Friday, January 13, 2017

Book Review: Robin Hood: The English Outlaw Unmasked by David Baldwin

Robin Hood: The English Outlaw Unmasked by David Baldwin

Robin Hood has had a massive amount of mythology grow up around him. Is it possible to peel away the layers and find the historical inspiration for the many legends? That task is the central purpose for David Baldwin in writing this book.

He begins with a survey of the earliest ballads and stories about Robin Hood. The earliest is Little Geste of Robyn Hode and his Meiny. It is a compilation of five different stories (in verse) about Robin and his men. Using this and other early legends about the hero, Baldwin then examines various possible candidates for Robin. Turns out there have been plenty of people who took to the forest to fight what they thought was injustice imposed by a an unfair and corrupt government, some even named Robert Hode or Robyn Hud or other variants.

Baldwin also searches for analogues of other characters like Little John, the Sheriff of Nottingham, the King of England, etc. The search helps the author triangulate the most likely time and actual people. The result is a fascinating survey of English history in the 1200s and 1300s. Plenty of other corrupt rulers besides Prince John populate those times, as well as dramatic civil strife over the implementation of Magna Carta and the first attempts at parliamentary rule. The Robin Hood story almost gets sidetracked for a while. The book comes around at the end and makes a compelling argument for a pair of friends (Roger Godberd and Walter Devyas) who have many parallels to the exploits of Robin Hood and Little John.

The research in the book is thorough and scholarly without being boring and academic. The characters are naturally dynamic, with exciting lives of crime and redemption (to greater or lesser extents). The argument is enjoyable and persuasive while not being definitive. With such a great distance in time certitude is hard to come by; surely the bards of the fourteenth century embellished and gathered together the best elements of several stories to make the most entertain tales they could. Picking the scant evidence apart and putting together a convincing whole is a great challenge. Baldwin rises to the occasion and delivers a fascinating survey of the various and best historical people who inspired the legends of Robin Hood.

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