The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood
© 1883 Howard Pyle
648 pages, Duke Classics Edition.
(Other editions seem to have anywhere from 200 to 400 pages, which is odd.)
You who so plod amid serious things that you feel it shame to give yourselves up even for a few short moments to mirth and joyousness in the land of Fancy; you who think that life hath nought to do with innocent laughter than can arm no one; these pages are not for you. Clap to the leaves and go no farther than this, for I tell you plainly that if you go farther you will be scandalized by seeing good, sober folks of real history so frisk and caper in gay colors and motley that you would not know them but for the names tagged to them!
Rarely have I found a book more fun to read aloud than this, The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood. We used to have a copy in the local public library, but despite a childhood fondness for the scamp of Sherwood Forest, I’ve never read the stories of him. That’s been remedied this last week, as through this collection of stories gleaned from ballads and folk tales, I learned how Robin Hood became an outlaw, gathered his band, and lived a merry life in the woods while giving the corrupt and powerful some serious pain. The first few hundred pages here count the beginnings of Robin’s band, and thereafter address the various adventures the Merry Men had while resisting the Sheriff of Nottingham’s agents. The entire book brims over with singing, non-lethal fighting, and gloriously absurd speeches. I say glorious because the pseudo-medieval speech patterns are put on, but are more funny than jarring. The characters delight in having fun with one another, their conversations fully of whimsy and ending in ‘lusty’ laughs.
Having read this, I realize now that Disney’s Robin Hood and Mel Brooks Men in Tights led me wrong. Now, I realize it may come as a blow that Mel Brooks took liberties with the stories, but stay with me. Both of these Robin Hood interpretations share a common backstory in which Robin Hood is an enemy of King John principally because John is the usurper of his brother Richard’s throne. In this book, however, Henry and Eleanor reign; John and Richard only appear at the end and there’s no drama associated with the succession question between John and Richard. Robin Hood’s status as an outlaw originates almost by accident: while strolling through the forest on his way to an archery contest, singing merrily, he encounters a group of men who make fun of his archery pretensions. He challenges them to a contest, but dismisses their wooden targets in favor of a deer which is much further away. The men turn out to be foresters, or game wardens, and attempt to kill Robin — and so he runs away.
What follows is a great many stories about Robin meeting various people, fighting with them, and then — whether he win or lose, for he does lose at times — being so impressed by their merry spirit, their quick wit, and their skills at fighting that he asks them to join his band. All who are asked do, because the Merry Men have a fine old time drinking beer, having contests, and eating as much deer as they like. Whenever they run low on provisions, they watch the road and accost fat nobles and corrupt clergy, treating them to a meal and then taking the victim-guest’s entire purse as payment. Part of the booty is retained for the Merry Men; the rest is given back to the poor, for that money was taken in taxes from them. Long live Robin Hood, terror of the taxman! Because Robin never bothers the poor or honest, he is looked to as a champion of the oppressed and goes on a few adventures to save people from the plots of the Sheriff of Nottingham or the Bishop of Hereford, the recurring villains here. Eventually Robin Hood defeats the wicked pair, earns the favor of King Richard, and is made an Earl….but will drift back into Sherwood Forest for a reunion and a last attack by the Sheriff.
Merry Adventures is utterly fun to read.