Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Two Early Ballad Tales of Robin Hood

The story of Robin Hood is remarkable for its longevity. The films and television shows based on the medieval outlaw have proliferated to the present day, not to mention such phenomena as the Robin Hood Foundation (whose goal is to “end poverty in New York”), Robinhood (a “zero-commission stock broker”), the Robin Hood Brewing Company, and the like. These latter-day uses of his name only emphasize the unsurprising fact that the meanings of stories about him have varied over the years.

Some of those that might appear to be firmly rooted in history are in fact of fairly recent origin. For instance, the association of Robin Hood with the virtuous King Richard against the villainous John and with the Saxon nobility who resent domination by tyrannical Norman lords gained currency only with Scott’s immensely popular Ivanhoe (1820). [1] Late versions often credit him with noble birth (such as the 17th century broadside of “Robin Hood and Maid Marian” which calls Robin the Earl of Huntington), though the earlier texts regularly exhibit hostility to the gentry. Two of the earliest ballad tales, “Robin Hood and the Monk” and “A Gest of Robyn Hode,” both extant in manuscripts dated to the mid-fifteenth century but recording older songs, suggest an archaic background of myth, ritual, and magic against which complaints arise against the wealthy aristocracy and clergy.

The stories are, like all folk tales, first of all entertainment. They regularly feature suspense and reversals while, in the popular manner, always ending in the defeat of the bad guys. Robin’s role as a trickster figure resembles countless figures worldwide. Disney was not only complying with “funny animals” conventions when he portrayed Robin Hood as a fox in his 1973 film. Readers had long noticed similarities between the tales of Renard and those of Robin Hood. The most popular trickster figure of the Middle Ages is particularly appropriate for the subversive elements of Robin Hood’s story. As an outlaw guile and cunning are essential to his cause. Disguise and trickery play a markedly greater role than force. In “Robin Hood and the Monk,” Robin behaves rather churlishly toward Little John, refusing to pay a bet which he had himself proposed. When he is captured after attending mass alone, [2] his party manages to free their leader by impersonating the monk and page (whom they had killed) before the king and then acting as the king’s emissaries toward the sheriff. In “A Gest of Robin Hood” the entire tone is light-hearted (in spite of deaths) and several characters employ subterfuges. Robin anticipates a victim as though he were awaiting a dinner guest. (“Gest,” 24) Little John manages to find service with the sheriff and later the king himself (named as Edward) dresses as a monk to locate the band of thieves and finds himself striking Robin after besting him at archery.

Robin Hood, like Renard, provided a vehicle for social protest. In many ways he is a prime example of what Hobsbawn called “social bandits.” [3] The “Gest” concludes with the lines “For he was a good outlawe,/And dyde pore men moch god.” (1823-4) He will steal neither from yeomen nor men who have little nor from any company that includes women. He exempts as well small farmers and even knights and squires should they be “gode felawe[s].” (“Gest,” 53, 973, 39-40, 51, 55-6) Indeed, he will give or lend money to those in need. An early 15th century clerical author refers to him as “much praised," [4] yet various judicial records use his name to indicate a dangerous miscreant or a murderer. He enumerates his local foes as “bisshoppes” and “archebishoppes,” as well as “the hye sherif of Notyingham.” ( “Gest” 56, 58)

The early ballads assume a very specific social focus. Their authors and presumably their audiences identify as yeomen, not as peasants or bourgeois. Though “yeoman” was an elastic term in the fifteenth century [5], Robin’s animus against the wealthy is evident. He demands payment from the knight (“Gest” 148) yet gives him money when he finds him poor. His sympathy multiplies when it turns out that the knight has been impoverished by a “ryche abbot.” (215) In “Monk” Robin is fingered by a “grete-hedid [i.e. arrogant] munke” (75) who later is decapitated unceremoniously in the safety of the greenwood. (203)

Robin Hood is, however, very conventional in his piety and in his loyalty to the crown. He endows a chapel to Mary Magdelene and goes on pilgrimage. (“Gest,” 1757, 1767) In “Monk” he is described as one who “has servyd Oure Lady many a day,” (133) and he is apprehended only because he insists on attending Mass (and refusing to take an adequate company). In the “Gest” he is said to attend mass daily (32) and to be especially devoted to Mary. (35) The Marian emphasis acquires an edge in “Gest” however, when he indulges in considerable play over the concept that the loan he made to the poor knight has been cosigned by the Virgin Mary, entitling him to collect the purse from any passing monk. (“Gest,” 259, 940) Surely in his era his religiosity, if not his witty (seemingly cynical) elaboration of it, would be a natural concomitant with virtue in general.

The Robin Hood texts are meant for a popular audience (the story-teller addresses his listeners on occasion), Robin has some courtly characteristics, though these early poems have no love interest. “Robyn coud his courteysy.” (1539) In certain ways he follows the rules of his culture more scrupulously than do his antagonists. He is captured in “Monk” only because his enemies ignored the tradition of sanctuary within a church (83-86), while the Sheriff in the “Gest” is said to violate such civilized rules as those governing hospitality (1186).

In spite of the fact that he identified as a “traytur” (“Monk,” 91) He regularly expresses his obedience to the nation’s leader and falls to his knees when he recognizes the king. (“Gest,” 1620) Indeed, he reconciles with the crown and is pardoned. Declaring loyalty to his sovereign, he lives for a short while in town. The king even decides he would like some outfits of Lincoln green for his own men. (“1669 ff.) After a time he notices he is spending money and his archery skills are in decline. (1741) Given a week away, he does not ever return and apparently lives in the forest for twenty-two years. It is as though his essential wildness was not possible to contain for more than a short while.

The archaic mythic layer of the Robin Hood stories is signaled by the emphasis on the wild forest setting which acquires an almost numinous quality in the tales. Robin is clearly associated with “green man” or “wild man of the woods.” [6] The “Monk” begins “In somer, when the shawes be sheyne,” and the date turns out to be Whitsun or Pentecost, an important springtime holiday for the Middle Ages closely paralleling the pagan Beltane, which included a fair, festivals, dancing, and the rule of a King and Queen of the May. [7] These figures, themselves derived from more ancient pagan deities and among the clearest vestiges of pre-Christian survivals were replaced in many villages by Robin Hood and Maid Marian. [8] The forest’s green, adopted by the band of thieves for their costume (Lincoln green, produced from woad and weld [9]) is mentioned repeatedly in an almost incantatory refrain. Surely the passage in which Robin is called a green “ryght fayre harte,” a “mayster-herte” (“Gest,” 738, 752) sounds like a reference to a theriomorphic deity obscured by time. Since Thomas Wright’s speculations in early Victorian essays, Robin Hood has been linked to the Celtic Cernunnos, the Greek Pan, even the Germanic Odin, while to Margaret Murray he was the high priest of a witches’ coven. [10] The cliché of the “merry men” was still novel in the fifteenth century. Flush with the joy of nature and the reverdie of the springtime Robin’s men are lifted by a sort semi-divine afflatus.

Hit befel on Whitson
Erly in a May mornyng,
The son up feyre can shyne,
And the briddis mery can syng.

"This is a mery mornyng," seid Litull John,
"Be Hym that dyed on tre;
A more mery man then I am one
Lyves not in Cristianté.
“Monk,” 9-16

Surely this joyful and sensual impression of the gathering energies of the organic world about them underlies the nature introductions of a thousand medieval poems. Telling tales of such an inspiriting flush of élan vital doubtless acted as a sort of mild recreational sympathetic magic for the medieval audience.
Though Robin Hood was yet to acquire a lover or an aristocratic pedigree, these early texts provide powerful examples of the character’s potential for expressing social discontent against the rich and criticism of the religious hierarchy not long after the era of the Peasant’s Revolt and of Wyclif. Much of the brooding, if belated, numinous glow the ancients saw in the natural world survives in these lively and colloquial tales.

1. The dating to Richard’s realm derives from William Stukeley, the eighteenth century divine and antiquary who studied Stonehenge so long he began to fancy himself a druid. Scott may also have been influenced by the Scots role in the United Kingdom (Union was hardly more than a hundred years earlier and the battle of Colloden less than that). Was it a similar sympathy for the underdog that was expressed in Ivanhoe’s highly sympathetic depiction of the Jews Isaac of York and his daughter Rebecca?

2. Robin was alone because he insisted on entering town accompanied only by Little John who left him after his leader churlishly refused to pay a bet he had proposed and lost. The hero is not portrayed as a perfect valorous and powerful fighter. His lapses in judgment often generate action and early ballads show him defeated in scuffles with random tradesmen and acting unfairly to his own followers.

3. See Eric Hobsbawm Primitive Rebels 1959 and Bandits 1969. In the introduction of the former Hobsbawm refers to “the classic Robin Hood who was and is essentially a peasant rebelling against landlords, usurers, and other representatives of what Thomas More called ‘the conspiracy of the rich.’” (page 4)

4. Andrew of Wyntoun's Orygynale Chronicle says they were “commendit gud.”
5. Deriving from the simple expression “young man,” the term originally meant an attendant on a nobleman. According to the OED, it came to be used for a “mediocre” individual, neither aristocracy nor peasant, but it was not commonly used for the bourgeois residents of cities engaged in trade or professions. I am reminded of the American phenomenon in which virtually everyone considers him or herself “middle-class.”
6. See Lady Raglan’s article in The Folklore Journal coined the term "Green Man" in her March 1939 article "The Green Man in Church Architecture"(no. 50, pages 45–57). A related figure is the “jack of the green” of May day festivities.

7. Whitsuntide was one of three week-long holidays for medieval peasants. Whit Monday continues to be a holiday in Franced, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, and many other countries, as it was until 1967 in the U.K., 1973 in Ireland, and 2004 in Sweden.

8. Marian is unmentioned in the early texts. It seems clear that she was imported through the influence of Adam de la Halle’s late thirteenth century Jeu de Robin and Marion though the play is a dramatized pastourelle in which Robin is simply a shepherd. The coincidence of the name must have been irresistible, though Robin was sometimes used as a generic male name as a modern American might use Joe or Mac.

9. The color was no literary fancy. In Spenser’s Faerie Queene a “woodman” is described as "clad/ Of Lincolne Greene, belay'd with silver lace." (VI, 2, stanza 5)
10. See Essays on Subjects Connected with Literature, Popular Superstitions, and the History of England (1846). Wright had published on the topic of Robin Hood as early as 1837. Margaret Murray’s argument for Robin as god and priest is included in The God of the Witches (1937).

Notes on Recent Reading 22 [Waugh, Belloc, Okakura]

When the Going Was Good [Waugh]

I am generally intolerant of abridgments, but I can recommend this volume, made of five long continuous excerpts from the four travel books Waugh wrote between 1929 and 1935. Waugh, whose portrait by Henry Lamb elegantly if casually dressed with a pipe and a drink, insouciantly held, manages in these works of his youth to alternate comedic and satiric episodes reminiscent of Mark Twain with anecdotes detailing the sort of weird disoriented experience the traveler often encounters. He is, in these latter moments, kin to Robert Byron and Bruce Chatwin and, I would venture, a late and dry descendent of Smollett’s “sentimental” traveler.

He’s just fine on Istanbul and Cairo, but the book excels in the tropical boondocks. Describing his visits to British Guiana and in “Abyssinia,” where Waugh attended first for Haile Selassie’s coronation and later reported on the Italian invasion, he provides an excellent report of both the discomforts he underwent from climate and insects and the total dysfunction of government and, indeed, most aspects of life. He relays accurately the sensations of the outsider passing through, but, at the same time, these stories plant a suspicion that one’s own world might be at bottom little different than these remote places.

If Waugh’s own vision was tinged with shadow, this dark side was emphasized by the final piece reporting on the coming of Italian fascism to a hapless African state and the devastating world-wide war that followed. His calling these pre-war books When the Going Was Good reflects not just a nostalgia for his younger days, but also a sense that the wholesale destruction from years of war, accented by the unprecedented horrors of Auschwitz and Hiroshima, had aged not just the author but the world as a whole which never could be the same again.

The Road to Rome (Belloc)

Belloc’s account of his pilgrimage on foot from Lorraine to Rome is clever, imaginative, and provocative. The book is embellished with his landscape drawings (he says he cannot draw people and includes these sketches for “fun”). A spirited stylist and a wit, he is perfectly willing to sound as often uncharitable or even harsh as he is sympathetic and generous-spirited. Though the Latin tags and religious musing had their own appeal, I read the book as a road chronicle, thinking of Jack London and Jack Kerouac as Belloc describes his disreputable appearance from days of walking and sometimes sleeping rough. His contemptuous dismissal of socialist and anarchist ideas recalled to me his fondness for fascism (though he had a peculiar variant of his own in Distributism as Pound did in Social Credit)and his easy expression of the most commonplace and thoughtless anti-Semitism. These interfered with my own appreciation no more than his odd and absolute notions of Catholicism, to him definitive of European culture. He runs the risk of all more or less accurate travel journal of dry patches (that need not correspond at all to what seemed tiresome in lived experience). Indeed he comments on the problem more than once in amusing dialogues between auctor and lector.

The Ideals of the East (Okakura)

Kakuzo Okakura played a critical role in mediated cultural relations between the Far East and the West a hundred years ago. His Book of Tea popularized Buddhist and Taoist thought in the U.S. and Europe. This exponent of Asian art was himself profoundly bicultural. After attending mission schools, he was trained by Ernest Fenellosa (who meant so much to Pound) at Tokyo Imperial University. He wrote his most significant work in in English and, after founding the Japan Art Institute, headed the Asian arts division of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Associated with Heidegger, Tagore, Vivekenanda and other non-Japanese, he sought to define Asian art in broadest and most ambitious view.

Though we are all familiar with the traditional presentation of European art that traces concepts and practices from origins in Greece and Rome through to the present, I think I have never before read a book that sought to present Asian culture as a whole from India to Japan. While Okakura’s book may be seen as an early attempt to explain Asia to the Occident, it is also an assertive statement of national pride. Okakura subtitles his work “with Special Reference to the Art of Japan,” and his nationalism along with his bias toward ethnic explanations seem to arise from the recent successes of the Japanese military against the Russians and to point ominously forward to the militarists who were to invade China and bomb Pearl Harbor a few decades after this 1904 work. This tendency is heightened in his The Awakening of Japan a few years later. It is also possible read these ideas backward to the influence of Hippolyte Taine and his “race, milieu, moment.”

Axiology and Subjectivity

Should any reader turn to this page expecting a philosophical discussion, I wish to declare at the outset that I am not competent to paraphrase leading ideas in axiology, far less to comment on them or to criticize. Indeed, that inability is in a way my point, for I wish to suggest that value of all sorts is, like other aspects of reality, always and inevitably subjective, though that fact does not mean that value judgments are arbitrary or without significance.

In pragmatic decision-making, some, however, may seen hardly disputable: if one wishes to turn a screw, a screwdriver is good, because it does the job efficiently; a city map is good if one wishes to find the train station; food is good since it is required for life. Yet even these include an implied subjectivity. One cannot assume that turning the screw is desirable, or finding the train, or even continuing to live. Each of these consequences is a concrete result. When no such observable cause and effect is involved as in theoretical ethics and even more so in aesthetics, a demonstration of value becomes exceedingly obscure.

If a critic prefers the novels of Samuel Richardson to those of Henry Fielding (as Leavis does), he may provide ample reasoning and bolster his arguments with supporting evidence from the books in question, yet he cannot, like a scientist, present a compelling “objective” case. Literature and criticism have histories, to be sure, yet it is difficult to conceive of those histories as recording incremental progress over the centuries. The same might be said for all aesthetic judgments. To one individual opera provides the most moving and powerful experience of beauty while another may react only with snores in the manner of George McManus’s comic strip character Jiggs.

Indeed the situation is no different with all acknowledged matters of taste. Not only art, but food, clothing, style in general is highly subjective. Is Greek retsina wine tasty? Are tattoos becoming? Is a huge SUV beautiful? There is no reasonable way to convince either opponents or proponents to change their attitudes.

While some would be willing to concede that aesthetic judgments are not subject to proof, many would consider moral and ethical decisions a different matter. Most commonly, due to religious teachings which specifically resist rational investigation, requiring instead faith, people of various traditions claim an absolute, “revealed” certainty in their ethical precepts. Here is a clear case of the power of subjectivity. For internal intuitive reasons that cannot be conveyed to an unbeliever, the faithful accept dogmatic teachings.

The fact is that, contrary to the claims of some religionists, an entirely adequate system of morality can be elaborated from a simple principle of self-interest. By a secular application of the Golden Rule the entire legal code can be constituted. But my own preference to shrink from theft in order not to worry about my neighbor’s thieving from me, while compelling in practical terms to govern my behavior, is not in fact universal. A considerable share of people do, in fact, steal. Plenty of medieval knights went campaigning for booty. Big businessmen steal from us all while thinking they are exemplary and “successful.” Further, these last examples point out the fact that individuals, ages, and cultures may have significant differences in their definition of theft. Even such an apparently self-evident and natural conclusion as the evil of slavery was never recognized by Moses, Plato, Aristotle, or Christ.

Furthermore, ethics is clearly a matter between human beings, a social issue, not one related to Ultimate Reality in any way. The cosmos is indifferent to my conduct and any view that looks beyond the human sphere will see that morality does not exist in the Milky Way, only magnificent grandeur. The regulation of human behavior, though a critical element in making life livable, is wholly functional; it exists to accomplish a purpose and not for its own sake.

Yet, if I might be considered in some ways to display “good behavior,” my motive is not to protect myself. In fact my actions are most generally shaped by a desire to look good if only in my own eyes. Base behavior is ugly; to act in a degraded fashion diminishes oneself. Generous-hearted and compassionate behavior, on the other hand, is beautiful; to act nobly is to become more comely. With eyes open to the phantasmagoria of this world, I selfishly seek to spend my time in the best possible way, keeping myself healthy, learning constantly, bathing in art, trying to deal sympathetically and magnanimously with the people I encounter. And for no other reason than that it feels right to me, it seems the more beautiful choice. I feel as though I react spontaneously and naturally to each choice. While I am quite aware that I have been taught a code of moral response to various situations, I nonetheless experience each decision as a fresh mover expressing my nature. Awareness of my earlier training does not eliminate or invalidate it, though I experience my moral, aesthetic, and culinary decisions as expressing myself, not replicating a formula.

This should be hardly surprising. It is impossible to escape the subjectivity of our experience of reality. The images on my retina are transformed by strange and elaborate codes translating the activities of all those sub-atomic particles hovering in my office and looking so settled and inert as desks and books and rugs. It means nothing to ask what is real when one’s human consciousness cannot escape setting the parameters of the investigation.

So we muddle on, making constant value judgments, almost always without conscious consideration, making fallible predictions, feeling our way through the darkness of our general ignorance. If one acquits oneself well, the reward must be in the performance, a graceful turn, a beneficent influence, a settled sense of self at day’s end. Just as some people define themselves through their postings of products on Pinterest, others may turn to Homer, but who is to say which is “best”? We can object if a stranger treads on our toes, but we cannot prescribe a code of morality as though it had absolute value.

In this way ethical, gastronomic, and aesthetic decisions have much in common. Should a constellation formed of caritas and Beaujolais and Charlie Parker, one evening at a dinner party, cross that of mind-your-own-business and IPAs and Verdi, the two might cross-fertilize like the joyful reshuffling of genes or the vast drifting of galaxies and produce wholly new configurations.