I recently gave you a brief overview of my reading so far in “A World Lit Only By Fire” by William Manchester. Now I’ll give you a taste, a postcard from the book so to speak.
Hear underneath dis laihl stean
las Robert earl of Huntingtun
neer arcir yer az hie sa geud
And pipl kauld in Robin Heud
This is an inscription on a gravestone in Yorkshire, England. The final line is “Obiit 24 kal Decembris 1247.” Robin Hood lived, folks. Now as to what he was really like, Manchester writes, “Everything we know about that period suggests that Robin was merely another wellborn cutthroat who hid in shrubbery by roadsides, waiting to rob helpless wayfarers. The possibility that he stole from the rich and gave to the poor is . . . highly unlikely.”
Visions of Terry Gilliam’s “Time Bandits.”
However, this two sentence brush-off does nothing to explain how the stories of Robin Hood developed and why he became such a large folk-hero to people then and now. Plain highway robbers wouldn’t have inspired John Keats:
So it is: yet let us sing,
Honour to the old bow-string!
Honour to the bugle-horn!
Honour to the woods unshorn!
Honour to the Lincoln green!
Honour to the archer keen!
Honour to tight little John,
And the horse he rode upon!
Honour to bold Robin Hood,
Sleeping in the underwood!
Honour to maid Marian,
And to all the Sherwood-clan!
Granted, the real Robin was probably nothing at all like Errol Flynn and was more than likely not a very nice man. But something is his life and exploits was tale-worthy. Something endeared him to the peasants who built his legend. A history made of facts alone and stripped of all lore tells us very little about the humans who lived in it. The facts and the stories must go together.
I have a copy of “The Adventures of Robin Hood” by Paul Creswick, who was one of England’s best children’s writers. According to the introductory material that came with the book, it has been in print ever since it came out in 1902. It is filled with the stories of Robin Hood. It also has gorgeous illustrations by a different legend, N.C. Wyeth. If you’ve ever seen any of Wyeth’s work you’ll understand why I used the word legend.
With due respect to William Manchester, I’ll be reading this book soon and hopefully learning more about Robin and life in the middle ages.