Review: Stephen Knight, Reading Robin Hood: Content, Form and Reception in the Outlaw Myth
Reviewed by James Howard
The Georgia Institute of Technology
Stephen Knight, Reading Robin Hood: Content, Form and Reception in the Outlaw Myth, Manchester Medieval Literature and Culture (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2015). 296 pp. Hardback. ISBN: 978-0-7190-9526-9. £70.00; $100.00
In Reading Robin Hood: Content, Form and Reception in the Outlaw Myth, Stephen Knight provides both an accessible introduction to studying Robin Hood and also a comprehensive vision of how Robin Hood studies continues to develop as a field.
In form, the book is organized into clusters of chapters on broad trends in the outlaw myth, with the entire book attempting to describe what the Robin Hood corpus is. There is no one answer. Knight notes in both the first and the last chapter the inadequacy of conventional notions of canon, source text, or literary influence in describing connections between Robin Hood texts. Robin Hood studies has no First Folio or no Le Morte Darthur, texts that have centered criticism in Shakespearean or Malorian. Instead, Knight uses the concept of the rhizome from the French theorists Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. A rhizomatic form of organization is not a genealogy or family tree. Rather than operating hierarchically from a series of source texts, a rhizome proceeds linearly between dense clusters of roots.
From these rhizomatic nodes Knight is able to specify strands that form the middle chapters of his book, which focus on the relationship between orality and literacy, strands of Scottish nationalism, the broadside ballad, the Romantic period and the longer nineteenth century, and Maid Marian. This rather eclectic-sounding list comes together because, despite their distinct focuses, each chapter is comprehensive enough to give a compelling slice of the Robin Hood corpus. Reading through them gives even a reader unexperienced in Robin Hood texts footholds in the material. For the remainder of the review, I will describe some of these chapters in detail, discuss an example of larger strands that emerge from Knight’s individual rhizomes, and lastly attend to the framework Knight uses to successfully merge these pieces together.
Chapter One, “Interfacing Oralcy and Literacy: The Case of Robin Hood,” begins with a description of the assumptions that cluster around orality and literacy, including the persistent notion (that is grounded within the scholarship of Walter Ong and others) that orality precedes any written tradition. With Robin Hood, Knight acknowledges that the evidence is not there to establish whether Robin Hood originated from an ur-text or an ur-spoken-word. Instead, he establishes a dialectical approach that assumes both oral and written modes as possible origins (16). As evidence, Knight brings forth early references to singing and reading Robin Hood, and then introduces and dismisses the idea that ballads always represent survivals from a fifteenth- or fourteenth-century oral tradition. Instead, a symbiotic relationship appears in early modern Robin Hood ballads: printing and writing provided resources for performance in ballads like “Robin Hood and the Butcher,” and at the same time these post-medieval poems retain in writing the sharp rhymes of a possible oral tradition, as seen in “Robin Hood and the Bride” (26-7). The chapter ends with Knight applying the symbiotic dynamic of literacy and orality closer to the present and considering the intersection of music and Robin Hood films.
This approach−intersecting different threads of criticism and texts from different periods to show how various influences may work together on the tradition−is pursued in later chapters, for instance when Knight approaches the content and form of the Scottish Robin Hood. Chapter Two, “Rabbie Hood: The Development of the English Outlaw Myth in Scotland,” studies the early and curious history of the Scottish Robin Hood, including its disappearance behind the English Locksley of the Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott.
“Robin Fitz Warren: The Formation of The Gest of Robin Hood,” Chapter Three, takes as its center a source study of key components of the fifteenth-century poem’s narrative, specifying them and connecting them either to late medieval sub-chivalric romances, such as Gamelyn, or to the outlaw romance Fouke le Fitz Waryn, which is preserved in an Anglo-Norman prose account. Here and in the next chapter on broadside ballads (“Revisiting the Broadside Ballads”), Knight does the most research into prior sources for late medieval and early modern material. Something in his approach is also reminiscent of Helen Cooper’s approach in The English Romance in Time (2004), especially in Knight’s tabulation of features found in early Robin Hood materials, including the Gest (62). Like Cooper, Knight is particularly interested in tracing threads in the Gest and in the ballads as they transgress conventional notions of form and historical time. His ballad chapter could be good reading in any undergraduate course that addresses the ballad, for it breaks down key literary concepts and social modes of existence (outlawry, gentry) across time periods.
“Romantic Robin Hood” and “Robin Hood and Nineteenth-Century Fiction” (Chapters Five and Six), each approach the nineteenth-century medievalist revival of Robin Hood. “Romantic Robin Hood” describes the wide-ranging politics, natural masculinity, and nationalism of Robin Hood as he proceeds from Joseph Ritson’s 1795 collection of Robin Hood ballads; through Lord Byron’s placement near Sherwood forest; onward through John Keats’, John Hamilton Reynolds’, and Leigh Hunt’s poetry; and then back again through similar-themed prose treatments beginning with Thomas Love Peacock’s Maid Marian (1822). Knight argues that Peacock’s novel, which was published after Ivanhoe but whose composition was begun before it, further demonstrates the interests in politics and nature that emerge in the poetry of the period: “Maid Marian can be seen as the first coherent and extended statement of the Romantic Robin Hood, recognizing both the natural and sensual aspects of that interpretation and also political elements that only recent research has fully understood” (126-127). The companion chapter then takes on the persistence of these and related images of Robin Hood as they percolate through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth-century treatments of writer-illustrators like Howard Pyle.
“The Making and Re-making of Maid Marian,” Chapter Seven, represents a shift in the study as Knight considers the gender politics of the Maid Marian figure throughout the entire history of the Robin Hood myth. She appears in the early pastourelle tradition only to disappear from almost all of the ballads and to reappear as a figure with some agency in Peacock’s novel and thereafter. Knight’s take is bleak: even to the present, adaptations of Maid Marian preserve her as a figure sometimes possessing agency while also never resisting the ultimate enclosure of her authority under Robin Hood.
When Knight returns to discussing the rhizomatic tendencies of the Robin Hood tradition in the last chapter, he creates a compelling reflection on not only the status of these texts, but also on his teaching career and Robin Hood studies itself, a field that owes its success to his efforts. As a scholar who has hitherto primarily encountered Stephen Knight’s scholarship on Arthurian texts, his description of trying to form a course on Robin Hood may sound familiar to anyone who has pitched a “Special Topics” class on material they think should receive special attention. He makes the interdisciplinary, wide-ranging secondary work on Robin Hood sound like an exhilarating and viable alternative to the more conventional avenues of traditional scholarly work. In an academic market that necessitates scholars legitimizing themselves by any means necessary, Knight provides a compelling if optimistic model for how Robin Hood studies has legitimized itself and may continue to do so.
One final aside: when I finished this book on my flight, I found in the on-flight magazine for Delta this headline: “Robin Hood on a Surfboard.” (See left.) The comparison is superficial, but I was happy to see that Robin Hood’s rhizomes continue to fly widely.