Robin Hood by Henry Gilbert

This post is part of a series of posts on books and movies about the legend of Robin Hood. It discusses Robin Hood by Henry Gilbert.

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I recently watched Season 1 of a BBC TV show called Robin Hood (2006) and was curious to know the “real” story, which of course does not exist, or—if you prefer—changes according to prevailing cultural tastes with the passing of decades and centuries.

This version was unlike the television show in its violence. Robin Hood becomes an outlaw when he kills someone who is trying to abduct Marian, and that was neither the first nor the last of the killings. What struck me as unusual was not the number of deaths; goodness knows there are deaths aplenty in action movies. In this book, the deaths seemed to come abruptly and grimly. The world depicted is truly a dangerous and unpredictable place, unlike so many fictional fantasy worlds, where the conflicts encountered by the hero and his friends follow obvious plot rules—George Martin’s Ice and Fire being an obvious exception in the genre.

The tale was also very Christian (not to mention anti-Islamic). Robin Hood does not respect the monks and priests who abuse their social position, but he lives to serve God, the Virgin Mary and the poor and downtrodden. He even sees that the corpses of his enemies get Christian burials.

I wondered whether the message of “stealing from the rich” would ring true or grate on my nerves. In truth it did a bit of both. The rich characters presented in the story are fairly cardboard, and we are directly told over and over that they are evil and abusive towards the helpless. Although I would have preferred at least a little more explanation on that score, if we take the narration at its word, the rich guys were unjust. Therefore, they deserved to be robbed. Mostly.

There were some people, towards the end of the book when Richard was languishing in prison, who had to pay taxes twice, once to Robin Hood and once to the king’s tax collectors. Taking ALL of someone’s money seems like it would hurt the little people who were associated with that person. I also wondered whether the king’s ransom was worth it in the end. How could one person put such a huge tax burden on everyone, everywhere, just for the sake of his own life? Couldn’t they just get another king? Okay, the next guy in line was a jerk, but they wound up with him later anyway. Couldn’t they have kept the ransom and just fought with Prince John earlier?

In the end, I guess you just shut your ears and go lalala, because Robin is obviously such a nice, handsome, honorable guy. It’s just that the narrator has arranged it that way; the bad guys are bad, the good guy is good and pious. It’s not very subtle.

There’s a bit of parallel with Batman. Batman takes up justice when justice fails. He’s just a man, but he’s awfully good at dispensing justice. And he’s rich. Robin Hood may dress like a poor man, but he owns a huge pile of treasure like a dragon’s hoard.

The structure of the book was a bit strange. For one thing, it pogo-sticked through the legend, telling a few of the presumably numerous anecdotes rather than the whole history of the outlaw. Thus time passes in between the tales, and the chapters have a serial feel about them. The “novel” did not have a flow from beginning to middle to end.

The hero’s triumph does not conclude the tale. Robin marries Marian among friends after defeating a whole castle full of bad guys, and the king comes home and exonerates him, setting him up with land of his own. But then, the good king goes off and dies and more stuff happens and Marian gets killed while Robin is away from his land (!). Then Robin leads a revenge mission with some friends, gets a lot of people killed and eventually succeeds. Then he goes back into the forest to keep being Robin Hood. Eventually he gets old and goes to a convent for medical treatment, where someone poisons him. Little John buries him near the convent after he shoots an arrow out the window. It’s a bit of a downer.

The character I think of as “Friar Tuck” is called “Father Tuck”. There are two “trolls” who are brother dwarves who owe their lives to Robin and protect him throughout his life. The forest is not called Sherwood. Nottingham is only one of several bad guy towns; the sheriff (who Robin kills) is only one of several bad guys. Sir Guy of Gisborne, likewise.

I was a little confused by the different kinds of social status. I more or less know the system and could easily find some kind of list or chart about feudalism, but the book doesn’t really give a useful overview. There are some signposts, but the book is not as helpful as it could be on these subjects. Robin begins as a small landowner with a few serfs of his own, and acts like freeman despite being considered an outlaw. Marian is of much higher status; her father is a Lord with a lot of property. Knights are below lords but above a lot of people. The religious men and various agents of the king were depicted as important without being useful. There’s this word “villein” which appears to mean “villager” or “serf” but is spelled almost like “villain”, which is also used in the book and which I assume is a related word. (A brief internet search confirms my assumption.)

Another note on language: there’s a lot of archaic language (‘thou’ is a common subject pronoun in dialog, used to mean ‘you’; ‘thee’ is the object pronoun for ‘you’; the verbs have endings appropriate to these). I learned that ‘tod’ is a word for a fox, which explains why the fox in The Fox and the Hound is called ‘Tod’ instead of ‘Todd’. I enjoyed it, though there were a few words I believe I’ve never seen and perhaps still don’t understand. I suspect an average reader would find it slow going.

All in all, I would say it was interesting but not amazing.