not the characters. Ben Jonson (1572-1637) sought to infuse the more rustic concepts, particularly the fey aspects of Maid Marian, into his unfinished play The Sad Shepherd (written 1637; first published in The Workes of Benjamin Jonson coll 1640; vt The Sad Shepherd, or A Tale of Robin Hood 1783). The image of RH as symbolic of Nature versus mankind, the forest versus the city, superstition versus law and order, with RH representing the old world threatened by Thinning, has considerable appeal, particularly at the eco-conscious end of the 20th century, and this was well developed in The Death of Robin Hood (1981) by Peter Vansittart. The theme was continued with mystical appeal in the tv series Robin of Sherwood (1984-1986) and there was renewed interest among fantasy writers. Recent reconstructions of RH's life, predominantly nonfantastic but with underlying mythical motifs, include The Outlaws of Sherwood (1988) by Robin McKinley, Sherwood (1991) and Robin and the King (1993) by Parke Godwin and The Lady of the Forest (1992) by Jennifer Roberson, where Maid Marian is the central character. [MA]
further reading: Robin Hood (1982) by J C Holt; Robin Hood: Green Lord of the Wildwood (1993) by John Matthews; Robin Hood (1995) by Graham Phillips.