An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

November 6, 2015

Knight: Reading Robin Hood

Stephen Knight, Reading Robin Hood, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015.
Reviewed by Sabina Rahman (

Reading Robin Hood stands as Stephen Knight’s third book devoted to the outlaw hero, preceded by Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw (1994) and Robin Hood: a Mythic Biography (2003), and demonstrates some deviation from these earlier works by containing a stronger theoretical focus. While A Complete Study was a wonderfully detailed overview of the myth and A Mythic Biography traced the manner in which the myth changed and evolved and how it operated politically, this book situates itself much more in the Greenwood gloaming as it attempts to address points of unclarity in the outlaw tradition and associated scholarship. In his usual meticulous style, Knight draws together disparate threads of scholarship within this rhizomatic field of study, his distinct voice containing not only the attention to detail that one has come to expect from him but also a clear and unabashed enthusiasm for the subject matter. Though the book weaves in and out of eras and discussions, because the nature of the texts and discussions cannot be neatly constrained by either of those features, it is split into eight discrete chapters.

The first three chapters focus on what Knight refers to as the 'enigmas of uncertainty arising from the early materials' (p. 8), with the first chapter discussing the nature of the early ballads. Beginning with an analysis of works by H. J. Chaytor, Clanchy, Walter Ong, Marianna Boerch (amongst others), Knight builds a foundation for examining oral traditions and cultures, a scholarly approach which he argues tends towards an oversimplification of a complex cultural field as ‘writing [was] a version of speaking’ in medieval times (p. 15). The discussion encompasses the fetishisation of literacy and literary products in scholarship, with David C. Fowler’s claim of orality being a frayed and decayed form of literacy. Knight uses Richard Green and his work to demonstrate the surviving powers of oral material, and continues to posit the Robin Hood material as an exemplar of an alternative model as they are from their earliest incarnations  ‘both oral and literary, and maintain that complexity to the present, with varying intensities of an instrumental and context-driven kind’ (p. 16). The discussion that Robin Hood stories are grounded in songs and chants, and a compelling argument for the popular and even usual orality of the Robin Hood texts through the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (the tales being told via song or performance of some sort, and the capability of the broadside ballads being sung) all lead Knight to the conclusion that the printing of the material did not silence the oral and performative tendency of these tales (p. 25). Indeed, there is a dialectical interrelationship of orality and literacy at the core of the Robin Hood material.

The second chapter traces some Scottish connections to the tradition, identifying a significant gap in the scholarship field where, though there is an acknowledged recurrent element of Scottish involvement with the tradition, there is almost no critical engagement in the area. In an interesting move, Knight uses post-colonial critical discourse to engage with the texts, despite Scotland not being a colony but rather a negotiated ally and federate, and discusses how colonial implants may interact with native traditions, and how they may ‘in turn, and in return, influence the culture of the colonising power itself’ (p. 37). The chapter examines Robin Hood in Scotland and Rabbie Hood in England, noting that the nature of this traffic is not one way,  and that there is indeed evidence of an interrelationship in these outlaw myths. There are some keen observations in the Scottish relocation of the Robin Hood myth through play-games in that region, and his appropriation as the date and season of the play-games change from the traditional May in England to a winter’s December day in Scotland, thus changing the figure in question by ‘detaching him [...] from the strong natural symbolism of the English Whitsun practices [...] and making him a figure of year-round urban harmony‘ (p. 40). The significance of Robin Hood changes as he is entwined with the Rabbie Hood myth, the Scottish reading of the character differing greatly from the English, especially in terms of national significance, a point that Knight traces in some depth with the available texts.

The final chapter in this section addresses the sources and avatars of “A Gest of Robin Hood”, and argues that the Gest draws substantially on the late medieval tradition of sub-chivalric romance, especially as this is found in Sir Launfal, Gamelyn, and the ‘King and Subject’ ballads, and there is some significant space given to the argument that the “Gest” relies on the narrative of Fulk Fitz-Warren. The discussion necessitates a re-ordering of the conventional time lines of the plays and the ballads, suggesting that “Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne” and the plays “Robin Hood and the Potter” and “Robin Hood and the Friar” all predate “Gest”, thus using the narratives of these texts to glean greater understanding of the older texts. The argument for the alternate chronology is highly plausible, the evidence sound; however, as Knight concedes, there is room for scholarly dispute on the matter.

The second section of the book attempts to address the lack of clarity in structures and interrelationships of a considerable number of texts, beginning with an analysis of the broadside ballads, their dates, types and sociopolitical meanings.  The broadside ballads are an aspect of Robin Hood studies that were once considered central but have lacked any significant critical work in the last few decades, and this chapter is steeped in a desire to regenerate interest in this area. Knight creates a framework for a revival of these studies by loosely placing them in two categories: anti authority and celebratory, where the outlaws’ skills and traditions are celebrated. There is also a meticulous attempt to sort the broadsides chronologically, creating a valuable tool for those future scholars. This chapter blends seamlessly into the fifth with a continuation of these intricacies of the broadside ballads in a more Romantic setting, and discusses also the garland traditions thriving in the eighteenth century. Knight also unearths evidence of the old play tradition showing signs of survival in festivals in high summer, a displacement of the early summer festivals which had featured Robin Hood play-games. This chapter also contains a discussion of Joseph Ritson, his history and his works, acknowledging the vast impact he had on this field, though he does not participate in nor comment upon the reconstruction of Robin Hood as a Romantic figure. For him, Robin ‘displayed a spirit of freedom and independence’ (p. 108). Knight also neatly pulls together the Romantic Robin from his appearances in works by John Keats, John Hamilton Reynolds and Leigh Hunt before analysing Thomas Love Peacock’s Maid Marian novella which maintains and adds to this Romantic discourse while adding political elements through satire. This Romantic Robin Hood remains an ‘available and potent part of the outlaw repertoire’ (p. 139) and has thrived and flourished to current depictions from these roots, which Knight traces further in the sixth chapter, and the re-formation of Robin Hood in poetry and prose in the nineteenth century. This chapter sees Robin settling into the ‘patriotic, masculine, leaderly role of the mid-Victorian popular novel’ (p. 143) through a study of Robin Hood: A Tale of Olden Time (anonymous), Ivanhoe (Walter Scott) and the Maid Marian novella mentioned above (Peacock). There is also an exploration of Robin Hood being brought to mainstream audiences, the first evidence of which is cited as Pierce Egan the Younger’s serialised rendition of the tales, and the lasting influence of Howard Pyle as the impact and importance of his work ‘was to a large degree visual’ (p. 179). Robin Hood had not been a popular subject for artists, not as much as Arthur and the medieval knights, so the illustrations in these books led to a revival in artistic interest, a discussion which Knight engages in.

The final section of the book works across all materials, from thematic viewpoints, content, form and reception, and discusses the multiplicity of portrayals of Maid Marian, and her changing role in millennial modernity. The chapter traces the history of Marian in the tradition, from Robin et Marion c. 1283, which, as Knight previously notes, is not really part of the outlaw cycle at all despite the tantalising similarities in name and date. However there are some links to the blending of the two traditions within the play-games, and this is explored briefly. There is also some discussion of the eighteenth century opera with the uninspired title of Robin Hood: An Opera, and other plays during that time in which Marian began to emerge as a standard character, though as Knight states, ‘in general, the eighteenth-century did not find Marian an inspiring figure’ (p. 198). It is in the nineteenth century that Marian begins to take a larger role, even given the title of a Robin Hood story for the first time (the aforementioned Maid Marian by Peacock) and there is an emerging recognition of her as a partner of Robin, an element that grew stronger in twentieth-century film and TV. Knight traces this figure through the twentieth century, examining her evolution on the screen, particularly in line with feminist thought, adding that surging interest in the role of women will give Marian ‘renewed power’ (p. 198).

This final section also provides the model of a rhizomatic structure as a way of understanding a tradition which has ‘been opposed to, even ostracised by, canonical tradition which is linear, uniform or, in their terms, arboreal’ (p. 9). The usual model of canonisation of literature, Knight argues, does not work with Robin Hood: ‘it has long been established that there is a different formation in this long-loved and highly dynamic cultural myth’ (p. 229).  This chapter, possibly my favourite of the book, addresses pedagogical issues and triumphs that Knight encountered with Robin Hood and his surprising and perplexing avoidance of being pinned down. There is large array of material here and Knight bounces from one to another like a pinball, his excitement palpable with every new encounter. With the excitement, there is also confusion, maybe even frustration, at the nature of this hero, this myth, whose ‘multiformed nature is rooted in the contextual ground itself’ (p. 254). It is due to this that Knight concludes with the caution that commentators will need a ‘volatile capacity to comprehend - meaning both understand and hold onto - the continuing rhizomaticity of Robin Hood’ (p. 254).

This book could, perhaps, be read as a call to arms. Knight begins by addressing the idea that the Robin Hood tradition is remarkably open to new materials and ideas in a way that seemingly comparable medieval legends, such as King Arthur, and Tristan and Isolde for instance, are not (p. 1). There is an uncertain and anarchic nature to the myth, bred perhaps from the manner in which Robin Hood material was not culturally treasured and did not undergo the venerative process of literary criticism of seemingly comparable medieval material that began around the turn of the twentieth century. While Joseph Ritson began this process in 1795 when he published his edition of the ballads and Francis James  Child provided the 'finest piece of early outlaw scholarship' (p. 3), Reading Robin Hood makes it clear that the process has not yet scratched a considerable surface. 

Scholars and interested parties may notice some slight overlap in the material. The chapter on the Scottish myth is essentially “Rabbie Hood: The Development of the English Outlaw Myth in Scotland”, published out of conference proceedings in Bandit Territories.[1]  The inclusion of the chapter is appropriate here too, however, as some repetition of material is necessary in order to tie the threads of the book’s thesis together, to demonstrate the fertility of the scholarly lands available.

This is not a book of answers. This book is said to be Knight’s final book on Robin Hood and in keeping with the volatile, evolving nature of the myth on which he writes, Knight does not provide the final word on the subject matter. Rather, he has, via a neat trilogy of books, provided future scholars the means by which to descend into the forest and see the trees.
Sabina Rahman
University of Sydney

[1] Helen Phillips (ed.), Bandit Territories: British Outlaw Traditions, Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2008.