Saturday, 27 October 2012

Love in the Forest: Marian and Robin

This unpublished paper was written for a talk at the University of Bath in about 2003 and has been updated since then as more material has appeared, none of it making major changes to the somewhat elusive patterns of forest feeling explored here


A the end of the 1991 film Robin Hood, not the stodgy Kevin Costner vehicle but the much more interesting one starring Patrick Bergin and Uma Thurman as two decidedly feisty forest dwellers, they marry with all the surroundings of a May festival – procession, music, carnival, licence, merriment, sexuality. This is decidedly heterosexual Robin Hood, with Thurman in one of her early roles exercising from the very beginning a consciously desiring gaze on the handsome form of the hero.

It seems authoritative. So much so that it is one of the things most firmly parodied by Mel Brooks in Robin Hood, Men in Tights: there a Barbie Doll Marian, first seen in a bubble bath, may just lurve her Robin but he, in the diminutive form of Cary Elwes, and can never find the key to her chastity belt – and when he finally does, it doesn’t fit.

And indeed the heterosexual romance of Thurman and Bergin doesn’t fit the pattern of the Robin Hood story over the years. Various sorts of love are found in the forest, some of them rather obscure and verging on hate, and the Robin-Marian relationship is one of the foci of change that make the tradition of the noble outlaw so interesting, and so revealing, as it holds the attention of a mass audience over more than six centuries – holding that attention of course largely through those many changes.

What might be the differences between the very early (i.e. late medieval) tradition and the end of the 1991 film ? One, which I won’t press much here, but is important to me as a nit-picking scholar, is that the Robin Hood tradition is not associated with May Day, that time of fertility ritual. It is associated with late May, Whitsuntide, and it’s a celebration of achieved fertility, of the forest in summer, when the May is white with blossom – hence Whit or White Sunday.

A clear marker of that difference is that the early Robin Hood ballads, preserved from the later fifteenth century do not include Marian at all, or indeed any other central female figure – no human at least – but they start with a clear idea of love. It’s love of nature: the earliest of all Robin’s loves. `Robin Hood and the Monk’ starts with a stanza that, in varied form, reverberates through all the early  ballads.

                        In summer when the shawes be sheyne,
                        And leves be large and long
                        Hit is ful mery in feyre foreste
                        To here the foulys song 
                                    `Robin Hood and the Monk’, 1-4

The shawes are sheyne, meaning the groves are bright; and the leaves are large and long – spring is past. The language is quite erotic, close to that of love lyric where the lady will be sheen, her arms and fingers will be long, her spirit large, meaning generous; she is everything that is fair and the lover is `ful mery’ to think of her; and bird song is a constant accompaniment to his love. But in the ballads there is no love object, no Marian in the forest: it is the forest itself that Robin and his men admire, shelter in, return to: that alone is the encompassing and in many ways feminine force.

Robin does have a female object of adoration. It’s the Virgin Mary: his urge to worship her at mass in Nottingham gets him into trouble, but thinking of her when he is in a tough fight will help him too, as in `Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne’ – just as the thought of his love of Guinevere can inspire Lancelot in a difficult battle.

Nature and a saint seem plenty to love in the Robin Hood ballad world without women. Maybe there is more. The men are clearly close to each other, and Little John is like an equal partner in the early texts than when later on he becomes more a strong but stupid assistant, Obelix to Robin’s Asterix. Robin and John re a sort of couple – and interestingly John always swears by the masculine Christ where Robin always swears by the feminine Mary. Indeed in the two earliest lyrics there seems something like a domestic difference as John refuses to do what Robin asks him to: they argue, fight and separate. Just like real life.

A few years ago there was a mild media flurry about the possibility of Robin Hood being gay. It was August, the silly season in the media – and also Robin Hood time, as the lord of summer. Nothing I have ever suggested has been remotely as interesting to the media: this was the first and only time I was interviewed by both Der Spiegel and the South China News. My point was not that Robin was a closet gay, but that the Robin Hood texts include the values often associated with the gay community – a sense of mutual exclusion, an awareness of social disapproval, even oppression: but also merriment and wit and same-sex solidarity and loyalty. Robin is often depicted as handsome in a more than merely male way – think of Errol Flynn’s tights or Michael Praed’s hair. This too is something that Mel Brooks joked about in Robin Hood: Men in Tights – though he it was only joking: in fact nobody in the film is gay; it’s just a comic mainstreaming of the male-on-male aspect of the tradition.

So perhaps male homosocial love, even homosexual love, has a place in the forest as well in the past and, even in more recent times. The early twentieth century English Georgian poets, Noyes, Newbolt, Drinkwater, Squire certainly come close to a gay Robin. The maleness of the early ballads is of course a representation of the real conditions of outlawry – there were many outlaw groups in the late medieval period, small numbers of men living in difficult and often violent conditions and there are very few traces of any women with them. There were different circumstances where the figure of Robin Hood was in routine contact with women, and the general public, and it is here that we see the first signs of the Marian figure.

But first a brief  bit of Robin Hood history, to be found much more fully in my own work and that of colleagues -- see the reading list. Though we have early ballads, and they are fascinating, there was in fact a more widespread location for  Robin Hood in the late middle ages – records don’t indicate any traces before the early fifteenth century. These were the `play-games’: a  village or small town would, around Whitsun time – Sunday or Monday usually – holds processions focused on Robinood Hood, from the forest to the village and ending in its centre, near the church. There Robin would preside over games, sports, and sometimes at least plays; there would finally be a feast, often called a Robin Hood Ale. A good time was had by all and Robin’s men would often collect money for the village – for the upkeep of the roads and bridges for example.
            Robin here is a communal figure to focus the celebration of summer not a figure of social resistance. The plays and ballads might include him fighting the distant sheriff or perhaps resisting the demands of the grasping monastic landowners, but there are no traces of that in the Robin Hood’s day activities – though the records of what actually went on are very sketchy. But we know there was a procession and there was dancing – the records often record the cost of the shoes for the dancers, a crucial item then as still in dance companies. And it is clear that Robin was partnered in the procession and the dancing by women – probably a couple, one to dance with him and one to dance with Little John. Theatre has its own force, even in this simple form.

Quite often the other figures are not named but when, especially in the sixteenth century, the woman dancer is named, she is named as Marian, and as the insertion of a partner for Robin occurs in theatre, as we will shortly see, this is no doubt her first appearance in English at least. It is probable that she comes from an earlier context. In medieval French poetry there is a genre called the pastourelle, a fairly short poem about lovers and their problems. One group of poems focuses on a young lady named Marion, who loves a handsome and usually slightly lower-class lad called Robin. There is a fine 13th century opera about them by Adam de la Halle. We can assume that when there is a woman who partners Robin, she by traditional association becomes named Marian, it’s as simple as that.

Of course you can be more complicated, and some scholars like to be. One startling suggestion is that the name is a simplification of a figure who dances in the early Morris dance. Morris means Moorish, that is for certain, and there is one figure with a black face who is called the Moor or, sometimes, the Moorean.  It is by no means impossible that this figure helps the Marion name come into this popular dance tradition. There’s a thought – Robin’s original girl- friend is a dark-hued Arab. Then there is another notional source. You will notice I have not discussed the real Robin Hood. In my view the real Robin Hood is the mythic one. But there are people who like to find the hero’s address, age and pin number. There were quite a few people called Robert Hood, and there were a few of them with wives called Matilda – the other name Marian sometimes bears. But about a third of the women born in Norman families in the middle ages were called Matilda, so let’s not worry about them. We have enough to fret about.

The dancing partner, sometimes called Marian, isn’t a direct connection with our Lady  Marian, or Matilda, just a distant source. She would not have been a lady for start. We get an idea of what she might have been like in  a sixteenth century play version of the story of Robin Hood and the fighting friar. The friar has successfully fought Robin and – this usually happens in these Robin meets his match’ fights – he  is invited to join the outlaw band. By way of introduction he is presented with a woman; the friar is pleased, and dismisses the outlaws so he and the girl can have fun:

            Here is a huckle duckle an inch above the buckle
            She is a trull of trust to serve a friar at his lust,
            A prycker, a prancer, a tearer of sheets
            A wagger of ballockes when other men sleeps.
            Go home ye knaves and lay crabs in the fire
            For my lady and I will dance in the mire.

A huckle-duckle, which the friar no doubt theatrically reveals, is an artificial phallus. This is lust in the forest, not love. And it’s not Marian - in spite of some rather excitable scholarly opinion to that effect. If she had a name it might well be Jenny, the name usually linked with the Friar in other sources. But the name Marian has been connected in popular performance with Robin, and the playwrights take it from there.


This is in the context of a major development and change in the Robin Hood story, which we call gentrification. To be brief about it, in the sixteenth century there were many moves towards controlling what seemed the disorderly elements of the past,  from burning witches to enclosing common land, and in this spirit the Robin Hood tradition was radically reconceived when the rough-handed yeoman of the early ballads was transmuted into an earl who rebelled against bad Prince John and was reinstated by true King Richard. Suddenly the outlaw’s vigorous resistance, which had been against officers of the state and the church, is swung behind the state and the newly reformed church. The yeoman social bandit did not disappear: he was still celebrate in ballads through the eighteenth century, but there were now two layers – and basically there still are, as around 1990 between  the Lord of Locksley, in the form of Kevin Costner,. and the peasant rebel in the form of Michael Praed as Robin of Sherwood. But when he is made a lord, with a land, Robin, or now Robert, has a lady. Her forest name is Marian, as his is Robin, and her noble name is Matilda, the daughter of another lord.

This is how she appears in the ground-breaking double play by Anthony Munday, The Downfall and The Death of Robert Earle of Huntingdon, of 1598-9. This introduces Marian as Robin's faithful aristocratic lady, lusted after by Prince John, and before her forest exile known as Matilda Fitzwater, an aristocratic lady drawn from Michael Drayton's 1594 poem Matilda the Fair and Chaste Daughter of Baron Fitzwater. The figure of Matilda provides the lineage and aristocratic identity required for the gentrified Robin's equally gentrified Marian.

Munday’s Marian does not influence successive stories much: in his version she survives Robin and  is pursued by Prince John, to a tragic death. Marian as martyr did not catch on (though there are examples in nineteenth-century fiction), but Munday introduced a motif which has seemed almost compulsive for authors who give Marian a substantial role. This is the False Marian – a Marian who is really a witch-like betrayer of Robin. Knight’s rule is that the more sexually aware and active is the love of Robin and Marian, the more likely there is to be a witch double for her. Nasty stuff. In Munday, Queen Eleanor lusts after Robin as much as her son does after Marian, and early on, as Robin and Marian flee, she persuades Marian to change clothes with her - ostensibly for Marian's safety, but in fact because she herself wants to be off to the woods with Robin. This is a strange, even disturbing, response to love in the forest, or perhaps just to a woman in the forest. The `false Marian' motif starts from here, and is remarkably common. It appears to relate to male anxiety that woman can be delusive and dangerous as well as -- or instead of being -- passive and supportive.

Munday’s Marian is first seen in a thoroughly controlled light: the dumbshow that opens the play speaks of Robin and Marian as `This youth that leads yon virgin by the hand’ (86). That’s a fair way from the lusty dancing partner or indeed the free spirited lady of the medieval French Robin et Marian poems. In fact Munday’s Marian is little more than a cipher. She takes to the woods, but does nothing there. Robin does apostrophise her as a pastoral lover, but the emphasis is entirely on the natural world, asserting in fully pastoral mode that the forest is a free version of the court, and an mention of her beauty is swamped in the natural world:

            For thy steele glass, wherin thou wonst to looke,
            They Christall eyes, gaze in a Christall brooke. 1377-8

It as is if Marian is just a human reification of the beauty and love of the forest.

But woman and forest could have a quite different association, equally classical. The image of a huntress was one other direction for the notion of a lady of the forest, and this was worked out in some detail by Michael Drayton (a rich source for Marian) in the Sherwood section of his Poly-Olbion, representing her as:

                        ... chief Lady of the Game:
            Her Clothes tuck'd to the knee, and daintie braided haire,
            With Bow and Quiver arm'd, shee wandred here and there,
            Amongst the forests wild; Diana never knew
            Such pleasures, nor such Harts as Mariana slew. (354-8)

This Marian loves hunting rather than Robin. But she developed her interests elsewhere. The classical huntress Marian was firmly in Ben Jonson's mind as he developed The Sad Shepherd, an unfinished masque published in 1641 and probably written not long before. But he also appears to have pursued the classical idea that the bow and arrow is also amatorial, and Jonson's Marian may enjoy unmaidenly pleasures. The forest lovers meet as Marian returns from hunting and exchange enthusiasm, affection and what seems like an off-colour joke (inch-pin, a small bone inside the deer, can also mean `penis’):

                        Marian: How hath this morning paid me, for my rising!
                                      First, with my sports; but most with meeting you!
                                      I did not half so well reward my hounds,
                                      As she hath me today: although I gave them
                                      All the sweet morsels, Calle, Tongue, Eares and Dowcets !
                        Robin:   What ? And the inch-pin ?
                        Marian:  Yes.
                        Robin:    Your sports then pleas'd you ?
                        Marian:   You are a wanton.
                        Robin:    One, I do confesse,
                                       I wanted till you came. But now I have you,
                                       I'll grow to your embraces, till two soules
                                       Distilled into kisses, thorough your lips
                                       Do make one spirit of love.
                        Marian:   O Robin! Robin!   I.6.1-13)

Some real love in the forest appears here, and some lust too. In spite of this – or is it because of this ? - Jonson develops strongly the `false Marian' motif with a wicked witch called Maudlin (and sometimes Maud, which, interestingly, and perhaps not accidentally is the short form of Matilda), so suggesting a black/white splitting in the figure of the outlaw heroine. Maud impersonates Marian with some success, and she alarms and confuses Robin. All these problems are headed for reconciliation in Jonson's apparent plan, but he only got about half-way through the masque.

This amatorial Marian, Lady Fitzwalter, does ultimately defer to Robin's authority, both aristocratic and male, but she is also represented as having real agency, even some power, including physical and gendered power. It is not a settled or ideologically stable role. But it recurs. Marian plays a very minor role in the seventeenth-century broadsides, a popular Robin Hood genre basically deploying the woman-free yeoman outlaw. But there is one ballad, surviving in only one copy, and apparently never very successful or influential, which realises both love between the two and a  partly  masculinised Marian in male costume: a sort of compromise between the hunter Marian and the lover Marian. In love with the outlawed Earl Robin, she follows him into the greenwood, dressed as a man and well-armed:

                        With quiver and bow, sword buckler and all,
                        Thus armed was Marian most bold,
                        Still wandering about to find Robin out
                        Whose person was better than gold.

                        But Robin Hood hee himself had disguisd,
                        And Marian was strangely attir'd,
                        That they provd foes, and so fell to blowes,
                        Whose vallour bold Robin admir'd.               

                        They drew out their swords, and to cutting they went,
                        At least an hour or more,
                        That the blood ran apace from bold Robins face,
                        And Marian was wounded sore.

                        `Oh hold thy hand, hold thy hand,' said Robin Hood,
                        `And thou shalt be one of my string,
                        To range in the wood with bold Robin Hood,
                        And hear the sweet nightingall sing.'

                        When Marian did hear the voice of her love,
                        Her self shee did quickly discover,
                        And with kisses sweet she did him greet,
                        Like to a most loyal lover.  (34-53)

They end up agreeing, and cosying up together -- though in a curiously homosocial way, with Little John and Will Scarlet.

The Marian who appears regularly in eighteenth-century ballad opera is not this belligerent Rosalind-like figure -- rather she is a diluted version of the Munday tradition, a lady with not much to do except sing songs and end up partnered by the handsome gentlemanly outlaw. She does sometimes have an admirer, but he is not a real sexual threat to Robin, just someone like Sir Humphrey Wealthy in the 1751 ballad opera. I stress this treatment for a reason. Marian's exposure to a real alternative hero is in fact a new feature of the early nineteenth century when there is not only love n the forest but also a triangle of love conflict. The male rival to Robin, and so villain, now replaces the false Marian as a focus of duplicity, and anchors the texts in a less anxious, or at least differently anxious, masculinism. It is now a matter of possibly losing your lovely partner to another man, not her turning into a virago. The key feature of the nineteenth-century Marian, who survives in many twentieth-century films, novels and plays, is as the noble but vulnerable woman, that prime way of enhancing and validating the status of her male consort. I call this Marian Mrs Robin Hood, not Lady Fitzwater. Nineteenth-century concerns about gender, the family and woman's role vis à vis man seem evident in Marian's construction in this stage, mostly appearing in the new mode of the novel.


The first fully formed version is in Thomas Love Peacock's Maid Marian of 1822. Characteristically, this Marian is capable of vigorous action and strong values but is also foreclosed by the masculine world. She does have point of view - but Robin comes to control it. She can shoot, and fight, but she needs rescuing in the crisis. She is not only lovely and vital: she is also an object of desire by another man, Sir Ralph Montfaucon, a good fighter and quite noble, in both birth and behaviour, but rival for her love to the hero, Robin Hood. Marian is in this way both subject and potential object and in the same way Peacock's prose both privileges and gazes at its heroine:

            Matilda, not dreaming of visitors, tripped into the apartment in a dress of forest green, with a small quiver by her side and a bow and arrow in her hand. Her hair, black and glossy as is the raven's wing, curled like wandering clusters of dark ripe grapes under the edge of her round bonnet; and a plume of black feathers fell back negligently above it, with an almost horizontal inclination, that seemed the habitual effect of rapid motion against the wind. (p.26)

She has vigour, but not seriously so -- it is a small quiver. She is ultimately contained in marriage as a valued but subaltern part of the family Hood -- or rather Huntington, and the first scene of the book is their marriage -- disrupted by Sir Ralph.

His rivalry with Robin can be seen as another sort of love in the forest. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, in her ground-breaking book Between Men, argues that around the start of the nineteenth century literature emerges a new fable, the rivalry of two men for a woman. But she argues, this is actually a coded way of realising homoerotic attraction between two men, merely mediated by a woman. If this seems a startling idea, I have to say that she makes her case well from the texts she discusses, and had she looked at the Robin Hood material, from Peacock through to modern films, she might well have chuckled with pleasure at the evidence available. Do you recall the moment in the fight between Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone in the great 1938 film we, at the climax of their fight, they almost kiss. The handsome rival is a standard feature of the nineteenth-century Robin Hood novel.

Whatever is going on between the guys, Marian is Mrs  Robin Hood, and even has a child in one version – it dies. Heroes only have surviving children if they are going to betray them, as Mordred did King Arthur. But it is also striking that Mrs Hood spends much of the story off- stage – when she is not being a victim for villains or wild animals, described with the sadomasochism that permeates Victorian popular literature.  When she does appear, her forest love is entirely pure and responsible, the husband’s handmaid. Not surprisingly a classic example is in Tennyson's The Foresters, as if modelled on Queen Victoria, or even Lady Tennyson.

 Here she is the purest of the pure, as husband Robin insists in their opening scene:

                        The high Heaven guard thee from wantonness
                        Who art the fairest flower of maidenhood
                        That ever blossomed on this English isle. (p.753)

And her love for him is potent indeed:

            `The Sheriff dare to love me ? me who worship Robin the great Earl of Huntingdon ?
 I love him as a damsel of his day might have loved Harold the Saxon or Hereward the Wake
                                                                        (The  Foresters, p.750)

Though Marian does have some agency, it is no more than ethical and charitable and though she finally speaks in the plural of what they have achieved, the only name mentioned is that of her lord and husband:
                        And yet I think  these oaks at dawn and even
                        Or in the balmy breathing of the night
                        Will whisper evermore of Robin Hood.
                        We leave but happy memories to the forest.
                        We dealt in the wild justice of the woods.
                        All those pale serfs whom we have served will bless us,
                        All those pale mouths which we have fed will praise us The widows we have holpen pray for us
                        Our Lady's blessed shrines throughout the land
                        Be all the richer for us. (p.782)

Notice that Tennyson, scholarly and sensitive as ever to tradition, has reintroduced the love of nature and the love of Mary, effectively extinguishing the human love of Marian and Robin.


This active but also dutiful Marian is transferred directly into that enormously influential genre film – through which Robin, and to some degree Marian, have become international figures in our time. In film she is a spirited young woman, a flapper-like medieval Pauline in Peril as in the 1922 Douglas Fairbanks film. The triangle of Robin, Marian and a vigorous villain relates to the generic patterns of stage play and film, but it also redefines the role of the woman and provides her with both glossy appearance and, for all her charm and often wit, the role of a prized object. These Marians do not, in my experience, appear as the sorceress-like false Marian; their violent possibilities and capacity for desire are firmly under control. This is the children's fiction Marian, the Hollywood Marian and, interestingly enough, the Marian of the 1984 HTV series, which in other respects, political, racial and magical, was thoroughly radical in presentation but it had a teenage Laura Ashley style Marian, with pale skin, big eyes, waves of hair and long white dress.

However, that is not the only modern Marian. Like gentrification and bourgeois institutions, feminism has also had a clear impact on the outlaw tradition, and there has been in recent years a striking range of Marians who are more or less, often less, energised in terms of contemporary ideas of women's roles and capacities in love and what they would call a relationship. They do love Robin, but they focus more on what he and she might do together, Robin and Marion as the Clintons, perhaps the Blairs. I suppose you might call this Marion Ms Fitzwalter, but in view of the fact that she often has real skills and can often operates in traditional male roles, I prefer, in this context at least, to use our own academic gender-neutral honorific and call her Dr Fitzwalter.

The first sign of this capable, achievement-focused, yet still Robin-loving Marian was Olivia de Haviland in the 1938 Errol Flynn vehicle, who in addition to wearing superbly silky dresses also shows herself late in the film of bustling about to help the hero. The very long running and immensely popular television Adventures of Robin Hood starring Richard Greene which began in 1954 and ran on both sides of the Atlantic with huge audiences for 147 episodes had a strong-minded, even rather bossy, Marian, played mostly by Bernadette O’Farrell: just as this series’s Robin has been seen as Squadron-Leader Robin Hood so she seemed much like an energetic ATS officer from some British wartime film. This active, decisive Marian was continued in the perhaps improbable form of Audrey Hepburn who played Marian in Richard Lester's Robin and Marian of 1976. This Marian is wiser, calmer, much more far-seeing than the credibly soldier-like Robin and Little John, and in particular it is she, knowing his wound will incapacitate him seriously, who decides they should die together from drinking the potion she gives him. The witch-like Prioress of the Gest becomes a wise woman, and Marian has for the first time a major part in the plot and meaning of the text. Robin’s love is inarticulate, but so is hers. At the end the Hepburn eyes tell the whole story ! A sort of Tristan and Isolde of modern British realism.

That love in death did poorly at the box office, and a more robust form of  love in life, with some clear traces of  feminism have been visible in two major Robin Hood films have been made since then; both give Marian a more significant role than did the 1938 film, though neither gives her as much impact as she had in the Fairbanks film, which has not been appreciated for its gender complexity. 1991 saw both Robin Hood : The Prince of Thieves starring Kevin Costner and Robin Hood with Patrick Bergin. Massively successful as it was, the Costner vehicle has gained few favourable critical opinions, and Maid Marian studies would see little reason to prize it. True, the first view of Marian is in armour fighting Robin: the novel of the film puts it like this:

            Robin hurled the deer's head at his assailant and threw himself after it. He managed to grab the hand holding the dagger, spun his assailant round, and smashed the hand against the wall until the dagger fell from numbed fingers. They struggled together, and Robin quickly realised he was by far the stronger. He waded into his assailant with both fists, and the masked man collapsed. Robin stood over him for a moment, panting for breath, and then reached down and tore off the metal mask. Long hair tumbled free, and Robin stared blankly back at the beautiful woman staring back at him.

                The door flew open and Azeem burst in, scimitar at the ready. Robin looked round, startled, and the woman seized the opportunity to punch him viciously in the groin. Robin sank to his knees beside her and smiled with clenched teeth.

               `Hello, Marian.' (p.66)

It is not explained why, having previously heard he is Robin, Marian fights him at all; still less why, when seeing him in front of her, she clouts him in the groin. Perhaps it is an unmotivated manoeuvre to construct a double Marian -- both fiercely aggressive and then sweet and supportive. But this tough love disappears, as most threats do in a Hollywood movie. By the end she has been as usual thoroughly imprisoned and in need of rescue in her final enfeebled state and stereotypical gender position:

                        He took Marian into his arms, and for a long moment they stood together, losing themselves in each other. Marian raised a trembling hand to Robin's face, as though half-afraid he might disappear like a dream.

                        `You came for me ! You are alive!'

                        Robin held her eyes with his. `I would die, before I let another man have you.'

                        They kissed as if they were never going to stop.  (pp.232-3)

We do not have the advantage of a novel or script of the 1991 Bergin as Robin picture but it had, along with a lower budget, a much simpler story, a more roguish hero, a more dynamic concept and playing of Marian and a more interesting version of their love. Uma Thurman plays Marian as strong and self-willed, refusing outright to marry the husband chosen by her guardian. From the start we are shown Marian gazing repeatedly and secretly at the handsome Robin, an interesting reversal of the usual scopic relishing of her beauty. She is committed as a lover before Robin is. This Marian herself frustrates the `false Marian' when disguised as a boy: as she and Robin escape she, still as a boy, plants a warm and initially gender-disruptive kiss on his mouth. The film both raises and dismisses the homosocial;/homosexual possibility of forest love. Nevertheless it would hardly be true to describe this Marian as a feminist figure or the film as in any significant way feminist or changing the structure of a spirit but eventually submissive Marian. Her feeling and vigour is naturalised, elided into a sort of mythic womanhood as she says of Robin `he makes the bees buzz’, and they are married in a  distinctly fertility-linked May-ritual context.

Since Thurman’s fine rendition Marian has not done too well in visual form. In the largely regrettable 1996 New Adventures of Robin Hood, notable for being shot in Lithuania and introducing elements of Californian psychobabble to the narrative and dialogue, a posturing  matinee idol Robin has as partner a busy, stocky, leather-shorts-wearing Marian who was clearly, if unfortunately, related to Xena the Warrior Princess. Just as lurid, in a less unselfconscious way was Disney’s Princess of Thieves where the very young – even younger – Keira Knightly played Gwen, daughter of Robin Hood, who leads a geographically very improbable resistance against bad Prince John and ends up as willing mistress to an invented King of England, Phillip I. The American love of simulacra rather than reality sometimes does seem quite perverse.

But Keira was at least very pretty. That has been denied more recent Marians. Then the BBC television series beginning in 2006 and starring Jonas Armstrong as a trendily stubbled youthful Robin, returned in despair from the crusades, laced all positive romance and, perhaps to attract a very young audience, also lacked a girly Marian: Lucy Griffiths played the part with solidity of manner and physique. The 2010 film featuring Russell Crowe was planned in the aftermath of 9/11 as showing how Robin was in fact an agent of state security: that plan was, perhaps sadly, dropped but uncertainty remained. Reports hold that the chosen Marian, Siena Miller seemed far too young and delicate against the portly and not very young Crowe. She was replaced by Cate Blanchett, who showed her real acting skills by appearing without any trace of glamour, much as the film plodded toward a banal conclusion about thirteenth-century politics, as found in very dull nineteenth-century novels.


Novelists have worked hardest at recasting Marian and seeing love in the forest as an egalitarian, or even woman on top, relationship. In Robin McKinley's The Outlaws of Sherwood (1988) Marian is a well-born lover who repeatedly visits Robin in the forest, knows its topography better than any of the newly arrived outlaws, and is also the best of them with a long-bow: in an elegant reversal it is she, disguised as Robin Hood, who wins the archery tournament and indeed at the end King Richard wants her to be the new Sheriff when the pardoned outlaws go with him on crusade. But the novel sees her as a facilitator of resistance rather than an agent of it; she is never really one of the outlaws, and it is they who provide the title of the book.

A shift towards Marian as central figure is indicated in the title of Jennifer Roberson's novel Lady of the Forest (1992), the fullest and so far the most serious of the Marian-focused texts.  Marian's father died on crusade and the message brought back by the surviving Robert of Locksley, son of the Earl of Huntington, is that she should, for her protection marry the Sheriff of Nottingham. There is in the presentation of Marian something of Jane Austen's sense of the constrained nature of woman's life and desire, and the difficult path towards the liberation of true love, which is here also a shared love of freedom and resistance. In general, Roberson's Marian is a rather responsible figure who is with some skill put into the centre of the plot and made the focal intelligence of the book and of the love between her and Robin.

Gayle Feyrer's The Thief's Mistress (1996) marks a new stage in Marian's renovation partly by making her a serious and successful fighter and also by following the sexually explicit lines of recent fiction. Love in the forest becomes sex and shopping. The handsome Guy of Gisborne takes her shopping in Nottingham market, not quite up to Harvey Nichols, it’s true, but he is also a forceful lover whose skills are relished by both Marion and the text. But she of course falls for the gentler charms of the true hero Robin. Up-front as this novel is, and perhaps indicating love of royalties in the forest as its prime target, it is still a notable modernisation of the Marian-Robin relationship.

If these novels have moved towards a post-feminism Marian, it has not in some ways gone very far in the direction of real feeling. But nor has it in films, as discussed above. Comedy has, curiously, done more for love in the forest. In The Zany Adventures of Robin Hood (1984), an amusing farce from the makers of Love at First Bite, apart from a less than heroic Robin in ill-fitting green tights played with relaxed spirit by George Segal, there is a Marian out of Valley of the Dolls, played to the hilt by Morgan Fairchild: languishing in a negligee she cries out, in wry frustration, `I'll soon be Old Maid Marian.' Equally Amy Yasbeck as Marian in Mel Brooks' Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993), is definitely in love with her Robin, just as her huge Teutonic maid is consumed with lust for the equally large, though very shy, Little John.

Another parodic version, the best I think, of love in the forest is realised through the Marian of Robin Hood : A High Spirited Tale of Adventure (1981), a Muppet production. Robin is ` a bold and chivalrous frog who is seized by Sheriff Gonzo. In the text version, it reads:

                        Maid Marian was in truth an extremely glamorous pig who had fallen in love with Robin Hood and had come to live in the forest to cook and sew for her frog and his merry men. The problem was that she hated living under the greenwood tree, or any trees for that matter...

                        However, at this moment of crisis she surpassed everyone by quickly organising a brilliant campaign to rescue their leader. `We go to the Sheriff's castle and take him back.'

Leading a band of brave chickens, she rescues Robin.

                        `Nice work, guys,' said Robin to his merry men. `I knew you could do it.'

                        `Hem, Robbie,' said Maid Marian. `It wasn't all done by the guys, mon cher. So how about an itsy-bitsy kissy for moi, your lady fair and mastermind of this gallant rescue.

                        She closed her eyes and puckered up her lips, expectantly. Robin Hood leaned towards Maid Marian, then picked up her hand and shook it heartily.

                        `Thanks a lot, Maid Marian,' said Robin. `Now I've got to rescue the Judge.'

This is painful love, but another feminist comedy avoids even that. The BBC television series Maid Marian and her Merry Men constructs a relationship between a highly competent woman and a total weakling.  Marian, played vigorously by Kate Loneragan, in charge of a rag-bag of dissidents among whom the last and definitely least is a melodramatically handsome dress-designer entitled Robin of Kensington. Any possibilities of a feminist effect are massively carnivalised - in spite of the memorability of some playfully liberationist lines as when Marian plans to recruit a band of `highly attractive respectable young men who are just a little bit rough.'

In most recent visual versions love in the forest is assumed, and found distinctly limited,  a good basis for a joke, or in need of some spicing up via generic forms of vitality, from the final procession in the 1991 Bergin film to the girlish glamour of Keira Knightley. But it may well be that a real representation of love in the forest as is attempted in the Costner film and some of the novels, is a shallow-rooted part of the outlaw story. It seems to be only the sentimental   traditions of the last two centuries that have in fact incorporated love into the forest in a traditional boy and girl way -–and even then it has not taken thrived very well, so leading to the parodies and largely negative variations I have just been discussing.

But there has always been a love of something in the forest of the outlaw stories – the love of freedom of course, and that has been much in evidence in the past century as well as in the middle ages, and in many different versions. The essence of the outlaw tradition is that Robin, and his associates, are good outlaws: they resist the  existing law when it is seen to be oppressive. In recent times, this has also been true of the treatment of human love in the forest, whether the resistance is feminist, gay, ironic, or just asserting true emotional bonds between two people. In love as in arrow-shooting – and the two may have a basic connection after all – the Robin Hood tradition is both rich and variable, and one of those variations is the redevelopment of the attitudes to love in the forest have led to a position where we now need increasingly to call it the Maid Marian tradition. Whatever form the love may take, audiences certainly love the story of the forest and the varying, exciting, insistently political, interactions of the people in the forest.


`Robin Hood and the Monk’, ballad, c.1450
The Gest of Robin Hood, ballad epic, c.1500
Anthony Munday, The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington, play, 1598
Michael Drayton, Poly-Olbion, poem, 1622
Ben Jonson, The Sad Shepherd, play/masque, c.1632
`Robin Hood and Maid Marian’, ballad, c.1680
Thomas Love Peacock, Maid Marian, novella, 1822
Pierce Egan, Robin Hood and Little John, novel , 1840
Alfred Tennyson, The Foresters, play, 1891
Robin McKinley, The Outlaws of Sherwood, novel , 1988
Jennifer Roberson, Lady of the Forest, novel, 1992
Gayle Feyrer, The Thief’s Mistress , novel, 1996
Theresa Tomlinson, The Forestwife, 1993

Films and television:

Robin Hood (Douglas Fairbanks), 1922
The Adventures of Robin Hood (Errol Flynn), 1938
The Adventures of Robin Hood (Richard Greene), 1955 – 8
Robin of Sherwood, (Michael Praed), 1984
Maid Marian and Her Merry Men (Kate Lonergan), 1988
Robin Hood: A High-Spirited Tale of Adventure (Kermit), 1981
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (Kevin Costner), 1991
Robin Hood (Patrick Bergin), 1991
Robin Hood: Men in Tights (Cary Elwes), 1993
The New Adventures of Robin Hood (Matthew Porretta), 1997-9
Princess of Thieves (Keira Knightley), 2001
Robin Hood (Jonas Armstrong), 2006
Robin Hood (Russell Crowe), 2010


The  ballads can be found in Rymes of Robin Hood, ed. R. B. Dobson and J. Taylor (new edition, Sutton, Stroud, 1996) and also in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales, ed. S. Knight and T.Ohlgren (Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, 1998).

For commentary and analysis on the tradition, see Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw (Blackwell, Oxford, 1994), Jeffrey Singman, Robin Hood: The Shaping of a Legend (Greenwood, Westport, 1998) and Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (Cornell University Press, Cornell, 2003). Collections of scholarly essays on the tradition are Robin Hood in Popular Culture: Violence, Transgression and Justice, ed. Thomas Hahn (Brewer, Cambridge, 2000), Robin Hood Medieval and Post-Medieval, ed. Helen  Phillips (Four Courts Press, Dublin, 2004).         .

Monday, 1 October 2012

Making of Middle English

David Matthews, Making of Middle English, 1765-1910 Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1999.

Medievalism is the name given to the study of the ways in which the culture and concepts of the middle ages returned to western culture from the late eighteenth century on in  architecture, art and literature. Prime among medievalismists is David Mathews, born and educated in Australia, and now at the University of Manchester. In this major book he charts how scholars like Thomas Percy and Joseph Ritson gathered and transmitted medieval texts and then how, with the  major impetus given by Wlarer Scott, this material became an object of  study first for learned enthusiasts like Frederic Madden and the ever-engaging F. J. Furnivall, and then found its way into the developing curriculum of English studies in universities.

Mathews tells this complex story with wit, attention to curious detail, an awareness of the multiple forces that were at work – some of them eccentric, some of them radical – and a light but recurrent contact with the theory-aware world of modern humanities studies.

As humanities in universities are increasingly under pressure, neither attracting funding from billionaires nor leading directly to well-paid jobs unlike pharmacy and hairdressing – merely educating the public to a high and discriminating level -- this account of the slow, serious and social origins of cultural medievalism in education has much to contribute to a measured understanding of what we have gained, and what in late capitalist fetishisation of desire, we may well lose.