Timothy Jones

title.none: Knight, Robin Hood (Timothy Jones)

identifier.other: baj9928.0403.008 04.03.08

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Timothy Jones, Augustana College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Knight, Stephen. Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003. Pp. xxi, 247. $25.00 0-8014-3885-3. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.03.08

Knight, Stephen. Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003. Pp. xxi, 247. $25.00 0-8014-3885-3. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Timothy Jones
Augustana College

In one of the most audacious marketing ploys of recent memory the largest corporation in the United States, Wal-Mart, picked up the hat, bow, and quiver of Robin Hood and styled itself the defender of the common man and woman. Television viewers were offered a grinning yellow circle clad in the outlaw's iconic dress shooting down high prices and thus generously spreading consumer goods through a populace oppressed by a lack of purchasing power. The irony, of course, is that Wal-Mart has been widely criticized for driving competitors out of business by cutting prices to levels unprofitable for small businesses without access to the Walton billions. Wal-Mart is certainly no hero to Mom and Pop, who have apparently been gouging consumers for years at their local hardware store, nor to its own employees, who are denied the right to organize and, according to recent lawsuits, have been forced to work overtime without compensation. No, that international corporation, now the largest private employer in Mexico and scattering its stores across Europe and China, seems a better candidate for the Sheriff of Nottingham.

But Robin Hood is a curiously flexible figure. Not tied by history to a particular point of origin and thus a set position in a specific altercation--as William Wallace is to the Scottish struggle with the English--Robin Hood can be appropriated and re-interpreted for almost any new conflict. All it takes is some feeling of injustice, some desire for greater liberty, some sense of oppression by a monolithic authority. And so Wal-Mart as Robin Hood slashes through the inefficiencies in the marketplace responsible for the high prices that make consumer goods accessible only to the rich. According to this outlaw's code, efficiency, unrestricted competition, and open markets will redistribute wealth and purchasing freedom to all. Protectionism, labor unions, employee benefits, and the archaic business practices of Mom and Pop are the taxes, forest laws, and arrogant Norman nobles of this new version of the story. But if we are surprised that the commercial giant can so easily put on Robin's costume, it is because we have seen only a fragment of this character's mythic persona.

Stephen Knight has already given us a good look at the English outlaw in Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw (Blackwell, 1994). In this sequel, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography, Knight continues to argue that Robin Hood has been re-imagined in order to engage a variety of historical moments and social and political conflicts, but he extends his historicist explication to a number of texts not considered in the first volume and revises his readings of others. Rather than reaching for the comprehensiveness of the Complete Study, he organizes his material to express four identities, overlapping but also successive. This "mythic biography" resists creating a cause and effect narrative of literary history but nevertheless provides a structure of story that will make the book more appealing to the general reader than the comprehensive approach of the former study.

In the first book, Knight set out to turn Robin Hood studies away from the question of an historical point of origin to the question of historicized significance. "Real" Robin Hoods could be found in abundance but told us little about the appeal or uses of a character who is continually revived and re-conceived in new historical, social, and political situations. In contrast to the scholarship of historical origins, Knight cited the mythic criticism of the early twentieth century that linked Robin Hood with pre-Christian religious beliefs and folk-culture. Without embracing in detail the arguments of those scholars who find the roots of Robin Hood in specific Celtic or Germanic beliefs, Knight accepted as critically useful the notion of Robin Hood as a myth centrally concerned with resistance to authority and interconnected with similar characters and narratives, and thus a figure of genealogically complex heritage. Although he is still not so much interested in thinking theoretically about myth as he is in explicating the innovations, transmissions, and historical meanings of individual texts, Knight spends more of this new book developing this concept of a mythic character. He is now convinced that the play-games of rural medieval communities are the conduit between the mythic character and the ballads, the latter being literature of the towns which adopted the festive Robin Hood to express anxieties about freedom and justice. These texts were reworked in turn by the compiler of the Geste of Robyn Hood for the educated urban market for printed books. All of these early materials, however, present the figure Knight names "Bold Robin," a vigorous and unrestrained yeoman.

The second identity, Robert, Earl of Huntingdon, is the gentrified Robin Hood who was largely a product of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century drama, though it was also taken up by antiquarian scholars who created elaborate genealogies for the hero. This social ascent, however, also carried the hero away from his rebellious roots and the vigorous action that had made him dramatically popular in the first place. Fortunately, as Knight sees it, the first and second identities were reconciled in a third, Robin Hood Esquire, the bold, independent, and genteel character who fit the romantic sensibilities of the early nineteenth century and the popular literature of adventure. This is material that Knight covered in the previous book, but here he shows a greater interest in issues of gender and explicates some of the homosocial structures following the model of Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick.

The fourth identity is less coherent, distinguished by the active hero of British and American film and television but also including parodies, stage drama, fiction, and twentieth-century scholarship. The last of these suggests a post-structuralist turn that erases the distinction between literature and criticism. Knight, however, stops short of plunging into the slough of subjectivity. In the first place, he does not fully historicize the "real" Robin Hood project, although he offers that "The individual who is in fact constructed in historicist empiricism appears to be not Robin Hood but the wished-for identity of the historian himself" (197). One result, for example, of locating an original Robin Hood would be to make the character indisputably English and an embodiment of an essentially English character. Such an identification would not only appeal to an English sense of self through an era of two world wars but would also support the social and cultural centrality implied by naming Joaquin Murrietta the "Robin Hood of El Dorado" or Ned Kelly the "Robin Hood of Australia." Neither does Knight subject his own reading to historicist scrutiny, though it is the product of an age when images are constantly reconfigured and reapplied and of a cosmopolitan society in which identities are fashioned quite apart form points of origin. Instead, he is satisfied with the concept of myth which allows him to dismiss the value of searching for origins and yet to claim the ability to read the meaning of specific texts in particular contexts.

Like Knight's previous work on Robin Hood, the Mythic Biography makes useful contributions to both the study of medieval literature and medievalism. While this book repeats the conceptual framework of its predecessor, it contains new insights for the Robin Hood scholar and makes its case about the nature of the Robin Hood story in a more streamlined fashion which will appeal to the general reader or the undergraduate first encountering the medieval outlaw as a subject of critical inquiry.