Reading the Robin Hood Ballads
I first read the Robin Hood ballads many years ago. Since writing my recent Robin Hood novels in my series “The Chronicles of Robin Hood” I’ve re-read them with great enjoyment.
But if you are adding to Robin Hood fictions you have to make a decision whether or not to base your story on the ballads, abandon them altogether, or – as I have done – take bits of them and use them for your own ends.
There is, for instance, a prominent character in the ballads called Sir Richard of the Lea. I’ve used him in my latest novel “Wolfshead”, but not as he appears – as a rather broke individual, being chased for money by an abbot – in the ballads.
Again, I’ve brought in the silver arrow. In the ballads this is a trophy won by Robin in an archery contest. I’ve done something rather different with my silver arrow.
Not being a slave to the ballads means you can introduce new characters. I’ve created a baddie in “Wolfshead” called Lord Malvoisin, who has some rather violent habits. He doesn’t appear at all in the ballads, though there are a few real-life models for his character in the histories of the time.
Similarly, many of the so-called Merry Men (mine aren’t all that merry by the way) don’t even appear in the earliest ballads. Marian, for instance came along centuries later.
Making changes also means you can create your own character of Robin Hood. We all have a favourite Robin, be it from books, or films or television. As a writer you shouldn’t reproduce what has been done in the past, though elements of earlier versions are bound to slip in – even subconsciously. The Robin of the early ballads is scarcely the charitable outlaw of recent representations.
So we shouldn’t rely too much on the veracity of the original Robin Hood ballads as printed, where the Sheriff of Nottingham hunts the outlaw not so much in Sherwood but in Barnsdale.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that the Robin Hood tales originated in Barnsdale. There never was a Royal Forest around Barnsdale, either in the strict legal sense of a royal hunting ground, or the modern interpretation as a place with a lot of trees. The Barnsdale of the period was a place of heathlands and small woodlands. Not a very good location for fugitives and wolfsheads. Nor was it a Chase, in the sense of a hunting ground for particular nobles.
All of the above doesn’t mean that there never was an outlaw called Robin Hood in Barnsdale, who inspired the early ballads. There may well have been. We shall never know for sure. Robin may have come from there, or Sherwood – a considerable Royal Forest – or a dozen other places.
There is, for instance, a considerable tradition of Robin Hood in distant Westmorland and Cumberland. Alan a Dale traditionally hails from Stainmore on the present-day borders of Westmorland and County Durham. I used those places for the origins of my Alan the Minstrel.
It always has to be remembered that the ballads which have survived as printed versions were probably quite late in the day; surviving examples of earlier oral ballads which might well have had differing locations. Evidence from other ballads demonstrates that local people would change names and locations, putting in places that were familiar to them. So if the printed versions suggest Barnsdale, then that might well be because those were the accounts that an early writer and printer took up.
Similarly, because the ballads refer to the monarch at the time being King Edward, we shouldn’t take for granted the idea that a king called Edward was on the throne at the time of Robin Hood. As the ballads were related generation after generation they would simply be updated to mention the king at the time, giving an added relevance to their listeners. Earlier oral versions might well have referred to the king being Stephen or Henry or Richard or John.
Professor Holt, in the revised edition of his excellent book Robin Hood, which I recommend if you want more background to these outlaw tales, finds a Robin in the early 1200s, who could well have been around during the reign of King John. And who is to say he was the first Robin?
If you look at Langland’s “Piers Plowman” (1377) you find his character Sloth proclaiming:
“I kan noght parfitly my Paternoster as the preest it syngeth
But I kan rhymes of Robyn hood…”
And Langland was quite late in the day as far as Robin Hood was concerned.
My latest Robin Hood novel “Wolfshead” is now available for pre-order, and is already out in paperback. The price goes up after publication day which is on Friday 25th March. Just click on the links below for more information:
The First Robin Hood novel “Loxley” is available in paperback and on Kindle at: