Review: Stephen Knight’s “Reading Robin Hood” (2015)

Stephen Knight, Reading Robin Hood: Content, Form, and Reception in the Outlaw Myth (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015), 296p. £70 (HB) ISBN: 978-0-7190-9526-9

reading Robin Hood

When scholars approach the end of their career, they often simply repackage and republish their older works. This is thankfully not the case with Stephen Knight’s new book Reading Robin Hood: Content, Form, and Reception in the Outlaw Myth (2015). Knight is the man who back in 1994 essentially rescued Robin Hood Studies from the seemingly never-ending quest to find a ‘real’ Robin Hood by shifting the discipline’s emphasis towards literary research.

Unlike his Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw (1994), or Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (2003), Knight’s most recent book is a collection of critical essays upon:

Area[s] where I have long felt exist elements of unclarity and uncertainty (p.8).

Hence there is no overall argument to work as such, and the chapters in it read like published conference papers which have never made it into journals. Knight begins by discussing the interplay between orality and literacy which has existed in the Robin Hood tradition. He then goes on to discuss the development of the outlaw myth in Scotland, after which he discusses the formation of The Gest of Robin Hood (c.1450).

Knight is strongest, however, when he is discussing the later tradition, a point which has been raised by R. B. Dobson and J. Taylor in the revised edition of Rymes of Robyn Hood (1976). The chapter ‘Romantic Robin Hood’ (pp.103-102) discusses how the Georgians transformed Robin Hood into a de-politicised, patriotic outlaw, and how this representation endures in modern portrayals. By far the strongest chapter is ‘Robin Hood in Nineteenth-Century Fiction’. He discusses the novels which appeared during that century, and argues that this period, especially between 1819 and 1822, was a watershed moment in the formation of our modern conception of Robin Hood. His sources for this chapter are Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time (1819), Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819), Maid Marian (1822), Royston Gower (1838), Pierce Egan’s Robin Hood and Little John (1838-1840), and Howard Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood (1883). These are Knight’s key texts, in addition to limited discussions of the many late Victorian children’s books on Robin which were published.

One thing which would have been good to see is for Knight to focus on the various criminal biographies of Robin Hood which appeared in the eighteenth century. There were, as my own research has shown, a significant genre of literature in the early eighteenth century. Yet all we get from Knight about these pieces of literature is a cursory four lines:

Robin did have other random appearances in the period. Several of the serial collections of criminal characters, including some versions of The Newgate Calendar, list him, typically alongside major pirates (p.106).

Furthermore, when Knight discusses Pierce Egan’s Robin Hood and Little John (1838), he makes no mention of the fact that this tale was originally published as a penny blood, and it would have been useful to have some more contextualisation around this, especially in view of the fact that Rosalind Crone has argued recently that penny bloods were one of the working classes’ main outlets for accessing violent entertainment. If there had been more contextualisation on this point, Knight may have been able to nuance the point about Egan’s book being a ‘gentrified’ text. The above weaknesses notwithstanding, however, Knight has once again produced a detailed, scholarly text that is sure to be of use to Robin Hood scholars for years to come, and my own research owes a debt to Stephen Knight for having made the later tradition a serious area of scholarly inquiry.

Categories: History, Robin Hood, Robin Hood Studies

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