The Problem With Gisborne

What do you do with Sir Guy of Gisborne?

He is an iconic character in the Robin Hood canon. The arch baddie, alongside the Sheriff of Nottingham. The man you love to hate? Well, not necessarily. A look at a number of portrayals in fiction and film and television productions shows us that Gisborne has a lot of fans.

I remember the first time I encountered Gisborne. I was aged about eight and had been given a “Robin Hood Annual”. It began with a story relating the familiar tale of how Robin is outlawed after rescuing Much, who has been poaching the royal deer.

In this version, Gisborne tries to arrest Much, and Robin kills him with an arrow to the chest. On page one! Never, in my experience, has a Gisborne been so speedily despatched! That’s all I remember. I no longer have that annual though I often search for a copy. I remember that the illustration shows Gisborne as a huge fat man with a bald head.

I have to say I admire any writer who has the neck to see off a major villain quite so speedily.

And that is the problem with Gisborne…

Being realistic, if you were Robin Hood and living in the familiar scenario, wouldn’t you kill Gisborne as quickly as possible? And yet writers don’t and daren’t. He’s far too good a villain.

Let’s look at a TV Gisborne to show you what I mean.

In “Robin of Sherwood”, Gisborne is played by the late Robert Addie, rather like a posh public schoolboy who’s found himself slumming in Nottingham Castle. These days he’d probably be a member of the Bullingdon Club. I’ve always liked Robert Addie’s portrayal. He brings an arrogance to the character, a feeling that this Gisborne knows that he should be doing rather better for himself. But there is a delightful humour there as well.

In “Robin of Sherwood” he’s captured several times by the outlaws. And yet Robin never kills him, despite the fact that Gisborne murdered his adoptive father. And then again, when the arrows fly, it’s always the men at arms surrounding Guy who go flying from their horses. The man himself remains untouched.

When Will Scarlet says that Gisborne should be killed, Robin counters by suggesting that Gisborne is such an awful tyrant that it’s better that he lives to stir up antagonism from the Sherwood peasants.

There is something in that. British Special Operations decided not to assassinate Hitler on much the same grounds – plus they valued his incompetence as a military commander.

And just as, for dramatic purposes, Robin can’t kill Gisborne, then similarly Gisborne can never succeed in bringing the outlaws to book. He might come close, even temporarily bring one or two to heel, but he always has to be frustrated.

It’s as though the hero and the villain are mutually dependent.

And, particularly in television series, this means that the final clash is postponed. If the series is ditched it never happens. And a thwarted Gisborne can seem to be incompetent, given that he’s supposed to be such a cunning warrior.

If Gisborne is the principal villain, either on TV or in a novel, then his end must be put off for as long as possible. Kill the minor rogues if you will, but you can’t kill Gisborne – at least not until the very end of the book. Or for that matter the TV series.

It’s a dilemma that I’ve been rattling my brain over for quite a while – especially as I’m writing a series of four Robin Hood novels. Do I spare Gisborne until the very end or… sufficient to say I’m still thinking about it.

Now is Gisborne an out and out villain or really the anti-hero of the Robin Hood fictions?

Let’s be brutal. If you were Robin Hood in real life would you be able to fight the temptation to put that arrow in Gisborne’s chest?

In the original ballads, Gisborne is a kind of bounty hunter, sent into Sherwood to kill Robin Hood. The ballad that survives dates to only 1650, but is undoubtedly based on a much older account.

After an archery contest in the forest, Robin and Guy fight. Despite being wounded, Robin kills Guy, cuts off his head and mutilates his face, before impaling it on the end of his bow. Then, disguised as Gisborne, he blows a hunting horn to summon the Sheriff, who has captured Little John. Pretending to be Gisborne and saying that the severed head is that of Robin Hood, he begs to be allowed to kill Little John, but cuts him free instead.

All good gritty stuff! And a long way from most Gisborne portrayals.

There are some other interesting portrayals. Basil Rathbone played him with great relish in the Errol Flynn film “The Adventures of Robin Hood” as a straightforward villain, a noble who’d kill anyone who got in his way. Great stuff!

Also worth catching is William Marlowe’s Gisborne in the 1975 “The Legend of Robin Hood”. Marlowe portrays him as a bluff and violent Norman baron who wants to get his gauntlets on Marian – a tradition of a romantic link between the two that grew in recent centuries.

Marlowe is an impressive Gisborne, though he’s frequently upstaged by Paul Darrow (Avon in “Blake’s Seven”) who’s a pretty terrific Sheriff of Nottingham. Watch out too for John Abineri as Sir Kenneth Neston, Marion’s father, long before he was Herne the Hunter in “Robin of Sherwood”.

When I was writing my own Robin Hood novel “Loxley”, I discovered what I suspect a lot of Robin writers have found. That Gisborne tends to inveigle himself a bigger role – building up his part. He is at least as interesting as Robin Hood. And the reason for that is you can see where he’s coming from. He’s the baddie we love to, well, not hate exactly…

I only ever intended my Gisborne to be a kind of enforcer for the Sheriff. But I hadn’t written much before I found he was threatening to take over. Before long he had a back-story. I found that I was examining just where he came from and how he landed up as the Sheriff’s heavy. I even gave Gisborne a love-life!

All of that remained in the text. And I created another villain to die at the climax of the book, sparing my Sir Guy of Gisborne for the sequel – which I’m writing at the moment.

Will I kill him in this one? Ah, that remains to be seen.

If you enjoyed “Loxley” I do hope you’ll read the next book in the Chronicles. It’ll be out at Christmas.

Here’s the link if you’d like to order a copy of “Loxley”. Loxley Cover