Sad, but true, novels sometimes hide in libraries, camouflaged in rows of books and overlooked for a flashier cover. Such was the case of Robin Hood until I came upon it by accident while searching for some Joyce in my own library. I eagerly read it, and regret not having picked it up sooner. For those who think they’ll enjoy dashing legends of the past written in the early nineteen-hundreds, read on!
A quick history trip online will show you that the story of Robin Hood is anything but certain. Beginning around the thirteenth century, the legend varies from an outlaw around Nottinghamshire to an aristocrat who spurns his privileges to give to the poor. From ballads to novels, domesticated sources can be found throughout British history, including Henry Gilbert’s well-researched, unabridged rendition from 1912. In a short forward, Gilbert, whose other novels also fall in an English folklore genre, explains his fascination with Robin Hood, and his intent to bring out the best of the legends he grew up on.
Gilbert’s Robin, we soon find out, is a freeman of some wealth whose land is surrounded by cruel lords and greedy monks. Eventually forced out of his lands, he and the surrounding villeins (serfs) escape to the vast Sherwood Forest, preferring life under Robin Hood to their brutal former existences. As outlaws, Robin and his merry men quickly gain a favorable reputation among commoners by, believe it or not, stealing from the rich to give to the poor! As the tale unfolds Robin’s foes are brought down one by one until his final epic battles with the evil Guy of Gisborne and Sir Isenbart de Belame. Along this journey are many entertaining stories of Robin’s escapades; from meeting Little John and protecting his beloved Marian, to his encounters with Alan-a-Dale, Friar Tuck, the Little People and King Richard.
One of the more interesting aspects of this book for me was a totally different (ie: not Victorian or Regency) view of England. Catholicism reigns supreme, and while Robin himself is deeply religious, he holds many monks responsible for their own sins; an anti-clerical edge which is countered by Friar Tuck. I particularly enjoyed Robin’s meeting with King Richard, his chivalrous romance with Marian, and Gilbert’s ability to not exploit good storylines.
Like many of you, my first dose of Robin Hood was through the Wonderful World of Disney. It was interesting to see how this earlier edition expanded on some of those same stories and, despite not having a cute, anthropomorphic fox, was still a captivating narrative of Robin’s life. The language was very easy to follow, lapsing into old English only when characters spoke (‘Thou saucy knave!’), and even included a brief translation when needed. The characters were lovable, the plot was filled with humour, sorrow and action, and the world created by Gilbert was entrancing. Books like these can be enjoyed by older children and adults alike, especially those who are looking for a concise and authentic story of one of England’s most famous legends. Having now researched other sources, I am grateful that I picked up Gilbert’s Robin Hood, and not have to toil through an older version such as ‘Robyn Hod and the Sheryff off Notyngham’. A copy of Gilbert’s book may be hard to pick up, but the full text can be found at this link, so give it a shot and I don’t think you’ll regret it!