Thursday, June 7, 2018

Reviews from the Greenwood: Clare A. Simmons on Stephen Basdeo's The Life and Legend of a Rebel Leader: Wat Tyler (2018)

Stephen Basdeo, The Life and Legend of a Rebel Leader: Wat Tyler. Barnsley: Pen and Sword History, 2018. ISBN: 978-1526709790. Hardcover £19.99; $34.95. 261 pp.

Reviewed by Clare A. Simmons
The Ohio State University

To this day, descriptions of the coat of arms of the City of London insist that the red sword or dagger in the first quarter of the cross of St. George is not the weapon that the Mayor of London William Walworth used to kill Wat Tyler at Smithfield. Although little historically is known of this key figure in the Great Revolt of 1381, Wat Tyler retains some presence in English collective memory. In The Life and Legend of a Rebel Leader: Wat Tyler Stephen Basdeo traces the afterlife of Wat Tyler as a symbol of popular resistance from the early modern era to the present. As the Preface states, this is not a work of medieval history, attempting to recover the “authentic” Wat Tyler, but a study of how the legend of Wat Tyler has been reworked and reused over the centuries in popular culture, visual art, literature, and polemical writing. As such it provides a useful case study demonstrating how a small supply of historical data can create a powerful cultural icon adaptable to different social and political contexts.

The first chapter covers the Great Revolt, which, as Basdeo notes, was not simply a matter of discontented “peasants” but a far more complex social movement; and what is known of Wat Tyler’s leadership of it. Basdeo does well in disambiguating Wat from other figures in the movement, including the shadowy Jack Straw, but his central interest is in the emergence of Wat Tyler as a folk hero. A story recurring frequently in later reimaginings depicts Wat as killing a tax-collector who attempted a sexual assault on his under-age daughter. As Basdeo remarks, this story is not found in the earliest accounts of the revolt, the first written version being found in the late Elizabethan chronicles of John Stow, where the name of the girl’s father is given as John Tiler or Tylar. It may be over-bold to declare this Stow’s “invention” (28), however, since by this time the revolt and Wat Tyler apparently had legendary status, Stow himself taking pains to refute the story about the arms of the City of London. Basdeo also passes over a detail recorded by some of the earliest chronicles that may have contributed to Wat’s status as a popular hero, namely, that after Walworth and his retainers had mortally wounded Wat, his companions took him to a nearby refuge; Walworth had him dragged out and beheaded without trial at Smithfield. Subsequent chapters move chronologically through representations of Wat Tyler. Chapter Two points out that the generally sympathetic depiction of the rebel leader (here named Jack Straw) and the teachings of John Ball in the 1593 play The Life and Death of Iacke Straw, A Notable Leader in England is “quite daring” at a time of heavy censorship (41). The few other depictions in the Early Modern period, though, tend to portray Wat and his fellow rebels as violating natural hierarchy and hence receiving their “Just Reward” (the title of one of the Civil War era retellings). Eighteenth-century versions generally took a similar approach; although perhaps some readers or audience members may have taken pleasure in seeing the status quo challenged, ultimately the fates of Wat Tyler and John Ball serve as a moral lesson to all tempted to join the “Mob” and disrupt the social order. Basdeo pinpoints the Romantic period as the time when Wat Tyler became an icon of rebellion against political oppression. Paintings by James Northcote and Jean Francis Rigaud, popularized through engravings reproduced in this volume, show a muscular, heroic Wat defending his rights and dying a martyr for the people. Wat Tyler became a locus for contrasting historical interpretation between Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke. Refreshingly, Robert Southey’s 1794 play, often mentioned as the embarrassing proof of Southey’s abandonment of the radical cause but seldom read in detail, is here analyzed for its content. Even though Southey found himself in an awkward position when radicals published his Wat Tyler in 1817, Basdeo with some justification sees Southey’s and Paine’s characterization of him as the turning point when Wat Tyler becomes “the symbol of a man who stood up to tyranny and fought for political rights” (101). 

The following chapter, on “Radicalism and Chartism,” provides significant examples of occasions when Wat Tyler’s name was invoked, either positively or negatively, as the British people campaigned for the right to vote. At a time of new interest in the medieval period, Wat Tyler becomes both in ballads and polemical writing a martyred hero, the Chartists representing William Walworth not as the man who saved London from brutish rebels, but “the man who murdered Wat Tyler” (118). The chapter ends with an analysis of Pierce Egan the Younger’s Wat Tyler; or, The Rebellion of 1381: in this novel the conception of history is indebted to Sir Walter Scott, yet “Anglo-Saxons” provide a means of a sympathetic representation of Chartist concerns. Egan’s novels were published at a penny an episode, as were most of the other Chartist-era novels discussed in Chapter Six; hardly surprisingly, authors of works featuring Robin Hood were also inclined to find another popular hero in Wat Tyler. Although the “Wat Tyler” novels will be unfamiliar to many readers, this chapter contains perhaps a little too much plot summary. All the same, it makes the valid point that in the later Victorian period, the historical novel became increasingly a moral teaching tool for young people, and the radical tinge to the depiction of the events of 1381 began to fade. Still, as recently as the 1980s, when the Thatcher government  replaced local property taxes with a “Community Tax” based on numbers, the public dubbed it a poll tax, protesters even adopting the slogan “AVENGE WAT TYLER” (169). The 1980s “poll tax” protests, like the Chartist movement of a century and a half earlier, demonstrate that the medieval past may be invoked not simply to maintain the status quo but also to claim civil rights.

This book should appeal to scholars of medievalism, to those interested in English folk-traditions, and to the general reader: the writing, although not always elegant, is free from jargon and historical contexts are explained simply but relevantly. For a modestly-priced volume, it contains an impressive number of well-analyzed illustrations and includes an appendix of ballads and other verse about Wat Tyler, bringing to life (or at least to the imagination) a man both historical and legendary.

Reviews from the Greenwood: Michael R. Evans on Rebecca A. Umland's Outlaw Heroes as Liminal Figures of Film and Television (2016)

Rebecca A. Umland, Outlaw Heroes as Liminal Figures of Film and Television. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2016. ISBN 978-0-7864-7988-7. Pbk, $35. 296 pp.

Review by Michael R. Evans
Delta College

Curiously, Rebecca Umland’s Outlaw Heroes has very little to say about perhaps the most famous outlaw hero in Anglophone culture, but will still be of interest to Robin Hood scholars. Umland, a professor of English at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, traces what she terms “liminal outlaw” figures through U.S. film and television, rooting these outlaws in Western European medieval archetypes. She argues that the liminal “outlaw hero”―standing on the edges of society, on the boundary between the law and lawlessness, between the civilized and the untamed―represents an alternative to the “official hero” figure. The “official hero” represents the law or expected codes of civilized behavior (and is often a lawman himself) but is unwilling or unable to enforce justice, whereas the outlaw hero pursues justice even if it means breaking the letter of the law. 

Umland roots the distinction between the “official” and “outlaw” hero in Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, where the official hero is Arthur, but the outlaw hero is Lancelot, who places his love for Guinevere ahead of his loyalty to his king and the conventions of the court, but still maintains the ideals of chivalry. Drawing on the terminology proposed by Beverly Kennedy, Umland argues that Arthur and the more obedient Round Table knights represent the figure of the “worshipful knight,” whereas Lancelot represents the “true knight”―the knight errant―the type for Umland’s liminal outlaw hero. She argues that Lancelot is a better medieval archetype of the “outlaw hero” than Robin Hood in that the former―like the heroes of American film and TV―is a loner, whose actions set him apart from the court, and who ultimately has to part from Guinevere, whereas Robin is at the center of a stable group of loyal fellow outlaws making him part of a community even if he is separated from society by his outlaw status.

Umland traces the evolution of the “Outlaw Hero” from classic Hollywood (Rick in Casablanca; Shane) via the heyday of film and TV westerns (the Lone Ranger, Paladin in Have Gun-Will Travel) to the loner vigilantes of the 1970s and ’80s (Dirty Harry, and Paul Kersey of the Death Wish franchise) to late-twentieth and early twenty-first century action films (the Rambo series and the Christopher Nolan-helmed Batman trilogy). Many of these TV shows and films make direct reference to medieval knighthood, such Paladin’s moniker and use of a chess knight motif on his holster, and Batman’s designation as a “Dark Knight.” Umland also shows how the Western helped form the figure of the outlaw hero in American culture, and how even after that genre’s decline many thrillers or action films were “urban westerns” that followed the genre’s conventions. While the outlaw hero evolved alongside changes in U.S. politics and society (from the clean-cut Lone Ranger to troubled, violent vigilantes), Umland identifies some common features that define the figure: he (all the figures under discussion are male) is set apart from the rest of society; he is often a wanderer; he has no long-term female love interest (for example, Rick Blaine famously does the right thing and helps Ilsa escape with the “official hero,” the freedom-fighter Victor Laszlo); he places justice above the letter of the law, defying the appointed legal authorities who are too corrupt or powerless to bring about justice, and often has an ambiguous relationship with the “official heroes” of law enforcement; and he has special weapons (like Arthur’s Excalibur) that signal his “election” as a hero (the Lone Ranger’s silver bullets, Harry Callahan’s Magnum .44, Batman’s gadgets, etc.).

Umland’s thesis is a useful one for analyzing outlaw figures, but I would dispute the extent to which Lancelot, rather than Robin Hood, is the medieval archetype for the outlaw hero. The trajectory of Lancelot’s story, and that of the fall of Camelot, is defined by his adulterous love for Guinevere, making it hard to see him as the model for the brooding, unattached male heroes of late-twentieth century action films (in Death Wish women are merely a plot device to be cruelly murdered or raped in order to motivate Kersey’s vigilante actions). Conversely, while Robin may be at the center of a homosocial network of loyal outlaw companions, he is very much a liminal figure; he is literally an outlaw, but was formerly a member of the establishment (at least in most Hollywood versions of the legend), and he frequently crosses the margins between the forest and settled society, as when he enters Nottingham to take part in the sheriff’s archery competition. Like Umland’s “outlaw hero,” he fights for justice even if it means breaking the law and defying the corrupt representatives of that law. Hollywood Robin Hood has his Maid Marian, but the Robin of the early ballads comes closer to the “outlaw hero” in lacking a female companion, and is even betrayed and killed by a woman. He has an ambivalent relationship with the “official hero,” the king whose deer he hunts, and dislikes court life to the extent of returning to the greenwood.  

While it would clearly be impossible for Umland to cover every TV series or film with an “outlaw hero” protagonist, it would have been interesting (given her focus on recent Batman movies) to see more treatment of adaptations of comic book superhero stories; is Superman a “liminal outlaw,” for example? And what about adaptations of comic books that question or subvert the “outlaw hero” figure, such as V for Vendetta, Watchmen, Deadpool, or the Robin-Hood-like Green Arrow? Likewise, the question of whether the “outlaw hero” is peculiar to Anglo-American culture, or whether it is a universal motif, could be explored with reference to non-western TV and film cultures. Umland points out how Death Wish 4’s plot, where Kersey sets two gangs against one another in order to destroy them both, is based on that of A Fistful of Dollars, but makes no mention of the latter film’s debt to Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. Some of the detailed plot summaries in the book slow the argument, as do some unnecessary details, such as Michael Winner’s exact date of birth, or the distance between Bangkok and Peshawar. There are also errors which may not detract from Umland’s arguments, but are disconcerting for the reader nonetheless (Korea and Afghanistan are not in South East Asia, and there is no such language as “Moroccan”).

Umland’s work may not be at the top of a Robin Hood scholar’s reading list, given her focus on Lancelot rather than Robin as the archetypal “outlaw hero.” It is, nonetheless, a useful addition to the scholarly literature on the outlaw figure in western popular culture.

Reviews from the Greenwood: Amy Brown on Jonathan Fruoco's Les Faits et Gestes de Robin des Bois (2017)

Jonathan Fruoco, ed. and trans., Les Faits et Gestes de Robin des Bois: Poèmes, Ballades et Saynètes. Collection Moyen Âge européen. Grenoble: UGA éditions, 2017. ISBN: 9782377470136. Paperback, 24.90. 374 pp.

   Reviewed by Amy Brown
University of Geneva

This collection is an unusual phenomenon: an edition of Middle English texts, presented in parrallel with a modern French translation, along with an introduction and editorial apparatus in French. Those of us who work with medieval French will know that the reverse (Old or Middle French text with modern English translation) is relatively common. Medieval English texts, however, are rarely edited or translated with francophone readers in mind. Fruoco’s Faites et Gestes de Robin des Bois will find as its widest audience those who will use it as a teaching text, and one of particular interest to those who, like myself, teach pre-modern English texts to Francophone students. The selection of early Robin Hood texts is similar to that of the TEAMS Middle English Texts Series edition Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales (Knight & Ohlgren, 1997; rev. 2001), which I have been using as my class textbook this semester. Fruoco’s edition is divided into three sections: the late medieval balads, beginning with the Geste of Robin Hood; a selection of play texts, beginning with a reconstruction of Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham based on that of Manly (1887) and Greg (1908); and finally selected later ballads, beginning with Robin Hood and Little John.

Fruoco’s edition does provide fewer texts than the TEAMS edition, devoting its space instead to the parrallel modern French translation. This has some disadvantages, and in my classes in particular I would supplement with the chronicle texts from the TEAMS edition, but the Fruoco edition has other advantages. The introduction provides an excellent, thorough but not over-burdened overview of the texts, the history of the Robin Hood tradition, and some of the key critical concepts (one section asks whether to consider the early texts to be poems or ballads, and why that matters). The individual textual introductions provide crucial editorial history and justifications for the inclusion of each text in the volume, and the bibliography is both extensive and up-to-date. All of these features in themselves make the book an attractive prospect as a teaching tool, particularly ifas was my case semesteryou begin a seminar using Robin Hood texts as a first introduction to Middle English language and literature. Francophone students who are able to access the editiorial apparatus in their native language may find the encounter with Middle English less intimidating, and have more time and energy to spend on engaging with the texts themselves.

For the most part, the editorial choices Fruoco makes follow those of Dobson and Taylor (1976), including what is to my mind a somewhat erratic approach to editorial emendations. In Robin Hood and the Monk, for instance, corruption in the manuscript is presented with minimal editorial intervention, but elsewhere, speculated absent lines from stanzas which have not been damaged are added. In Fruoco’s edition, which is numbered by stanza rather than line, the lacuna in the manuscript occurs at stanza thirty, which consists of two corrupt lines. Following Dobson and Taylor, Fruoco gives a minimally reconstructed reading, “Robyn […] church […] ran, / tro out hem everilkon”, and a brief footnote explaining that the lines are nearly illegible and the following stanzas lost. In comparison, Knight and Olhgren’s edition of the same text has the advantage of providing details of other editor’s reconstructions, and evidence from examination of the manuscript under ultraviolent light. 

In contrast to the minimal intervention approach to the lacuna, a rather more speculative intervention has been retained at stanza thirty-six, where the manuscript reading is only two lines, ‘“And I mete hym,’ seid Lutil John / We will go, but we too.’” Fruoco presents Dobson and Taylor’s reconstruction, which inverts the lines and adds two more, one before and one after, so that the stanza becomes a discussion between Little John and Much the Miller’s son (who otherwise appears without introduction at stanza thirty-eight). Fruoco’s explanatory footnote here notes that Knight and Ohlgren integrate the two lines in question into the preceding stanza, and indicates a preference for Dobson and Taylor’s reconstruction on the grounds that it introduces Much into the narrative. This is certainly a choice which produces a more straightforward translation: the necessary explanation which would have to be footnoted to stanza thirty-eight to explain Much’s involvement would be more off-putting to the non-specialist reader. However, I find the reconstruction unconvincing as an editorial intervention in itself. As a consequence of the choice to so closely follow Dobson and Taylor, the strength of this edition lies very much in the resource of its translation and apparatus for Francophone readers, rather than as an original addition to the editorial history of these texts.
I would recommend this book to anyone wanting to introduce medieval English literature to high school Francophone classes, or to university students who are not expected to develop reading facility in Middle English. The French translation makes the text accessible to students who are not English literature majorsI can see this text being useful in literatture comparée classes. For classes where close analytical engagement with the original is expected, the fact that Fruoco’s translation is in prose means it is clear and direct, and thus a useful guide where the original language is complex or abstruse. Working through the passages that my students found most difficult in the early ballads, I found Fruoco’s translation to be sufficiently close to the original as to provide help with understanding the structure as well as the content. 

Finally, UGA Editions indicate an intended popular as well as academic audience. Although, as I noted above, facing-text editions of medieval English works with modern French translations are more scarce than the reverse, Les Faits et Gestes joins the company of Émile Pons (1946) Sire Gauvain et le Chevalier Verte, and the more recently published André Crépin, Beowulf (2007). The Lettres Gothiques series, a subset of Hachette’s Livre de Poche line, presents facing-page translations of medieval texts from many languages (including Crépin’s Beowulf): Fruoco’s Les Faits et Gestes is a little more expensive, but would appeal to a similiar reading public. The inclusion of the early modern dramatic texts may be of particular interest to anyone wishing to bring English medieval and early modern literature alive in performance for Francophone audiences.

Crépin, André, ed. and trans. Beowulf. Paris: Librarie Générale Française, 2007.
Dobson, R. B., and J. Taylor, eds.: Rymes of Robin Hood: An Introduction to the English Outlaw (Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh University Press, 1976)
Greg, W. W., ed. “Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham, A Dramatic Fragment.” In Collections Part II. The Malone Society. Vol. 1., 120-24.  Oxford, 1908.
Knight, Stephen, and Thomas H. Ohlgren, ed.: Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales. 2nd ed. TEAMS Middle English Texts Series. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000.
Manly, J. M., ed. Specimens of the Pre-Shakespearean Drama. Vol. 1. Boston: Ginn and Company, 1897.
Pons, Émile, ed. and trans. Sire Gauvain et le Chevalier Verte. Paris: Éditions Montaigne, 1946.