Walking, landscape and writers.
Usually at this time of year I thumb through the pages of this medieval classic. Not least because the setting of the tale is probably around Leek in my birth-county of Staffordshire.
I’ve been re-reading a recent translation of this medieval poem, which is appropriate for everyone who loves the British countryside.
Many years ago I struggled through it in the original Middle English, which I think is hard work even if you can manage quite well with Chaucer and Langland – as I could at the time.
This recent translation is by the poet and Oxford don Bernard O’Donoghue (Penguin 2006). This translation concentrates on the tale itself and the rhythm of the original, veering away from the alliteration and half lines of the original. I think O’Donoghue captures the spirit of the poem well.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a beautiful tribute to the English countryside. As Sir Gawain rides on his quest to the castle of the Green Knight we get wonderful pictures of the landscape of England, and possibly Wales, grand vistas of nature and the seasons, with a bit of sexual seduction, courtly love and romance – in the historic sense of the word – thrown in.
The poet is unknown but his words live on.
And this is a very good time of the year to read his words. The castle in the picture, by the way, is not in Staffs but in Cumbria. It just looks appropriate.
My historical novels Loxley – The Chronicles of Robin Hood and it sequel Wolfshead are now available in paperback and as eBooks (click on the link below for more details). I end my book with an essay on the origins of the Robin Hood legend. A longer version appears at the end of the novel, but here’s a few essential points.
The Origins of Robin Hood
So did Robin Hood actually exist? And if so where and when?
In a way it doesn’t matter if there was an historical Robin or not. He exists in the minds of billions of people around the world. He is, to employ an over-used phrase, a cultural icon. The outlaw in the forest. A fugitive from injustice. The rebel who fights the wealthy and powerful. Robs from the rich and gives to the poor. In Britain today we even have a “Robin Hood Tax Campaign” which seeks to even up the balance between the haves and the have-nots.
Just say the words “Robin Hood” to virtually anyone in the world and they’ll know who you mean. An image of the outlaw will have appeared in their mind. Not bad for someone who – if he lived at all – probably started out as an English (and very localised English) rural bandit!
And go to many parts of Britain and you’ll find quite a supply of Robin Hood’s graves, wells, caves, larders, and so forth. Yorkshire has a village named after him, Robin Hood’s Bay. There’s even a Robin Hood International Airport near to Doncaster! And it’s not just the outlaw chief. The last resting place of Little John may be seen near to his old home town of Hathersage. Friar Tuck and several of the other merry (or, often, not so merry) men can boast local connections.
Much of the tourism industry in Nottinghamshire depends on Robin Hood. He has a statue outside Nottingham Castle. He’s well featured in the Sherwood Forest Visitors’ Centre. You can even glimpse men dressed up as him in Sherwood Forest.
Robin Hood is an attractive figure even in our own troublous times, when the wealthy and powerful seem to have scant regard for the struggles of the less fortunate. He is the most potent symbol in our culture of the idea of Right fighting Might. If that sounds very political it is. Can there be any grander political ideal than upsetting the status quo and battling for equality?
Alongside the legend of King Arthur, Robin Hood is one of the two essential English myths. Someone we’ve all grown up with, in novels, television series and numerous films. If there was an actual individual who inspired these yarns he’d probably be amazed at his legacy.
So what do we know about the beginnings of the Robin Hood legend? The answer is precious little. There are a small number of old ballads relating the deeds of the outlaw. Just five of them of reasonable vintage, and a tiny portion of an old play. The oldest extant ballad probably appeared only in the fourteenth-century. There is a mention of the wolfshead in Langland’s Piers Plowman, probably from around 1377 – the earliest mention of Robin in literature. Troubling for those of us who love the outlaw, the Robin Hood in these ballads is not quite the freedom-fighter of our imagination. He and his men are portrayed as rather less generous and rather more as bloodthirsty villains. Killing and mutilation are their stock-in-trade.
Furthermore, the setting is not usually Sherwood Forest, and the king of the time is named Edward rather than the Richard the Lionheart of so many books and films. The suggestion is that the Edward in question is perhaps Edward II.
Some of the popular characters of the Robin Hood story only get a mention in the later ballads. Maid Marian doesn’t make an appearance in the story until the late fifteenth century. She was almost certainly put in for romantic purposes by some wily author or printer who knew his market. He pinched her from French literature in a thieving gesture of which Robin himself would have been proud. I have put Marian in my story because I think she’s an essential part of the mythology of Sherwood.
For some years there has been an historical fight over the body of Robin Hood. Should he be in Sherwood Forest during the reign of Richard the Lionheart, sometime in the 1190s? Or elsewhere, perhaps in Barnsdale near to Doncaster, during Edward II’s reign in the early 1300s?
Anyone who writes stories of Robin Hood has to make a personal choice. If you’ve read this far you will see that I have chosen Sherwood in the days of Richard the Lionheart. I have two motivations for picking this period and location. The first is purely sentimental. I grew up with the idea of Robin in Sherwood, fighting the Sheriff of Nottingham and Guy of Gisborne in what was then the wild forest around Edwinstowe. The dominant culture of all those films and television programmes has sunk into my mind so deeply that I can’t imagine the outlaws being anywhere else.
And I do believe that there is an argument for Robin existing long before the reign of Edward II, even if a Robert Hood gets a mention in the records of his time. J.C. Holt, in his definitive and quite excellent book Robin Hood (read the revised edition of 2011 if you are seeking it out) presents us with a number of outlaws bearing the names or rather nicknames Robinhood, or Robehod, in the 1200s, well before Edward came to the throne. Even a Robert Hod, fugitive, tried at York assizes in 1225. I’ll not delve deeper into Professor Holt’s quite superb account here. Everyone who loves the legend should read it for themselves. Holt, provably, puts the figure and legend of Robin Hood back through written sources to at least 1261-2.
The argument may be made that people were so familiar with the legend or concept of Robin Hood by that time, that outlaws and highway robbers generally were being branded with his name in the court records. And such myths take a time to grow in the public imagination, decades at least, perhaps a century. Therefore, someone, somewhere, must have been the first Robin Hood. The individual whose name was then adopted by the outlaws that followed, becoming almost a title passed on down the line.
As these ballads began life as oral tales, long before they were written down or the advent of printing, who is to say how they might have been altered? It is quite likely that local versions existed, promoted by a population with a good ear and memory for such ballads. And they were probably updated as they went. The King’s name of Edward in the printed versions might well have originally been Richard or John or Henry in the oral ballads. We will never know. And the versions that promote Barnsdale over Sherwood are just the survivors. People living in a very insular fashion in remote parts of England, where very few people strayed far from home, would insert their own local forest. The original ballads could as well have referred to Sherwood as much as anywhere else.
And if the terminus ante quem of the Robin Hood who is mentioned in historical documents is as early as 1261-2, then it is good common sense to suggest that that individual and the other Robinhoods, Robehods, Hods, and so on, are taking these tribute names from an earlier and factual individual, who might well have been a contemporary of King John.
And talking of John, Prince John is usually portrayed as an outright villain. One of the trio of baddies, with Gisborne and the Sheriff of Nottingham, who are the arch-enemies of Robin Hood. There is no doubt that John (count, in reality, not prince) could be petty, ruthless, autocratic and occasionally vicious. But he has suffered a bad press, particularly given that the histories of his time were written by churchmen who couldn’t stand him.
Historically, he was no worse and often much better than many other medieval kings. I’ve tried to do him some justice. He certainly was, as I have suggested, much fonder of England than his brother Richard the Lionheart, who plundered the country to pay for his foreign ventures. John deserves an historical revision.
And do I think there was an original Robin Hood, one character who lived and created a legend?
The answer is yes!
To order Loxley just click on this link: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Loxley-Chronicles-Robin-John-Bainbridge-ebook/dp/B00WMJXRUC/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1430327821&sr=1-1&keywords=loxley
To order Wolfshead just click on this link: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Wolfshead-Chronicles-Robin-John-Bainbridge-ebook/dp/B01D09B6LO/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1482917913&sr=1-1&keywords=wolfshead
Our new mystery novella The Holly House Mystery was published yesterday on Kindle and Nook eBook readers. Hopefully, it will be out in paperback before Christmas and on Kobo ebook reader by the end of the year.
The new book is set on the Sussex downs in 1931, in the days between Christmas and the New Year, and features Inspector Eddie Chance of the Tennysham CID.
If you enjoy the book please do leave a review on the online selling sites and Goodreads. And if you could share this and tell your friends about The Holly House Mystery we’d be very grateful.
Here’s a bit more about the book:
December 1931. Inspector Chance investigates a country house mystery in a snow-bound Sussex village. Family and guests are gathered for Christmas at Holly House. A body is discovered near the ruins in the grounds. And only one set of footprints in the snow…
Can Inspector Chance solve the murder before Scotland Yard is called in?
The Holly House Mystery is a 34000 word novella, complete in itself, the second book in the Inspector Chance Mystery Series.
What Readers are saying about Inspector Eddie Chance’s first appearance in The Seafront Corpse
“An excellent depiction of good old fashioned detective work.”
“An enjoyable trip down memory lane, authentically written.”
“Excellent period detective piece. Couldn’t put it down.”
“The mystery was good, the characters were GREAT!!”
To order just click on this link:
Will Scarlet goes rogue. That’s one of the themes of my new Robin Hood novel which will be out next year.
And why not?
I wrote a couple of blogs ago about my progress with the new novel, and how I’d been interested in the transformation of Scarlet or Scathlock from the dandy of the old ballads and early books and TV, to the more aggressive Will of Robin of Sherwood.
As I’ve said, in the new book, my Will has gone rogue. Back in Sherwood Forest. Mean, moody and… well, blooming well dangerous. Now he’s on nobody’s side but his own. Can Robin Hood bring him back into the fold? Does he want to? I shan’t say any more for now.
There’ll be some new characters as well, some of them not quite what they seem. We’re heading towards a bloody climax. This one’s book number three and there’s just one more title after this. We all know how the tale should end, but will it? I’ve got some interesting ideas.
Do I intend to do another history series after The Chronicles of Robin Hood? Oh, yes, but I’m not saying what for the moment. There’ll definitely be a new series starting next year, plus a crime/thriller novel. So stay tuned.
If you haven’t read the first two novels in The Chronicles of Robin Hood, please do give them a try. They’re out in paperback as well as on Kindle, smartphone and tablet. Just click on the links below.
And please do leave a review if you’ve enjoyed any books online. Every review helps all Indie writers, enabling them to keep on writing…
1198 A.D A hooded man brings rebellion to the forest…
Lionheart’s England, with the King fighting in Normandy… For the oppressed villagers of Sherwood there is no escape from persecution and despair. They exist under the sufferance of their brutal overlords.
When a mysterious stranger saves a miller’s son from cruel punishment, the Sheriff of Nottingham sends the ruthless Sir Guy of Gisborne to hunt him down.
His past life destroyed, Robin of Loxley must face his greatest challenge yet. Deadly with a longbow and a sword, he will fight tyranny and injustice, encounter allies and enemies old and new.
The vast Sherwood Forest with its hidden glades and ancient pathways is the last refuge of wolfsheads. Here their bloody battles will be fought, friendships forged and loyalties tested.
Loxley will become Robin Hood. Notorious leader of outlaws.
Their daring deeds will become legend.
This is the first in a four-part series The Chronicles of Robin Hood, and includes an historical note on the origins of the famous outlaw. Read the sequel Wolfshead now.
1199 AD – The fate of a silver arrow brings blood-soaked terror to the peasants of Sherwood Forest.
England faces uncertainty as the king falls in battle. Nottingham Castle is seething with intrigue as the Sheriff’s power is threatened and Sir Guy of Gisborne faces an old nightmare.
Robin’s fight is more desperate than ever. Friendships are tested as the outlaws confront a new depth of evil.
When even the villagers have turned against him, Robin Hood discovers the true cost of being made wolfshead.
A hunted man – and this time it’s personal…
Wolfshead – complete in itself – is the second in a four-novel sequence The Chronicles of Robin Hood.
The other day we visited Fairfax House in York, which is dressed to give you a real flavour of how a Georgian town house would have been in the eighteenth century.
At present Fairfax House also has a terrific exhibition on the theme of Georgian pleasures.
The exhibition’s open for another couple weeks, so do go and look if you can get to York. http://www.fairfaxhouse.co.uk/
The exhibition looks partly at the seedier side of Georgian life. All those activities Georgians got up to in their spare time. The exhibits have come from all over the country and it’s quite a treat to get to see some of them – mostly the best we get are illustations in the picture books.
So if you’ve ever wanted to know all about Georgian leisure pursuits this is the exhibition for you. From prizefighting to public hangings (including a genuine hangman’s noose). Georgian sex too – the outrageous activities of the some rather dodgy societies are featured. The pleasure gardens feature, as do ballooning and horse-racing, dancing, cricket and the way evenings were spent in the assembly rooms.
It all brings the Georgians and their mores back to life. Highly recommended.