Bags of Bran

“…and an honest man Robin was–in his own way.”
March 25, 2014, 7:29 pm
Filed under: Personal Adventures | Tags:

But after Robin left the little dell he strode along merrily, singing as he went; and so blithe was he and such a stout beggar, and, withal, so fresh and clean, that every merry lass he met had a sweet word for him and felt no fear, while the very dogs, that most times hate the sight of a beggar, snuffed at his legs in friendly wise and wagged their tails pleasantly; for dogs know an honest man by his smell, and an honest man Robin was— in his own way.

Pyle, Howard, The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood (New York: Grosset & Dunlap Publishers, 1946), 249-250.


I just finished reading Howard Pyle’s time-honored classic, The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, at C.S. Lewis’ recommendation that I space the reading of new books with old books. The first time I read it was in 1990: I can convey this fact to you with a sense of certainty because my name is written on the library card in the back of the volume, and the date is 1990. Now, the sleuths among my readership will no doubt be satisfied that the date question is settled, but will perhaps further suspect me of stealing this book and accruing a second-mortgage sized library fine over the decades.

Not so hasty, my friend. When I returned the book late in the school year in 1990, the librarian happened to ask me what I thought of it, and I evidently said lofty things, because three toilsome and tumultuous years later at my graduation, she bequeathed to me the book as a gift. And here I am, reading it again nearly a quarter century later, and enjoying it with a new set of eyes.

This book, I think, changed how I approached literature and language: I imagine it is where I learned to love the cadence and artistry of the King James Version. Pyle’s language is archaic. He could not have told the story any other way. I had to learn all sorts of new, outdated vocabulary, which was its own rich reward, because when a fourteen year old boy discovers what it means that sturdy yeomen strode stoutly twixt the trees, pausing only to munch brown crust or crack knaves’ pates with cudgels, that fourteen year old boy is imaginatively enhanced for life. In fact, that fourteen year old boy, I recall, stayed up overlate to read chapters from this book, giggling and sniggering and cackling out loud at the quaint, semi-foreign wordings. I did the same thing as a thirty-eight year old boy. But what do you think? You’re the fourteen year old boy: “I am going to hit you on top of your head with this here long stick, you worthless person, and it is going to hurt, by George!” or “I’ll cudgel thy knave’s pate till it be soft as the white of an egg and thy villain’s tongue rattle betwixt thy teeth!” Having been bored to tears by the likes of Beverly Cleary by this point in my childhood, I quickly made myself into an amateur decoder of archaic prose.

And yes, for the record, I cried at the end. Both times. I even knew it was coming, though I had forgotten some of the details.

As charming as this book is, and as much as I enjoyed it, I would recommend it only with a fair warning, especially for the young. Pyle went as far as he felt he needed to in his treatment of Robin Hood to redeem a legendary thug. The Robin Hood of Pyle’s creation is not the Robin Hood he found in the source material: a common, if charming, criminal with a vindictive streak. Pyle worked with the old ballads and tall tales, weaving them together with significant domestication so that he could present a coherent morality tale for the 1880’s, a generation that was still swirling in the wake of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe.

The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood is an outstanding instance of the idyllic imagination, or the generic sensibilities of the society of his day: Robin steals from the rich to give to the poor; he is an outlaw because of one act of retaliation which still haunts him; his might makes right in his dealings with others, and he can stand up against oppressive authority. Each of these resonate with the reader, not only because Robin is a likable character, but because he has his own sense of justice that the reader is assumed to share. In this sense, Pyle’s redemption only raises Robin Hood above his lowbrow roots to the level of the idyllic man: Robin’s morality is after his own manner, not an objectively-derived sense of right and wrong or of his place in an arguably unjust world.

Let’s face it: nobody is going to read this book and feel bad for the Bishop of Hereford. He dressed lavishly and dined sumptuously on wealth that he had wrung from poor peasants by means of his office. *SPOILER ALERT* Robin Hood and his merry men clean him out of the equivalent of tens of thousands of dollars, and it feels OK, especially when the stated intention of Robin et al. is to keep a third to live upon and give the rest to the poor. But whose place is it, in a moral world, to right such wrongs, and how are those wrongs to be righted? In the world of Pyle’s Robin Hood, might makes right, and Pyle’s Robin Hood just so happened (lucky for the poor folks in the immediate vicinity of Sherwood Forest) to be a kindly soul who was mighty.

Dangerous ideas in delicious prose, but with this caveat lector in mind, I would encourage you to read this book, especially to your kids. Your imagination, not to mention your vocabulary, will be expanded.


3 Comments so far
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I’m just finishing up reading Roger Lancelyn Green’s version of Robin Hood to my children. Great fun, not to mention great fodder for ethical discussions. I’d like to read Pyle’s version someday.


Comment by Jason Parker

That’s the way to do it! I’ve not read Green’s work, but I’ll have to now for comparison’s sake.

Pyle is old and out of copyright. I have a hard copy with Pyle’s delightful illustrations every so often, but I also bought the Kindle version for $.99. Incidentally, the illustrations are tremendous: Not quite Durer tremendous, but very good nonetheless. N. C. Wyeth studied under Pyle and you can really see the latter’s influence in the former’s work.


Comment by christopheram

I’m reading Pyle’s King Arthur right now. At the end of some chapters, he weaves some morality tale for readers, finding some obscure allegory from the text to exhort us “May you, too, joust against all opponents of good, and find victory and joy in your uprightness…”


Comment by David

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