Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood by Howard Pyle

In merry England, in the time of old, when good King Henry the Second ruled the land, there lived within the green glades of Sherwood Forest, near Nottingham Town, a famous outlaw whose name was Robin Hood. No archer ever lived that could speed a gray goose shaft with such skill and cunning as his, nor were there ever such yeomen as the sevenscore merry men that roamed with him through the greenwood shades.

We all know the story of Robin Hood, the sober, humorless soldier, hardened by his battles during the Crusades, rounds up a band of sober, humorless men to fight beside him and, in a psychic flash, discovers the Magna Carta and brings Democracy to Medieval England after fighting an epic battle against the French. And now that we’ve covered the 2010 movie, whose authors apparently didn’t realize that there’s already a fictional character named Robin Hood, let’s talk about this book.

I admit it: although I’ve read Robin Hood before, I was inspired to read it again after seeing the essentially unrelated and joyless film. I knew the basic outline and I knew the source material was much lighter and more humorous, but I had forgotten how much. The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood is really a comic novel, written as a series of inter-related vignettes, which collects various folk tales of Robin Hood and put them into a coherent framework, codifying Robin and his Merry Men into something like an Anglo-Saxon mythology—but this misses the point. Robin Hood isn’t a dull academic exercise, and it doesn’t read, aside from the poetic King’s English, like it was written over a century ago. It moves quickly—I read the entire 350pp book in a little over a day—and rarely missteps.

What was surprising to me is how much of my idea of Robin Hood was missing from the book. Maid Marian warrants exactly two mentions, both times as passing thoughts in Robin’s head. Prince John, immortalized as a lion cub in Disney’s retelling, appears only at the tail end. And what’s included is sometimes surprising as well. Close to a quarter of the book recounts adventures in which Robin himself doesn’t appear at all, focusing on the Merry Men and, in one case, a knight given assistance by Robin’s band.

But, onto the stories themselves. They largely follow the same structure—Robin and his men get bored, hatch an elaborate prank, execute it, and improvise. This leads to Robin’s merry band getting their butts kicked a lot, and it’s this element of “Will it work or not?” that gives the book most of its narrative thrust. However, just when the repetition threatens to grow stale, Pyle switches formats, focusing on a side character or a more involved adventure, such as the elaborate plot to help newfound Merry Man Alan a Dale reclaim his love at her wedding ceremony. The final third of the book, however, abandons the format almost entirely and takes some surprisingly dark and affecting turns.

Ultimately though, Robin isn’t a gloomy slog. It’s joyous and raucous and funny, and the characters, thinly sketched as they sometimes are, are really likable. Like Sherlock Holmes (which also got a terrible movie adaptation recently), Robin Hood is well worth revisiting.

1 comment:

Christopher said...

This actually sounds really interesting. There are some Robin Hood stories in Bulfinch's, but I never made it that far into the thing.