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13.06.30, Knight, ed., Robin Hood in Greenwood Stood

13.06.30, Knight, ed., Robin Hood in Greenwood Stood

The study of Robin Hood has become a major interdisciplinary activity. Combining literature, history, film and media studies, the English Outlaw has become the focus of a significant branch of cultural studies leading to several international conferences, a stream of books and articles and spawning a growing number of undergraduate courses. This collection of essays brought together by Stephen Knight, the doyen of the field, seeks to establish a formal academic methodology for Robin Hood Studies on a par with Chaucerian or Shakespeare studies. In particular it sets out here to apply the theory of alterity, defined as Emmanuel Levinas understood it, "as a dialectical relationship between people and forces within a context." If this seems a rather nebulous definition, it is probably because this reviewer has failed to grasp its full meaning. At a more simplistic level alterity appears to encompass the many different ways in which the Robin Hood stories as they evolved over the centuries have at their core the depiction of an alternative world, in the imagined greenwood.

Knight calculates that in the various published conference proceedings, 35% of essays are on the late medieval/early modern tradition; 22% on later literature; 22% on modern media studies and the rest miscellaneous. The essays in this volume fit into these three main categories in more or less the same proportions. Taking them in reverse order, three contributions fit into the mould of media studies. The application of Georgio Agamben's "theoretical framework of sovereignty and Foucaultian biopower" makes for heavy reading in the piece by Valerie B Johnson. The application of his notion of the "homo sacer" as an explanation of the relevance of "medievalism" in modern film, TV, and game versions of Robin Hood is baffling to the uninitiated. The point seems to be that the modern Robin Hood (as was his original persona in fact) is like a medieval sovereign, both above and constrained by the law, and that it is only by being outside the law that the superhero, as vigilante, can enforce the law. Something named "the state of exception" allows Robin Hood to break the law in order to enforce the law, just as in modern western states in the war against terror the rule of law has been suspended for the common good. This seems to confuse the freedom fighter/terrorist with the oppressive regime. Is not the sheriff of Nottingham operating under the state of exception? Or have I totally missed the point?

A lighter touch drawing on gender theory is provided by Brian J. Levy and Lesley Coote in the discussion of homophobia and the depiction of women in two twentieth-century films, "The Adventures of Robin Hood" (1938) and "Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves" (1991). While the Erroll Flynn masterpiece reflects in obvious ways the homophobia of its age, setting an alpha male against villains who are variants on homosexual stereotypes, it also contains a strong homo-social strand in the atmosphere of the greenwood and allows Maid Marion a spirited independence. Kevin Cosner's remake is seemingly more politically correct, encompassing the "new man," powerful women, men of ambiguous sexuality and a new non-white faithful buddy. However, Robin the personification of white male power, absorbs and subordinates feminism, homosexuality and racism. In fact, the authors argue, the earlier film is more ambiguous and open in its values, the more recent, more restrictive.

John Chandler leaves overarching theory largely aside in an extended comparison between Robin Hood and Batman, hanging his analysis on Eric Hobsbawm's concept of the noble robber, concepts of masculinity, and underlying structures of the story telling. The essay seems to do little more than list in detail similarities and differences of parallel heroes for different societies. Curiously Chandler does not consider the possibility that Batman was to some extent modelled on the medieval outlaw, the clue lying in the Boy Wonder's name, so that the similarities may not be altogether accidental.

Two essays deal with later literature. Here the medievalist will feel closer home. Carrie Griffin examines the creation of the Forresters Manuscript in the 1670s, a document only discovered in 1993, the provenance and purpose of which remain unknown. She argues that it was not, as has been supposed the copy for a printed version of a garland, but intended to remain a manuscript for more limited circulation, much as the Percy Folio did until printed a century later. The manner in which the story of Robin Hood has always been recycled for changed times is revealed in Rob Gossedge informed discussion of Thomas Love Peacock's little known novella, "Maid Marion" (1822). The plot and characterisation may be slight, but the context in which it was written and Peacock's own nostalgic attachment to Old Windsor Forest before enclosure give it greater significance. Windsor Forest was disafforested in July 1814, and the land enclosed in the face of great opposition. A band led by one Zachariah Boult, calling himself and dressing as Robin Hood, poached as many deer as it could before they (the deer that is) were herded into Windsor Great Park. His exploits, fully reported in the local press inspired Peacock to write his novella about their shared hero who successfully resisted similar encroachments on local rights.

The remainder follow the familiar paths of the late-medieval and early modern tradition. Alexander Kaufman's essay on Nietzsche's "Herd and the Individual" seeks to relate the philosopher's theory of how the masses act collectively as herds to explain why the 140 anonymous yeomen who form the outlaw band seem to follow blindly where Robin and his named lieutenants lead. The unnamed majority are faceless subordinates obeying orders. They live in a state of "passive alterity," regulated and controlled by the leader, in some kind of totalitarian society. In this reading, the forest becomes a dystopia, a prison in which the mass of the outlaws is trapped, lacking freedom as much as the common people outside. The greenwood is a nightmare, and by implication Robin Hood a kind of dictator. Possibly.

Helen Phillips provides the first full analysis of the late-medieval and sixteenth-century criticism levelled against the Robin Hood tales by stiff-necked orthodox and reformist churchmen. In a complex and comprehensive argument she lays bear what lies behind Langland's well-known lines, as well as how the same trope of contrasting popular narratives with spiritual exercises appears in other texts such as the Lollard "Dialogue between a Wise Man and a Fool," Tyndale's "Discipline of a Christian Man," Barclay's "Ship of Fools" and passing references by Thomas More. There were many different reasons, she concludes, why clerics fulminated against the popularity of Robin Hood stories, which infuriatingly ordinary people preferred to Holy Scripture or religious observance. Several stand out. Robin Hood stories prevented their own message from getting through; they represent the torpor of a corrupt church; they are trivial and divert from serious religious practice. Whether orthodox catholic in defence of the established order, or reformist wishing to steer minds to new truths, popular literature and entertainment (of which Robin Hood was symbolic) consumed by an increasingly literate population, was, they believed, a barrier to true religion. This is an important essay to which a short summary cannot do justice, but it significantly advances our understanding of the reception of Robin Hood stories in the later middle ages and sixteenth century.

John Block Friedman examines the social context of late medieval archery. He compares the guilds of archers that existed in late-medieval Flanders as the basis of local militias, and the archery contests they held, with contemporary English experience. While archery was not organised through specific guilds established for that purpose in England, the requirement for all to train regularly spilt over into similar contests, often as part of the annual May games sponsored by parish fraternities. In Flanders membership of the guilds of archers was drawn from the ranks of respectable middling sorts as was the membership of the parish guilds and fraternities in England. Archery was a "nexus" for social mobility and display, as appears in the early Robin Hood poems. It was not just practical, it was also a demonstration of social status. The gift of twenty four peacock fletched arrows which Sir Richard at the Lee brings to Robin Hood, is reflected in the sheaf carried by Chaucer's yeoman in the Canterbury Tales as well as one or two legacies in the wills of late medieval burgesses.

Lesley Coote too draws attention to the manner in which Robin Hood as an elite hunter shares some of the pretensions to gentility characteristic of the upwardly mobile middling sort. The skills he displays were acquired, one may suppose, as a forester in the service of the aristocracy. She concentrates, however, on the shared cultural landscape of the poems, which is the greenwood, but experienced in different ways. Just as the yeoman of the forest is a liminal figure between commoner and gentleman, so the forest itself is on the margin between the known and the unknown. Robin and Little John, who know the hidden paths, are at home; but for the travellers they encounter and ritually rob, it is unfamiliar and dangerous. For the listener or reader, she proposes, there are similarities with the marginalia of medieval texts where the dangerous and forbidden can be displayed and savoured before return to the safety of the known text. The readers of illuminated manuscripts and of Robin Hood stories make similar journeys to the edge.

Stephen Knight's own essay on the formation of the early literary tradition, discusses several problems concerning its origins, including the relationship with the French pastourelle tradition, the outlaw's name and the possibility of an original "real" outlaw so as to establish that the figure with which we are now familiar was in existence by 1450. Only from that date does a textual tradition survive. He shows how the early summer setting of the opening stanzas derives from and parodies lyrics of love and religion to set up a strand of parody that runs through the earliest stories. He argues that the social and cultural context ("habitus") of the fourteenth and early-fifteenth centuries intensified social mobility and led to the emergence of a more confident yeomanly middling sort to whom these stories appealed.

Most significant, however, is his argument that the gentrification of Robin Hood began between 1450 and 1500, and is evident in the Gest where Robin's behaviour does not so much parody the knightly but assimilates it, especially in the depiction of his relationship with the sorry knight. Commentators have tended to see all the stories written down before the Reformation as of one body. Building on Ohlgren's detailed analysis of the early manuscript texts, this essay challenges us to think again about a constantly evolving body of texts. We do not know what form the rhymes of Robin Hood took in Langland's day, but we have no reason to suppose that they were precisely the same as they were when first committed to writing in the mid-fifteenth century. Knight proposes that we can see in this half-century one stage in this developing tradition, and that reflected the gentrifying aspirations of the new middling sorts. For the medievalist this is perhaps the most important essay in the whole collection.

Together, the essays on the late medieval tradition, especially those by Phillips, Friedman, Coote and Knight, all draw attention to the manner in which the yeomanly Robin Hood appealed in story and play to a particular social strata, to whom in the countryside the word "yeoman" came to be applied. They were the respectable middling sorts; they were literate in that they could read and write English, they were the elites of their local communities, and, as Gramski put it, the subalterns of the regime. This was the habitus. These four essays particularly draw attention to the way in which the stories of Robin Hood as they developed struck a chord with the middling sort's aspirations to gentility. The final transformation of Robin Hood to a dispossessed aristocrat at the end of the sixteenth century is thus prefigured in the decades before the Reformation.

What of the overall ambition of the volume? As a whole, it has to be said, it does not convincingly establish a formal academic methodology for something we might call Robin Hood Studies. This is partly because the study of Robin Hood is but a part of Cultural Studies; it is difficult to see how the methodology can be distinctively different. It is also partly because the theories deployed by the various authors here are so heterodox. Alterity is but one of many notions drawn from many different late-nineteenth and twentieth-century philosophers upon which the contributors call. They include Nietzsche, Bordieu, Sartres, Barthes, Zumthor, and Agamben. Theoretical underpinning drawn from these thinkers illuminates several, if not all, of the papers in the collection, but there is no one methodology (apart from the application of a modern theory) that draws them together. The difficulty of establishing a unique methodology may ultimately stem from the fact that the study of Robin Hood as a cultural phenomenon over the centuries is not a single, but a multi-disciplinary field. History, literature, film and media studies intersect at several points, but they remain different disciplines, with different methodologies. The very strength of the modern study of Robin Hood, which Stephen Knight has done so much to forge, is that it is interdisciplinary.