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Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography

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The only figure in the Dictionary of National Biography who is said never to have existed, Robin Hood has taken on an air of reality few historical figures achieve. His image in various guises has been put to use as a subject of ballads, nationalist rallying point, Disney cartoon fox, greenclad figure of farce, tabloid fodder, and template for petty criminals and progressi The only figure in the Dictionary of National Biography who is said never to have existed, Robin Hood has taken on an air of reality few historical figures achieve. His image in various guises has been put to use as a subject of ballads, nationalist rallying point, Disney cartoon fox, greenclad figure of farce, tabloid fodder, and template for petty criminals and progressive political candidates alike. In this engaging and deeply informed book Stephen Knight looks at the different manifestations of Robin Hood at different times and places in a mythic biography with a thematic structure. The best way to get at the essence of the Robin Hood myth, Knight believes, is in terms not of chronological and generic progression but of the purposes served by heroes. Each of the book's four central chapters identifies a particular model of the hero, mythic or biographic, which dominated in certain periods and in certain genres, and explores their interrelations, their implications, and their historical and sociopolitical contexts.


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The only figure in the Dictionary of National Biography who is said never to have existed, Robin Hood has taken on an air of reality few historical figures achieve. His image in various guises has been put to use as a subject of ballads, nationalist rallying point, Disney cartoon fox, greenclad figure of farce, tabloid fodder, and template for petty criminals and progressi The only figure in the Dictionary of National Biography who is said never to have existed, Robin Hood has taken on an air of reality few historical figures achieve. His image in various guises has been put to use as a subject of ballads, nationalist rallying point, Disney cartoon fox, greenclad figure of farce, tabloid fodder, and template for petty criminals and progressive political candidates alike. In this engaging and deeply informed book Stephen Knight looks at the different manifestations of Robin Hood at different times and places in a mythic biography with a thematic structure. The best way to get at the essence of the Robin Hood myth, Knight believes, is in terms not of chronological and generic progression but of the purposes served by heroes. Each of the book's four central chapters identifies a particular model of the hero, mythic or biographic, which dominated in certain periods and in certain genres, and explores their interrelations, their implications, and their historical and sociopolitical contexts.

30 review for Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography

  1. 5 out of 5

    Margaret Sankey

    Knight studies the appearances of Robin Hood, tracking them as a reliable barometer of acceptable political and social protest, along with the increasing incorporation of Maid Marian. Unfortunately, his examples end at 2000, thus missing the last two horrific versions, for which I would very much like some explanation or apology.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Kate

    Utterly fascianting. It explores the origins of the outlaw, and his evolution, from yeoman, to nobleman, gentleman, but most of all, the outlaw who robs from the rich, gives to the poor, and refuses to harm neither woman nor child. It explores every source imaginable through 2003, the good, the bad, the ugly, the poems, the novels, the movies. Knight finds it all significant. He also explores the evolution of Marian, who (in her brief mentions) in the original legends was often on equal footing Utterly fascianting. It explores the origins of the outlaw, and his evolution, from yeoman, to nobleman, gentleman, but most of all, the outlaw who robs from the rich, gives to the poor, and refuses to harm neither woman nor child. It explores every source imaginable through 2003, the good, the bad, the ugly, the poems, the novels, the movies. Knight finds it all significant. He also explores the evolution of Marian, who (in her brief mentions) in the original legends was often on equal footing with Robin (class wise), and when they were lower class, she could wield a bow, and fight as well as Robin. During the Victorian age, she was obviously "of the weaker sex" but has recently gotten her ovaries of steel back. All in all, this is a book that all RH fans should read, it offers a brilliant insight into Robin of the Hood.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Garrett Zecker

    Literally, this is my review of the book... A musky man smelling of pine and ash silently watches his victims traverse through small pools of light cast down through branches by the moon. Wearing dark clothing and bearing the instruments that he has fashioned from his home in the brushy-floored wood just outside a city that he has disowned, he stalks the horse-drawn carriage marked with the signs of wealth and fortune. The unsuspecting travelers of affluence, oblivious to the dangers lurking only Literally, this is my review of the book... A musky man smelling of pine and ash silently watches his victims traverse through small pools of light cast down through branches by the moon. Wearing dark clothing and bearing the instruments that he has fashioned from his home in the brushy-floored wood just outside a city that he has disowned, he stalks the horse-drawn carriage marked with the signs of wealth and fortune. The unsuspecting travelers of affluence, oblivious to the dangers lurking only feet away, are tossed into a tempest of punches, bangs, torn clothing, and destroyed luggage. Moments later when the melee is over, they are without a clear explanation of what happened, who or what caused it, and come to the realization that their money, artifacts, and dignity are nowhere to be found. In several days, a local orphanage receives an anonymous gift, and a young and beautiful Marion suspects her boyfriend may be the philanthropist behind the generous income the city receives for its various charities. The timeless story of the outlaw with the heart of gold has entertained every major culture in one form or another; the modern Robin Hood as we understand him in English Lore has existed for over six hundred years. In his book Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography, Stephen Knight of Cardiff University explores the various cultural, mythic, sociological, sociopolitical, and folkloric manifestations of this infamous noble-hearted outlaw. Knight's simple purpose for exploring this subject, aside from an extensive knowledge of Robin Hood and being considered widely as the most knowledgeable of Robin Hood experts, was to approach the cultural history of Robin Hood and reassert the central values of the tradition of the good outlaw (Knight xix). Before exploring the book, it is important to understand the structure of Knight's study. He begins his exploration into the world of Robin Hood by creating a framework of understanding of the different types of Robin Hood that we are familiar with and some that we are not familiar with. His purpose of outlining the different Robin Hoods is to delineate the idea that there are not only different ways to look at Robin Hood as folkloric and cultural phenomena, but that there are several different distincttellings of the myth of Robin Hood that each have their own different means of transmission and different vernaculars that correspond with them. Simply put, it is important to recognize the difference in order to successfully approach them. It is common not only for us as the audience to really respond to the different facets of his escapism and fleeing from society and the world, but just as common for scholars and amateurs to hunt for a real Robin Hood and try to unravel a mystery of a not-so-mythic character, thereby recognizing some of the elements of some of the Hoods and discounting others. (Dobson 63) The earliest Robin Hood is also the Robin Hood with which we are least familiar. This man exists in the early ballads, songs, oral stories, plays, and proverbs, and is the least recognizable if one were to compare him to today's modern interpretations of the hero. (Knight 21) It is easy to argue why - in his earliest manifestation, Robin Hood was a myth whose full legacy was based on linguistic transmission, and there was no basis of comparison to the 'original' besides the story from which the new storyteller found it, or the few written versions of his story that existed. To describe who this particular Robin Hood was, we have to first describe who he decidedly wasn't. This Hood was not a robber. He did not steal from the rich, nor did he give to the poor. He did not have a girlfriend, wife, or female companion. He had no band of brothers, and his male companions that he did have were transient in and out of his life with no sense of permanency. There are also no green clothes, certainly no tights, and they usually preferred swords and staffs in battle as archery would have been considered just a game to men of the era. (Knight 2) There were many incantations of Hood that showed him as a negative character (written in the 1370s as Piers Plowman), a positive light (written in 1283 in Orygynale Chronicle), or disinherited in 1266, but the stories as a whole reflect a character that is much referenced and also very misunderstood by today's reader. This earliest Robin Hood was considered to be a 'Yeoman,' and was simply a self-made man of the forest who was only focused on himself and survival. (Knight 3) As time went on and many more written references of Hood began to appear, so did the image of Hood as an outlaw; this was most likely because by the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries many more ballads were written down and recorded and this point in his evolution just happened to intersect with the recording of the stories (Knight 33). By the sixteenth century, Robin Hood had a place in literature and popular culture in England. Where the original Hood really had no origins, the 16th century hood was developed and became a distressed gentleman who had fallen from aristocratic grace. In The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington by Anthony Munday, we learn of the new image of the temporary, transient outlaw hero (Knight 44). The book goes on to explore who Knight calls "Robin Hood Esquire," who is the overall personification of the mythical Hood and becomes the biographical and historical Hood with which we are familiar. The writers of this particular Hood included many flourishes that made the character all the more believable including epitaphs, genealogy, alleged tombs, and other pseudo-historical data. (Knight 97) The last, and likely most dominant form of Robin Hood's identity also created the most culturally and mainstream authoritative interpretation of the outlaw hero is the Hollywood Robin Hood, permanently burned onto film and into the psyche of theatergoers for generations since the first version. Knight explores not only the dashing movie Hood, but also the Robin Hood that sprouted as a result of Hood on screen in other media including comics, song, novels, and other mediums of popular conveyance. In exploring Robin Hood in terms of its overall recorded history as well as the phenomenon of its folkloric history, exploring the evolution of the character and the texts is key in understanding how he has developed. Knight had a very difficult task ahead of him in order to complete this project, however. How does one take a text that was mainly a method of transmission in the oral tradition, then written down in various forms in that one point in history that it was written, then survived primarily in the form of films today, and explore not only the story but the various interpretations of the story? Where does one begin? More appropriately, how does one compete with some of the more drab, more boring, and more well researched academics that had come before him? In looking into this aspect of the scholarship of Robin Hood, we need to first understand what role it plays in the overall tradition of storytelling and human transmission of the story. Understanding that the origins of the story is completely based in a visceral plane as opposed to a physical human or historical plane, we see the beginnings of a folklore tradition. What makes the overall study of the phenomena surrounding the text difficult is the simple lack of 600 year old Englishmen who have survived to tell us the experience of being told the story of Robin Hood in its original pub setting. Regardless, there are some fundamental elements of the history of the story that directly speaks to the cultural transmission and interpretations of it that makes it such an interesting subject for a folklorist interested in studying it. One interesting aspect of Robin Hood is, if taking today's popularized stance of who he is just for the sake of argument, that he is a man of and for the people. A fascinating aspect of who he is, his cultural significance, and his importance to who is telling the story arises from the documented ballads of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. As the story of Robin Hood emerged from the pubs and professions of the average English worker, the story of Hood changed ever so slightly (and sometimes boldly) to reflect the social and romantic needs of the storyteller. While the examples I am about to share are documented and are in no means a fluid and dynamic representation of the true folklore tradition, they do uncover an uncanny development in what type of person Hood was in the eyes and words of the storyteller. Simply put, there is no other way to explore this phenomenon as the study of folklore is a relatively new concept within the last century, and there have yet to be discovered any 600 year old pub-dwelling Englishmen to recount the tale. Knight explores many texts and often refers to texts as transcripts and manuscripts, under the full understanding that some are indirect, tainted, and contextually absent works. To explore the idea of the story of Hood suiting the needs of many of the listeners and readers, we investigate the published ballads. Beginning with "Robin Hood and theBisop of Hereford," we learn of a Hood who antagonizes the local clergy and treats them with contempt. The idea of this text comes as we learn that the bishops and clergy they are antagonizing (and subsequently stealing £603 from) were "false pilgrims" with false pretenses to their travels. This speaks to the ideals of virtue that was held so closely by the common man in England, and to see clergy in such high power being dealt with justly may likely have been an extremely engaging and entertaining story to the average audience member. Other aspects of the stories are changed depending on the time and audience as well. In some editions, such as "Robin Hood's Preferment," Hood has become sick of the woods and has become a noble fisherman who defends his boat and others from attacks from the French. This particular story may connect well with an audience in any of the hundreds of port cities in Europe, especially in the heroic element added to later stories that he was able to sink entire fleets without a single gun aboard his vessel. There are the ballads that approach Hood as a failed and utterly broken failure such as "Robin Hood and the Golden Arrow," which would appeal to the underling who may never have a single life devotion or success, and that even heroes have failures in life or religious types who enjoy the self-deprecating imagery and very human approach to an almost superhuman figure. There have even been ballads that act as prequels or ballads that simply focus on his band. (Knight 38-42) The simple fact is that the life of Hood is a spectacular view into the effects on one figure across many popular and cultural forms. His widespread appeal is apparent in the various forms the story takes. Knight sums up the overall cultural and folkloric significance of Hood by using a word found commonly in the study of folklore, "tradition," and explains the widespread appeal and transmission of Hood's mythology: "The tradition has, to the present day, not forgotten that figure, and at times he survives almost unchanged. But other elements in the hero's mythic biography overlap with the bold yeoman and sometimes obscure his simple, blunt, lively, ancient value." (Knight 43) In order to fit the intrinsic social and cultural aspects of his audience, Robin Hood has been portrayed as a killer, gentleman, myth, everyday hero, villiage symbol, international liberal, joker, rebel, nature lover, fierce hunter, boyish charmer, father figure, men among men, and helper to strong women. (Knight 204) In my opinion, what remains extremely fascinating is that within English culture this character has not changed name, personal history, or even ultimate destiny, but rather has remained ingrained in the popular psyche. Every story that is added, every ballad created, and every parody that critiques him is only adding to the epic and powerful being that is Robin Hood without a second thought. Just as there is folklore within the transcribing, publishing, filming, and recording of Robin Hood stories today with no hint as to the origins, there is also folklore within the underground of groups purporting to find the "true Robin Hood." This group in itself is an amazing study as it is not only looking critically at a mythological figure that is so steeped in English history that they believe it must be true, but also as a group that has a specific and concise biographic vernacular and supposed history behind the man that wasn't. Many scholars and folklorists have attempted to uncover a real hood through textual study and exploration into the politics and concrete evidence. The most notable of these investigators is a Joseph Hunter. Through evidence of birth records on a "Robert Hood" and other seemingly dull records, he builds a case for the existence of a Robin Hood. Another researcher, L.D.V. Owen, used the previous research of David Crooke and J.C.Holt to piece together a story of a royal servant, not an outlaw, and an outlandish exaggeration of his deeds through oral transmission since the 13th century. (Knight 193-195) Knight continues on to outline those that also discount these very researchers that spent such a great deal of time looking into the history of the shadowy figure. What is most interesting about the studies of Robin Hood is this: if a real Robin Hood were confirmed to have existed, would he still be a great folklore figure? The answer to this is undoubtedly yes. If you take away the mythological elements of the character and created a real man, you would simply have a person who was not nearly as fantastic, and an idea and character that filled the cultural and social void created by feudalism and poverty who would stand up for everything the audience believed in. It is certainly safe to assume that if a real Robin Hood existed that the majority of those who have read the stories featuring him or watched films depicting him would not care in the slightest sense. That is because the man who he may have been and the epic hero he is now are two completely different entities. This point is driven home at the end of Knights book. Robin Hood has over the last 600 years has survived across time and through time; constantly remade and varied in ways that authors, directors, audiences, actors and even readers and audiences feel - rather than think - is appropriate to their own contexts. (Knight 207) There is no question that Knight is the most well-read researcher in the arena of Robin Hood mythology as suggested by some of the reviews of the book. This is apparent only a few pages into the introduction and knight touches upon every famous myth and rumor as if it were a simple conversation. This conversational tone of the book carries it into the realm of an actually interesting and engaging text, and it is no doubt a reflection of his overall knowledge of the good outlaw. Taking the reader into a realm of fascinating study peppered throughout with anecdotes and illustrations reflecting the historical, fictional, and mythological figure, the history of Hood is translated into an extremely approachable and enjoyable story full of explanations of the half-truths and uninformed studies on the figure. The truth is simple. There never was a Robin Hood, and there are absolutely no political or historical foundations to the story. (Knight 202) Knight does, however, explore all of the major texts that support all theories about the origins of the famous story, and adds to the conversation his own insights into the overall truth as well as some of the lesser known and more fun colloquialisms that are connected to him. It is important to note that the various interpretations survive on paper to give us a central idea as to the development and solidity of who Robin Hood is, and that is what is central to the book. Without the narratives that can live on paper and in the mouth, away from the village green, the myth would have simply died with other commercial practices; without the medieval and romantic writers to transcribe the great spectrum of Hoods and elaborate on his timeless, his myth would never have extended to the present in so strong a form. (Knight 206-207) Knight's study is a rousing exploration into the history of all of the different kinds of Hoods and how they developed in the overall scope of the oral, written, and filmed history. By the end of the book, one is interested in exploring the many texts he researched and referenced throughout his book. This text teaches us that even though we have a particular understanding of a work that we may have always thought had an origin in history or literature, that there is so much more to understand about a work that may very well hold a place that is not so concrete as many of our experiences with it. Chances are, there will be many, many more interpretations of the story of Robin Hood, and they will likely all stand on the shoulders of the more modern takes on the story - taking into consideration nothing about the original explorations into the selfish loner yeoman who gives up his life and place in society to live amongst the trees and animals on the outskirts of the kingdom with which he had given up all of his national identity. Works Cited Dobson, R.B.. "Robin Hood: The Genesis of a Popular Hero." Robin Hood in Popular Culture: Violence, Transgression, and Justice. Ed. Thomas G. Hahn. New York: Boydell & Brewer, 2000. Knight, Stephen. Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 2003. Munday, Robert. The Downfall of Robert Earl of Huntington. London: Septimus Prowett. 1828.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Matthew Richey

    Traces the history of Robin Hood in Ballads, Games, Fiction, Film, and Culture. Has some helpful and interesting background and history but large portions are dry, uninteresting, and annoying. Worthwhile for those interested in Robin Hood, but not the most enjoyable read.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Leah

    Knight is probably the foremost Robin Hood authority in the world. His writing--and especially this text--is always clear and accessible. The "mythic biography" is just that--a biography of a character who exists in popular culture if not in reality. Knight takes readers from the earliest references to Robin Hood in medieval ballads, his gentrification in the Elizabethan period and his development in the 19th century to his various 20th century incarnations, all the while showing how this charac Knight is probably the foremost Robin Hood authority in the world. His writing--and especially this text--is always clear and accessible. The "mythic biography" is just that--a biography of a character who exists in popular culture if not in reality. Knight takes readers from the earliest references to Robin Hood in medieval ballads, his gentrification in the Elizabethan period and his development in the 19th century to his various 20th century incarnations, all the while showing how this character has been a mirror for societal and political concerns. Although the scholarship of this text is solid enough to satisfy academics, the approach is reader-friendly enough for anyone interested in Robin Hood.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Shomeret

    This book was my favorite read of 2013. I found out about it through the myth and fairy tale group Into The Forest when they were reading Hood: The King Raven Trilogy - Book 1. What I liked most of about this book is that Knight views Robin Hood as a legend rather than a historical personage. As a legend, Robin Hood evolves over time. Every period and indeed every author can have his or her own Robin Hood. Whether there was ever a historical personage by that name who inspired the legend is unimp This book was my favorite read of 2013. I found out about it through the myth and fairy tale group Into The Forest when they were reading Hood: The King Raven Trilogy - Book 1. What I liked most of about this book is that Knight views Robin Hood as a legend rather than a historical personage. As a legend, Robin Hood evolves over time. Every period and indeed every author can have his or her own Robin Hood. Whether there was ever a historical personage by that name who inspired the legend is unimportant to Knight and to me.

  7. 5 out of 5

    h

    borrowed from widener library. scholarly and detailed. this book presupposes familiarity with not just the robin hood mythology, particularly with the older ballads, but also with english writers from around the 19th century onward. not really a good book to start out with, but interesting anyway. it breaks down the robin hood persona into four categories: yeoman outlaw, gentrified earl, esquire, and hollywood hero. towards the end, the discussion of genre literature is sort of patronizing. it's borrowed from widener library. scholarly and detailed. this book presupposes familiarity with not just the robin hood mythology, particularly with the older ballads, but also with english writers from around the 19th century onward. not really a good book to start out with, but interesting anyway. it breaks down the robin hood persona into four categories: yeoman outlaw, gentrified earl, esquire, and hollywood hero. towards the end, the discussion of genre literature is sort of patronizing. it's nice to bring up instances of robin hood in romance and fantasy novels, but not if you're just setting them up to mock them. overall, informative but not great.

  8. 4 out of 5

    RumBelle

    This book was disappointing. I was expecting an analysis of Robin Hood, who he could have been and a historical context for his life. I got that...for approximately the first two chapters. After that the book was noting but a discussion about the various media in which Robin Hood and his legend have been portrayed. The writing was very dry and stuffy, someone writing just to hear themselves. The first two chapters were interesting, and enlightening , pity the rest of the book was not.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Leslie

    It was an interesting book giving, as said in the title, "a mythic biography" of Robin Hood. Knight covers the earliest ballads of Robin as a yeoman outlaw through the stories told in novels (including Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe and Parke Godwin's Sherwood) to Hollywood's version of the "rob from the rich and give to the poor" thief. It was an interesting book giving, as said in the title, "a mythic biography" of Robin Hood. Knight covers the earliest ballads of Robin as a yeoman outlaw through the stories told in novels (including Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe and Parke Godwin's Sherwood) to Hollywood's version of the "rob from the rich and give to the poor" thief.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Nina

    Great, detailed, well-researched study, written by an expert with a great sense of humor and understanding of the changing character of the mythic figure of Robin Hood and the audience from every time period discussed in this book.. I wish more of today's academic writing imparted to readers the kind of fun that Knight had with his research. Great, detailed, well-researched study, written by an expert with a great sense of humor and understanding of the changing character of the mythic figure of Robin Hood and the audience from every time period discussed in this book.. I wish more of today's academic writing imparted to readers the kind of fun that Knight had with his research.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Jess

    I didn't necessarily love the organization of the book, and I thought it could have been edited down a bit for repetition, but the author was pretty aware of gender/class/race/sexuality issues, and definitely got Robin Hood, so I mostly enjoyed it. I didn't necessarily love the organization of the book, and I thought it could have been edited down a bit for repetition, but the author was pretty aware of gender/class/race/sexuality issues, and definitely got Robin Hood, so I mostly enjoyed it.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Scott

    A great historical overview of the legend. There's so much more to this than the B-grade Hollywood image portrays. The way the image, lore and social meaning of Robin Hood has changed throughout the ages is truly amazing. A great historical overview of the legend. There's so much more to this than the B-grade Hollywood image portrays. The way the image, lore and social meaning of Robin Hood has changed throughout the ages is truly amazing.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Amy

    This was such an informative, fun read. Good for anyone interesed in the interactions between history, literature and culture, or a fan of the Robin Hood myth...

  14. 5 out of 5

    Angel

    Very dry history textbook like read

  15. 5 out of 5

    Vik

    Very informative. A great help to my essay on a myth of my choice.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Melody

  17. 4 out of 5

    Jeff

  18. 5 out of 5

    Michelle Naylor

  19. 4 out of 5

    CL

  20. 5 out of 5

    Ih8JaneAusten

  21. 5 out of 5

    Kate

  22. 4 out of 5

    Abigail

  23. 4 out of 5

    Allen Eblin

  24. 4 out of 5

    Kate

  25. 5 out of 5

    Janice

  26. 4 out of 5

    Erin Singh

  27. 5 out of 5

    Peter

  28. 5 out of 5

    Rebecca E

  29. 5 out of 5

    katie

  30. 4 out of 5

    Maire

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