Thomas Bulfinch (17961867). Age of Fable: Vol. III: The Age of Chivalry. 1913.
Hero Myths of the British Race
IV. Robin Hood
AMONG the earliest heirlooms of the Anglo-Saxon tongue are the songs and legends of Robin Hood and his merry outlaws, which have charmed readers young and old for more than six hundred years. These entertaining stories date back to the time when Chaucer wrote his Canterbury Tales, when the minstrel and scribe stood in the place of the more prim and precise modern printed book.
The question of whether or not Robin Hood was a real person has been asked for many years, just as a similar question has been asked about William Tell and others whom everyone would much rather accept on faith. It cannot be answered by a brief yes or no, even though learned men have pored over ancient records and have written books on the subject. According to the general belief Robin was an outlaw in the reign of Richard I, when in the depths of Sherwood Forest he entertained one hundred tall men, all good archers, with the spoil he took; but he suffered no woman to be oppressed or otherwise molested; poore mens goods he spared, abundantlie relieving them with that which by theft he got from abbeys and houses of rich carles. Consequently Robin was an immense favorite with the common people.
This popularity extended from the leader to all the members of his hardy band. God save Robin Hood and all his good yeomanry is the ending of many old ballads. The clever archer who could outshoot his fellows, the brave yeoman inured to blows, and the man who could be true to his friends through thick and thin were favorites for all time; and they have been idealized in the persons of Robin Hood and his merry outlaws.
One of the best-known stories of this picturesque figure of early English times is that given by Sir Walter Scott in Ivanhoe, concerning the archery contest during the rule of misrule of Prince John, in the absence of Richard from the kingdom. Robin Hood, under the assumed name of Locksley, boldly presents himself at a royal tournament at Ashby, as competitor for the prize in shooting with the long-bow. From the eight or ten archers who enter the contest, the number finally narrows down to two,Hubert, a forester in the service of one of the kings nobles, and Locksley or Robin Hood. Hubert takes the first shot in the final trial of skill, and lands his arrow within the inner ring of the target, but not exactly in the centre.
So saying, and without showing the least anxiety to pause upon his aim, Locksley stepped to the appointed station, and shot his arrow as carelessly in appearance as if he had not even looked at the mark. He was speaking almost at the instant that the shaft left the bow-string, yet it alighted in the target two inches nearer to the white spot which marked the centre than that of Hubert.
Thus exhorted, Hubert resumed his place, and not neglecting the caution which he had received from his adversary, he made the necessary allowance for a very light air of wind, which had just risen, and shot so successfully that his arrow alighted in the very centre of the target.
And letting fly his arrow with a little more precaution than before, it lighted right upon that of his competitor, which it split to shivers. The people who stood around were so astonished at his wonderful dexterity, that they could not even give vent to their surprise in their usual clamor. This must be the devil, and no man of flesh and blood, whispered the yeomen to each other; such archery was never seen since a bow was first bent in Britain.
And now, said Locksley, I will crave your Graces permission to plant such a mark as is used in the North Country; and welcome every brave yeoman who shall try a shot at it to win a smile from the bonny lass he loves best.
Locksley thereupon sets up a willow wand, six feet long and as thick as a mans thumb. Hubert is forced to decline the honor of taking part in such a trial of archery skill, but his rival easily splits the wand at a distance of three hundred feet and carries off the prize.
Even Prince John, in admiration of Locksleys skill, lost for an instant his dislike to his person. These twenty nobles, he said, which, with the bugle, thou hast fairly won, are thine own; we will make them fifty, if thou wilt take livery and service with us as a yeoman of our bodyguard, and be near to our person. For never did so strong a hand bend a bow, or so true an eye direct a shaft.1
Locksley, however, declares that it is impossible for him to enter the Princes service, generously shares his prize with the worthy Hubert, and retires once more to his beloved haunts among the lights and shadows of the good greenwood.