If you study or teach Robin Hood, likely the first question you'll receive from your audience (of any age) will be along these lines: Was Robin Hood real ? This popular inquiry will likely never fade away because even after centuries of exposure to the variations of the legend many individuals have become deeply attached to their own personal visions of the character. The first literary mention of Robin Hood is in the 1377 B text of William Langland's Piers Plowman, and current scholarly consensus indicates that the earliest surviving ballads can be dated to the fifteenth century. The evidence points toward the likelihood of a largely literary origin, due in no small part to the multiplicity of historical candidates, but also simply to the incoherence of the legend's most basic elements. Ultimately we must ask whether or not the historicity of the character is even relevant because the modern representations of Robin Hood that everyone knows—Howard Pyle's merry outlaw, John Keat's Romantic forest dweller, Errol Flynn's laughing rogue, and Kevin Costner's politically correct reformer—have little or no connection to history. Even the setting of what is now the standard Robin Hood story, Sherwood Forest during the reigns of Richard I and John, is not uniformly reflected in the earliest extant medieval ballads: one ballad dubs the forest “Barnsdale”; another calls the king “Edward.” Staple characters to contemporary audiences, such as Maid Marian and Friar Tuck, are relatively recent additions to the tales. The following annotated bibliography is not meant to be exhaustive; rather, it is designed to help teachers and students in grades K through 12 navigate the veritable forest of material available. There are few facts and many opinions at play in the Robin Hood tradition, and one of the few certainties is that audiences have found Robin Hood relevant and entertaining for more than six centuries. The multitude of children's books, novels, films and other widely available representations of the character will continue to make study of the legend relevant for centuries to come.
Major Critical Inquiries
There are many more critical treatments of the Robin Hood legend available than the few listed here; I consider these four volumes the most accurate and informative. It should be noted that Stephen Knight's work has completely overwritten all prior attempts to treat the tradition as a comprehensive whole and that he is considered the world's leading Robin Hood scholar. Holt and Pollard offer slightly different perspectives than Knight, and are worth considering as well.
Holt, J. C. Robin Hood. Revised. London: Thames and Hudson, 1989.
Holt was the first to produce a comprehensive survey of the Robin Hood legend as a whole. His work is excellent, but dated, and his focus is largely upon the medieval tradition. Teachers and students looking fo balanced literary and historical analyses of the early ballads will be delighted, but those seeking to connect the medieval tradition with modern representations are better served by Knight.
Knight, Stephen. Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994.
Knight's 1994 volume redefined the landscape of Robin Hood studies. The research is impeccable and the sheer bulk of information he collects, organizes, and presents in roughly chronological order is invaluable to any scholar, casual or serious, of Robin Hood. The huge bibliography is priceless. An extremely vital critical resource, available at many university and college libraries.
---. Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003.
This 2003 text contains for the most part the same information as the 1994 volume but is organized into four general categories: “Bold Robin Hood” details the early tradition; “Robert, Earl of Huntington” examines the character's process of gentrification; “Robin Hood Esquire” looks into the influence of the Romantics; and “Robin Hood of Hollywood” chronicles the development of Robin Hood in contemporary popular culture. The 2003 volume does not include the massive bibliography from the 1994 book, but the works cited list is an abbreviated and updated version of that list. Furthermore, this volume was intended for a wider audience than its predecessor, and is more accessible to those with a casual interest in the topic.
Pollard, A. J. Imagining Robin Hood: The Late-Medieval Stories in Historical Context. London: Routledge, 2004.
Pollard examines the historical reception of the early Robin Hood ballads, treating both the stories and the contexts in which they were received. He packs a great deal of historical material into his examination of the tales and explains matters clearly and with authority. For those unfamiliar with the historical context of the tradition, Pollard is an excellent starting point and his volume is a useful companion to Knight.
Collections of Texts
There are so many Robin Hood ballads that collections are invaluable resources for those students and teachers who want to read the texts which have become the tradition's foundation. Furthermore, authors (past and present) who retell the legends often incorporate elements directly from the traditional ballads. All of these collections can be found for reasonable prices in bookstores and online, as well as in most university libraries.
Child, F. J., ed. The English and Scottish Popular Ballads: In Five Volumes. Rev. Mark F. Heiman and Laura Saxton Heiman. Northfield, MN: Loomis House Press, 2001.
First published between 1882 and 1898, Child's work is the definitive collection of English and Scottish ballad materials. The 5 volume set is periodically revised and updated, but Child's scholarship is largely intact after more than a century in circulation.
Dobson, R. B., and John Taylor, eds. Rymes of Robyn Hood: An Introduction to the English Outlaw. London: Heinemann, 1976.
An excellent collection of early and later Robin Hood ballads, this was for many years the only collection of exclusively Robin Hood materials. The volume is drawn largely from the work compiled by F. J. Child.
Knight, Stephen and Thomas Ohlgren, eds. Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales. Second ed. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000.
Part of the Middle English Texts Series, this volume from TEAMS (The Consortium for the Teaching of the Middle Ages) is a student edition of early ballads, plays (including the pivotal Munday productions of 1598-99), later ballads, and selected outlaw tales in translation. The layout is clean, with plenty of space for notes, and the glosses are helpful; introductions to each poem are also extremely useful.
I have divided this selection of the many stories still available in print to reflect the audience most suited to the tale. Authors like Howard Pyle were writing for younger audiences, or to adults who were nostalgic for their childhoods; some, like Robin McKinley and Michael Cadnum, can be enjoyed by all, though younger audiences may find them challenging; and others, like Parke Godwin and Stephen Lawhead, are clearly not writing for children, and their novels are not suitable for younger audiences or readers.
For Younger Readers/Audiences:
Green, Roger Lancelyn. The Adventures of Robin Hood. London: Puffin, 1956.
Green's retelling of the ballad tradition is less relentlessly cheerful than Pyle's and will likely appeal to readers who want Robin Hood in a moderately historical context. Green and Pyle's texts, reprinted with impressive frequency and lamentable inconsistency in cover and interior illustrations, would make for interesting studies in the evolution of visual representations of the outlaw hero.
Pyle, Howard. The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood of Great Renown, in Nottinghamshire. New York: Dover, 1968.
The Dover edition is a facsimile copy of Pyle's book as it was first published in 1883, and preserves in softcover format the intense care and craftsmanship Pyle invested in the book he wrote, illustrated, and designed. The story itself is simple and filled with romanticized cliches, presenting the ballad tradition in a unified prose format that eliminates much of the dangerous mystery that characterizes the older stories. However, Pyle's work also introduced Robin Hood to generations of readers, and moreover there are countless children's books which simplify or use portions of Pyle's text, and some or all of his illustrations.
Tomlinson, Theresa. The Forestwife. New York: Dell, 1993.
Tomlinson's story is one of the better Marian-centric retellings of the Robin Hood story for younger or less advanced readers, yet enjoyable across all age groups. Her variation on the traditional story is to give Marian a central role in both the book and also the outlaws' forest community; environmental awareness and mysticism have always worked well within the Robin Hood tradition, and Tomlinson's connection of the legends to the May Games is not without historical or literary precedent.
For Midrange Readers/Audiences:
Cadnum, Michael. In a Dark Wood. 1998. New York: Puffin, 1999.
Offering a new spin on the traditional Robin Hood story, this novel is told from the perspective of the Sheriff of Nottingham and gives the reader a view of outlawry not often addressed in the tradition. Politically and culturally more aware than the average young adult Robin Hood story, Cadnum's book presents excellent opportunities to discuss the subjectivity of literature and history.
McKinley, Robin. The Outlaws of Sherwood. 1988. New York: Ace, 1989.
Of the Robin Hood novels that teeter on the edge of the young adult/teenage and fully adult audience divide, it is McKinley's version of the story that is truly suitable to both audiences. McKinley is known for balancing engaging, modern female characters with traditional materials, and her treatment of the Robin Hood tradition is both unique and in dialogue with the extensive ballad tradition. One continually finds intellectual and emotional depth in each re-reading.
Doherty, P. C. The Assassin in the Greenwood. London: Headline, 1994.
This murder mystery is part of Doherty's Hugh Corbett series of novels in medieval settings. It slyly engages the tradition's medieval origins to construct an exciting and detailed story. Designed for adult readers, it can be appreciated by teenagers familiar with the ballad tradition.
Godwin, Parke. Sherwood. New York: Avon Books, 1991.
The majority of Robin Hood novels use the late twelfth century as their general historical backdrop and import racial and national tensions from earlier eras; Godwin decided to retain the tension between Normans and Saxons and consequently moved his story to 1070, four years after the Conquest. Violent and blood-soaked, the novel is not for easily disturbed readers, but offers many avenues for discussion and further study and is particularly interesting in comparison to more traditional retellings and the ballads themselves.
Lawhead, Stephen. Hood. Nashville, TN: WestBow Press, 2006.
Lawhead follows Godwin's lead and relocates the tradition to the late twelfth century in an attempt to legitimate the Robin Hood character's guerilla warfare tactics. Unfortunately, Lawhead's Robin is a largely-unlikable spoiled Welsh prince whose kingdom is overrun by the Norman invaders. The elements of Welsh legend are interesting, but in this first volume of a projected trilogy Lawhead's connection of the Welsh material to the Robin Hood tradition is unconvincing.
Roberson, Jennifer. Lady of the Forest. New York: Zebra, 1992.
A lengthy examination of the legend's gender and social roles, Roberson's novel takes part in the growing trend of Marian-centered stories. Roberson's contributions to the tradition are a Robin suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of his experience in the Crusades, a Marian growing into herself and exploring her sexuality, and their complex relationships with each other and their communities. The characters are well developed, complex, and evolve throughout the novel.
Film and Television
Filmed Robin Hood stories have become the modern era's equivalent of the ballad, and like the earlier tradition there are a wide range of offerings. It would certainly be feasible to teach a class entirely based on the cinematic versions of the outlaw hero. These films and television shows are considered by Robin Hood scholars to be the most influential and relevant retellings in the ongoing evolution of the tradition.
Adventures of Robin Hood. TV Series. Sapphire, 1956-60.
For those who grew up watching Richard Greene in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, this series is a beloved classic; others, particularly younger audiences, may find it dated and simplistic, but ultimately enjoyable.
The Adventures of Robin Hood. Dir. Michael Curtiz and William Keighley. Warner, 1938.
Errol Flynn is the star of what many audiences consider the classic filmed Robin Hood. The film's impact upon the cinematic tradition is unprecedented, forcing the television shows and movies that have followed into dialogue with the distinctive visual and plot elements that characterize this classic.
Robin Hood. Dir. Allan Dwan. United Artists, 1922.
Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., stars in this silent film which is notable for its troubling of gender roles and identities, magnificent sets, and the intense physical performance of its leading man. The film is neatly divided in two parts, the Fairbanks character's life as a Crusader and as the outlaw Robin Hood. Marian serves to link the two halves together as well as permitting Robin to overcome his fear of women and become a productive adult, while King Richard remains paradoxically juvenile father-figure.
Robin Hood. Dir. John Irvin. 20th Century Fox/Working Title, 1991.
Patrick Bergman and Uma Thurman star in this film, which was forced directly to video and television distribution by the Kevin Costner vehicle of the same year. It presents a bleaker world, with a pragmatic Robin; Marian is spunky and interesting, and she disguises herself as a boy to join the outlaws.
Robin Hood. Dir. Wolfgang Reitherman. Disney, 1973.
Anthropomorphic foxes, bears, lions, and other animals characterize this animated adventure, which is acceptable to all ages. However, the gender roles are extremely conservative and the characters romantically pair up along species (or race) lines. Younger audiences will likely not see these issues but older audiences will benefit from discussing them.
Robin Hood. TV Series. BBC, 2006-ongoing.
This BBC series is currently broadcasting in the UK and will soon make its way to BBC America. The show is apparently making an effort to be relevant and current, and early production pictures show Robin Hood wearing, yes, a hoodie.
Robin Hood: Men in Tights. Dir. Mel Brooks. Columbia, 1993.
Spoofing both the Costner and Flynn films simultaneously, this Mel Brooks production is a good way to cap a unit on Robin Hood in film because it gets funnier the more you know about the cinematic tradition.
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Dir. Kevin Reynolds. Morgan Creek, 1991.
Kevin Costner's performance has been criticized for many things, from his American accent to stoic, even emotionless, delivery. The film's obsession with politically correct presentations of racial, gender, and social issues in some ways obscures the innovative visual and plot elements which made it a blockbuster hit that has brought continuing interest in the Robin Hood tradition. Comparison between the Flynn and Costner films reveals fascinating parallels.
Robin of Sherwood. TV Series. Goldcrest, 1984-86.
Known for its Clannad soundtrack, interest in the supernatural, and what Knight terms “ecological libertarianism,” this television series pairs innovation and gritty pragmatism with romantic leading men (Michael Praed and Jason Connery, playing Robin Hood as a peasant and a nobleman, respectively) and has attracted a devoted following. The series will be available on DVD in March 2007.
The Internet is the first place most students turn for information, and there are fewer Robin Hood sites of quality than one might expect. Most sites are more concerned with the webmaster's personal conception of Robin Hood than with scholarship and consequently do not adequately address the multiplicity of the legend's origins and ongoing dialog with the concerns of its audiences. I am involved with the University of Rochester 's The Camelot Project, The Robin Hood Project and TEAMS, and my preference is for scholastic accuracy over enthusiasm.
Bold Outlaw. Ed. Alan Wright. <http://www.boldoutlaw.com/>
Bold Outlaw is maintained by Alan Wright, a Canadian Robin Hood scholar. His site is enjoyable yet also comprehensive and scholastically accurate, with many images, links, and special interest pages. In my opinion, Bold Outlaw is the site which best balances scholarship and enthusiasm.
Robin Hood. Ed. Ben Turner. <http://www.benturner.com/robinhood/>
Ben Turner claims that his Robin Hood web site was the first on the Internet. For a casual fan, his site is fun to explore and his enthusiasm is unmistakable; however, those seeking scholarship or an academic approach to the tradition are better served by sites like Alan Wright's Bold Outlaw and the University of Rochester 's The Robin Hood Project.
The Robin Hood Project. Gen. ed. Alan Lupack and Barbara Tepa Lupack. University of Rochester, Rochester, New York. <http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/rh/rhhome.stm>
The Robin Hood Project at the University of Rochester maintains bibliographies, texts, and images of Robin Hood in literature, film, and other subjects, and will soon expand its offerings.
TEAMS Middle English Texts. Gen. ed. Russell A. Peck. University of Rochester and Western Michigan Univsersity. <http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/teams/tmsmenu.htm>
Knight and Ohlgren's revised text is available online; the web site, which electronically publishes all TEAMS texts, is hosted by the University of Rochester. Those who wish to purchase a paper copy of the edition may use the on-line bookstore of Medieval Institute Publications at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, MI; the web site is <http://www.wmich.edu/medieval/mip/index.html>.
Despite A. J. Pollard's efforts to present the historical background of the Robin Hood tradition and its audiences, certain subjects are simply too large to be dealt with in detail by the comprehensive critical treatments offered by Knight, Holt and others.
Harrison, Robert Pogue. Forests: The Shadow of Civilization. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
Harrison examines the roles forests have played throughout a significant portion of literary history, and while not all of the book is relevant to a student of medieval English ballads, it is a fascinating examination of the major backdrop to outlaw ballads as a whole, and Robin Hood in particular. Especially useful is his chapter on English forest law.
Hill, Christopher. Puritanism and Revolution: Studies in Interpretation of the English Revolution of the 17th Century. New York: St. Martin 's Press, 1997.
First published in 1958, Hill's examination of the English Revolution includes a fascinating chapter on the Norman Yoke. The Norman Yoke is the term applied to the misconceived notion that the Norman Conquest in 1066 utterly annihilated a flourishing Anglo-Saxon culture and church tradition, so that tensions between the conquered Saxons and triumphant Normans still simmered more than a century later during the reigns of Richard I and John. The contemporary Robin Hood tradition has kept a firm grip upon the Norman Yoke, citing Norman aggression and prejudice against Saxon subjects as the main cause of Robin's rebellion in films and novels—recall Errol Flynn's declaration that “We Saxons just aren't going to put up with these oppressions much longer!” in The Adventures of Robin Hood.
Hobsbawm, Eric. Bandits. New York: New Press, 2000.
There is no greater resource to the student or teacher of literary banditry than Hobsbawm's volume. Most interesting is the list of nine key points that he considers vital to defining an individual as a Robin Hood-style social bandit and yet, as Hobsbawm skillfully demonstrates, the Robin of the early ballads fits very few of those points. Consequently, he shows a portion of how literature and reality influence each other, in the complex, two-way relationships between real-life and literary bandits.
Keen, Maurice. The Outlaws of Medieval Legend. Third Edition. London: Routledge, 2000.
Keen himself notes that this major study of the medieval outlaw genre is flawed yet impossible to completely revise, and in this third edition includes an introduction which notes the areas where he believes his volume errs. Despite these problems, the book is still an excellent resource, provided teachers and students are alert to the shifts in Keen's thinking as outlined in his revised introduction.
Saunders, Corrine J. The Forest of Medieval Romance: Avernus, Broceliande, Arden. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1993.
Saunders' focus is very specifically on literary forests, and at that the forests as they are presented in high literary forms such as the medieval romance, but her work is an interesting examination of what the forests of the Robin Hood ballads may have been referencing; at the very least, her study is informative and provides a good background on the origins of the ways forests are commonly perceived in literature beginning in the classical period.
Valerie B. Johnson is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Rochester, Department of English. She is also a staff editor for the Middle English Texts Series, a contributor to The Camelot Project, and a contributing editor for The Robin Hood Project.