Writing Maid Marian
By John Bainbridge
What do you do about Marian?
A question to be considered by anyone writing fictionally about Robin Hood, whether you’re penning a novel, a film or a television series.
When I was writing my own Robin Hood novel “Loxley” I thought long and hard about what exactly to do with Marian. Should she be there at all? More of that later.
In the same way that everyone has their own image of Robin himself, the same is true of Marian. Do you make her a shy, retiring creature, with little experience of life beyond her father’s castle, or someone more feisty, a warrior even?
Some of the Victorian writers of Robin Hood novels were quite sure. Marian, to them, was a shy simpering creature, always busy with her embroidery and seriously challenged out of her comfort zone on meeting the Sherwood outlaw. This image persists in a number of the Robin Hood films of the 20th century. Olivia de Havilland in the Errol Flynn classic is very nice, but she’d have been no use in a battle. Move on four decades to Judi Trott’s portrayal in the iconic TV series “Robin of Sherwood.” Here we have a Marian who is well bought up, a royal ward no less, and a member of the minor aristocracy. But she is quite happy not only to live with Robin in the greenwood but to fight alongside him.
Some writers solve the problem by dispensing with Marian altogether. And there are grounds for that. Marian doesn’t feature at all in the early ballads. If Robin has a girlfriend at all in the earliest writings she is called Clorinda. In fact Marian is a real latecomer to the Robin Hood tradition. There is a poem by a late thirteenth century French writer called Adam de La Halle entitled “Le Jeu de Robin et Marion”. But when you look at it closely, it’s a verse about Marion and her lover Robin, who’s actually a shepherd and not an outlaw at all.
This evidently crossed the channel at some time, and Marian found herself incorporated into the little plays performed during the May Day revels. In these English adaptations, Robin the Shepherd was ditched in favour of a more familiar Robin – the Robin Hood of British tradition. She displaced Robin’s other purported lovers, such as Clorinda, though the latter survived in some late ballads and operas right into the 18th century.
Marian, having edged her way in, found herself in Anthony Munday’s play “The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon” where she is described for the first time as the daughter of Lord Fitzwalter. In a contemporaneous ballad “Robin Hood and Maid Marian”, we have Marian going into the greenwood disguised as a boy and picking a fight with the famous outlaw.
Social class comes into this almost right from the beginning. We never know for sure whether Robin Hood comes from the peasantry in Loxley, or is a scion of the House of Huntingdon. But with Marian we are left in no doubt. She is the daughter of Lord Fitzwalter in the ballads. Interestingly, in the TV series “Robin of Sherwood” the writer Richard Carpenter makes her the daughter of Richard of Leaford, bringing in another character from the earliest ballads, Sir Richard of the Lea, or the Lees, or a few other permutations of the title. A very clever idea, I have always thought, giving an opportunity to bring in some interesting and quite traditional storylines. The fact that Judi Trott was a very engaging Marian, and that that wonderful actor, the late George Baker, who played many a swashbuckling film role long before he was ever TV detective Reg Wexford, was an ideal depiction of Sir Richard helped.
There have been a great many other film and TV versions of Marian, of course. There’s Uma Thurman in the Patrick Bergen film “Robin Hood” (far superior to the Kevin Costner epic “Robin – Prince of Thieves” that came out at the same time). Thurman spends much of the film disguised as a boy, taking the tradition back to the old “Robin Hood and Maid Marian“ ballad. Diane Keen played her more traditionally as a creature of the court alongside Martin Potter in the BBC series “The Legend of Robin Hood.”
The Richard Greene TV series from the 1950s has two actresses playing Marian, Bernadette O’Farrell (with a slight Irish accent, which was interesting) and Patricia Driscoll (also Irish, though the accent isn’t noticeable.) In the early stages of this very watchable saga, Marian is quite the independent lady of the court, still living around Nottingham, and very pally with the Sheriff (the marvellous Alan Wheatley) who seems to have quite a soft spot for her. These connections give Marian ample opportunity to play the spy, and report back to Robin Hood.
I wanted a Marian who was feisty, brave, a fighter, not afraid of roaming alone through a very dangerous Sherwood Forest, and a woman who by no means was to be just a romantic co-star for my Robin. I made her the daughter of Sir Henry Fitzwalter (I was going to call him Richard, but I thought I had too many Richards already with references to Richard the Lionheart.) I also wanted her to have a story arc that was separate from the outlaws, but which would eventually collide with some force.
Having planned all of this, I remembered Clorinda, Robin’s lover in some of the original ballads, long before Marian came on the scene. I decided that it might be interesting to have Clorinda in Sherwood as well. A lady with an interest in both Robin and Sir Guy of Gisborne. I thought that this might provide interesting possibilities through what is intended to be a tetralogy of novels, four volumes recounting the adventures of Robin Hood and the outlaws, from the moment Robin of Loxley comes to Sherwood to the end of the saga where his legend spreads far and wide throughout the land.
I never could contemplate a Robin Hood novel that had no Marian at all. It would feel to me as though there was something vital missing. Sherwood Forest would feel empty without her.
“Loxley – The Chronicles of Robin Hood” by John Bainbridge is now available both in paperback and on Amazon Kindle. Please do click on the link below to see more about it and to read the reviews: