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Robin Hood – The Best Books

My first and most personal book was “Grave Concerns: The Follies and Folklore of Robin Hood’s Final Resting Place” for CFZ Press in 2011, and although that work is a study of how certain locations breed legends as much as a study of the medieval outlaw, I read extensively on the history and evolution of the Robin Hood canon whilst I was writing it. With so many books available on the subject it can be difficult to decide exactly which ones are worth your time, so I’ve come up with a list of the sources I found the most comprehensive and reliable. A couple of entries are out-of-date and discredited, but they remain important in understanding the historiography of the legend. I also found a number of journal articles equally useful, but that list will have to wait for another time. Clicking on the hyperlinks in each title will direct you to purchasing information (which I’ve added from shamelessly mercenary motives).

1. “Robin Hood: 3rd Edition” by J.C. Holt (Thames & Hudson, 2011)

Undoubtedly the definitive survey of historical evidence concerning the figure known as Robin Hood and the evolution of his legend. It was first published in the 1970s and has now reached its third edition; each revised version adds new material crucial to our understand of the mythos.

2. “Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography” by Stephen Knight (Cornell University Press, 2009)

A more recent work than Holt’s study but now tied for the title of best book on the subject. Knight is a Professor of English Literature and he views the Robin Hood legend as a literary canon rather than a historical or folkloric topic. His background also ensures that the book is highly readable.

3. “Robin Hood & Other Outlaw Tales” by Stephen Knight & Thomas Ohlgren (Eds.) (Medieval Institute Publications, 2000)

A comprehensive and up-to-date collection of all the medieval and post-medieval ballads and plays with line analysis of each by two of the most respected scholars working on the academic study of Robin Hood. As such, it is an essential reference resource for all students of the legend.

4. “Rymes of Robyn Hood: An Introduction to the English Outlaw” by R.B. Dobson & J. Taylor (Eds.) (Sutton Publishing Ltd, 1989)

An earlier critical edition of the ballads—now out-of-print—but as essential as Knight & Ohlgren’s volume. It is particularly notable for the linguistic analysis which firmly placed the origin of the ballads (and therefore the legend) in Barnsdale—a former region of the West Riding of Yorkshire.

5. “Imagining Robin Hood: The Late Medieval Stories in Historical Context” by A.J. Pollard (Routledge, 2007)

As both literary works and historical artefacts, the Robin Hood ballads and plays that circulated in the late Middle Ages form a fascinating record of the concerns of medieval England. Pollard’s study explores what the legend has to say about issues such as yeomanry, forest law and popular religion.

6. “The Outlaws of Medieval Legend” by Maurice Keen (Routledge, 2000)

Although Robin Hood is the only medieval outlaw whose legend has survived into the present day, he was not unique and the likes of Eustace the Monk or Fulk FitzWaryn were equally popular folk heroes in the Middle Ages. Keen’s study examines Robin Hood in the context of this wider corpus.

7. “Robin Hood: Medieval and Post-medieval” by Helen Phillips (Ed.) (Four Courts Press Ltd, 2005)

An excellent collection of essays relating to historical aspects of the Robin Hood myth. It is particularly interesting for those studying the legend of his death as it contains a number of papers on this subject, including the first academic scrutiny of the history of Robin Hood’s Grave at Kirklees.

8. “Robin Hood: An Anthology of Scholarship and Criticism” by Stephen Knight (Ed.) (D.S. Brewer, 1999)

Published by an academic press, this mammoth anthology is almost prohibitively expensive; which is a shame because it is a rigorous and diverse resource, including studies of everything from Robin Hood’s role in the May Games to a study of the character’s role in the Romantic poetry of John Keats.

9. “Robin Hood in Popular Culture: Violence, Transgression & Justice” by Thomas Hahn (Ed.) (D.S. Brewer, 2000)

Another absurdly expensive critical anthology, but once again its contents are multifarious and compelling. The book includes essays on Robin Hood and the Nottingham tourist industry; Robin Hood musicals in the 18th Century; Robin Hood and swashbuckling cinema; and many more just as diverting.

10. “Robin Hood: Outlaw or Greenwood Myth” by Fran and Geoff Doel (DPI Media Group, 2000)

Although the mythological interpretation of the legends of Robin Hood has fallen out of fashion in academia, it was highly influential from around 1850 – 1950 and survives in the popular imagination thanks to the 1980s TV series, Robin of Sherwood. This is a good overview of the evidence.

11. “Robin Hood: The Green Lord of the Wildwood” by John Matthews (Gothic Press, 1993)

The mythological interpretation of Robin Hood survives most strongly in Neo-Pagan and other New Age circles, where it is almost an article of faith. Matthews is a veteran writer on such topics and whilst his book lacks academic rigour it nicely shows how the legend influences the Neo-Pagan imagination.

12. “The Haunts of Robin Hood” by Jill Armitage (The History Press, 2008)

In late medieval and early modern England, the ballads of Robin Hood were so popular that nearly every region claimed the outlaw for their own and sites bearing his name proliferated—from Robin Hood’s Arbour to Robin Hood’s Well. This book provides a useful gazetteer of the most famous.

13. “Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs and Ballads” by Joseph Ritson (James Clarke & Co, 1826)

Long out-of-date, of course, but this was the seminal study of the Robin Hood legend: the first attempt to collect together all material relating to the outlaw and place it in a historical context. As a radical, Ritson’s work strongly influenced the image of Robin “robbing from the rich to give to the poor”.

14. “The True History of Robin Hood” by John William Walker (E.P. Publishing, 1952)

The theory that Robin Hood was based on a 14th Century resident of Wakefield has been conclusively disproved by new evidence found by J.C. Holt. However, the argument was once very convincing and this is its definitive expression, based on preliminary work by Rev. Joseph Hunter in the 19th Century.

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