We have recently been reading the early tales of Robin Hood, most notably Robin Hood and the Monk. I found this ballad very interesting mainly because it deals with a Robin that, though familiar to the tales and memories of my childhood, is slightly less than the man I had hoped to find.
Robin is not faithful to his word when he bets Little John that he can beat him in a test of marksmanship. Robin raises the sum proffered by Little John as one might expect from a boastful Hero. This type of boast is seen with Beowulf when he speaks of his intention to beat the Grendel. Robin then changes his mind when he loses and declares that he will not pay.
I see perhaps the influence of the scholar who was writing the tale in this, as to bet or wager was considered a sin. If that is the case though, why keep the archery test in the story? We will see in later posts however how this archery contest pops up in later filmic versions of Robin.
Robin then defies the wishes of his companions and leaves to go to Church in the town by himself. His refusal to listen to his friends also smacks of a bad leader. A good and clever leader would take council and would not risk his person in such a simple way. We may however be seeing more of the influence if the scholarly author here who marks out Robin as a martyr who would risk all to go to Church.
Again I find this author of a duplicitous nature as he next writes of a Monk from whom Robin has stolen a substantial amount of money. This Monk, having been in possession of such a sum in addition to his informing the Sheriff of Robins presence in town, is thus made out to be the Villain.
It is then Robin who is rescued by Little John who uses great wit, daring and skill to do so. These actions are the most heroic in the ballad. Little John however defers his place as leader of the band to Robin whom they vote in as their leader.
The Christian overtones in the ballad provide the most interesting thoughts of debate. The tale must have been written down by someone who was ecclesiastical as we see that Robin is “good” by his attending Church and his reluctance to gamble. Conversely it is Robin who is the head of a band of outlaws that steal from the Church, kill people all the way through the ballad and even go so far as to start a fight in church. These can hardly be the actions of a “good” man.
Can we then perhaps view this ballad as the happy marriage of two cultures? One the Christian scholar who penned the classic for us to now enjoy: the other the pagan who viewed Robin as their local hero and man of the woods who fought injustice.
Either way I find it most interesting that any modern reader could not help but feel sorry for the poor Page who was killed so callously by Much and Little John.