Robins of the Hood: Robin Hood Retellings and Histories

Robin Hood is another one of those legends (along with Arthurian legend) that grabbed my attention from a young age. I’ve always been an Anglophile, so I was bound to be intrigued by it, but I think it goes deeper than that. There is just something about the idea of living in a huge, ancient, deciduous forest like Sherwood that makes me happy. I mean, who hasn’t dreamed of living in a treehouse at one point or another? When I was in England for school, I tried to go to Sherwood but I never really made it. I saw a bit of it as I was driving to Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire, but whizzing past it on the highway was as close as I got. It just seems free and beautiful. I don’t get to see a lot of real trees at home. I get thorny bush-like ugly things that have the nerve to call themselves trees. It’s a good thing I’m not bitter about it…

I also love the social justice elements of Robin Hood—robbing from the rich and giving to the poor always made me giggle with delight. As an adult, there are more subtle nuances to it I appreciate. I’m guessing that Trump, if he could read, wouldn’t be a fan of Robin Hood. Presidents aside, the basic issues remain relevant today. I’m not sure if it’s incredibly sad that we are still fighting poverty, inequality, race, and a plethora of other social issues today, or if it merely highlights the ways in which literature showcases universal themes of humanity. We’ll go with that. It’s less depressing.

The earliest recorded mention of Robin Hood was in 1226 in the York Assizes, a criminal court document. This particular document recorded, “Idem vicecomes debet xxxij. s. et. vj. d. de catallis Roberti Hod fugitivi,” or, “Also, the fugitive Robert Hod owes the sheriff 32 shillings and 6 pence.” You can see a facsimile of the York Assizes here, reprinted from the 1226 manuscripts, which was published in 1927. This is Robert Hod, a form of Robin Hood, and it’s clear he was a criminal of some sort though whether he was robbing from the rich and giving to the poor is really open to debate. The name Robert Hod (also Robin Hood, Rabunhod, Robehode, and many other variants) was a common name and alias, similar to John Doe today. It is possible that many of the recorded accounts, such as the York Assizes, were false names, especially since they were given in criminal accounts. Additionally, Robert was a super common name in the Middle Ages, and its diminutive form is Robin, and Hood was not an uncommon surname, referring either to a person who made hoods or who wore one. So…not helpful.

Another possible genesis for the Robin Hood legend, which most scholars today have since determined to be false but fun anyway, is that he and his men were followers of Simon de Montfort. Simon de Montfort was the 6th Earl of Leicester and, for a time, the de facto ruler of England after he led the Second Barons’ War in 1263 against Henry III. One of de Montfort’s greatest accomplishments was to introduce non-noble citizens into Parliament. Because of this, he is sometimes considered to be one of the founders of modern democracy. When he was killed at the Battle of Evesham on 4 August 1265, his men—those who managed to escape absolute slaughter on the battlefield—scattered and lived as outlaws, often harassing the king’s men. Sound familiar? The main difference is that the time was after King John, the traditional period of Robin Hood. Simon de Montfort and his men fought and died during the reign of Henry III, the son of King John, so it was only a tad off. Personally, I think it is entirely possible that the time frame of the Robin Hood legend was deliberately shifted to the reign of King John because John quite simply made for a better villain. He was well known for his horrible personality and temperament, a reign fraught with turmoil and conflict, numerous affairs with noblewomen, and questions of his religious devotion, personality traits which were considered to be deficiencies at the time. By contrast, Henry III, who also had a tumultuous reign, was supposedly a fairly genial man, very religiously devout, at least to all outward appearances, and was easily influenced by his advisors, most of whom were his close friends. In short, he was boring. As a writer, I would have preferred to use John instead, too.

The most reasonable explanation for Robin Hood is that he is a figure solely from mythology and folklore. There is support for this idea because he exists in ballads, which so often draw on myth and lore as their primary sources, as well as the collective imagination of the oral tradition of a culture. Additionally, elements within the ballads and poems, such as the color green Robin Hood typically wore, are linked to other mythic figures such as Robin Goodfellowe. The earliest known Robin Hood Ballad is “Robin Hood and the Monk,” written around 1450. 

However, William Langland mentioned Robin Hood in a very brief passage in his work Piers Plowman in 1377. This brief mention may indicate that the legend was at least somewhat common in the oral tradition, and was working on making its way into the literary tradition. The Langland reference implies that Robin Hood might have been a somewhat popular story:

I know not Paternoster · as the priest it singeth,
But I know rhymes of Robin Hood · and Earl Randolph of Chester,
But of our Lord or our Lady · not the least ever made. (Passus V)

It was not until much later, however, with the 1883 publication of Howard Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, that the legend really became popular in literature. As with much of Arthurian literature, the field of Robin Hood studies and popular literature is full of white men, though this is getting a little better, particularly in TV and film media. Below are a few novels by and about the Robin Hood legend that I’ve found interesting over the years. Which others would you recommend?

N.B.: The diversity is seriously lacking in this list. I had a HELL of a time finding any authors of color to include here. If you know of any, PLEASE let me know. But there are some awesome queer and gender bent retellings below, which I am here for all the time.

Quoted summaries are from the publisher summaries provided on Amazon.

Falls the Shadow by Sharon Kay Penman

Ok, so it’s not actually a Robin Hood novel. But a) Sharon Kay Penman is one of my favorite authors of all time and b) this novel focuses on Simon de Montfort, who, as you know, may have contributed in some way to the genesis of the Robin Hood legend. “Simon de Montfort was a man ahead of his time in the thirteenth century, a disinherited Frenchman who talked his way into an English earldom and marriage with a sister of the English king, Henry III. A charismatic, obstinate leader, Simon soon lost patience with the king’s incompetence and inability to keep his word, and found himself the champion of the common people.” This book is definitely worth a read, as are all of Penman’s books. She’s an absolute delight.

The Forest Queen by Betsy Cornwell

When sixteen-year-old Sylvie’s brother takes over management of their family’s vast estates, Sylvie feels powerless to stop his abuse of the local commoners. Her dearest friend asks her to run away to the woods with him, and soon a host of other villagers join them. Together, they form their own community and fight to right the wrongs perpetrated by the king and his noblemen. Perfect for fans of fairy tale retellings or anyone who loves a strong female lead, this gorgeously written take on the Robin Hood tale goes beyond the original’s focus on economic justice to explore love, gender, the healing power of nature, and what it means to be a family.”

Scarlet by AC Gaughen

Will Scarlet’s story. “Will Scarlet is good at two things: stealing from the rich and keeping secrets. … Scarlet’s biggest secret of all is one only Robin and his men know … that the boy terrorizing the sheriff’s men is really a girl.”

Maid of Sherwood by Shanti Krishnamurty

“Headstrong Marian du Luc would rather traipse through Sherwood Forest and spar with her family’s antique sword than wear the fancy dresses and ribbons her mother favors. Nevertheless, she conforms to her mother’s standards when her family is summoned to Nottingham Castle by the evil Prince John. Upon her arrival Marian is forced to endure the advances of the Sheriff of Nottingham while she secretly meets with the handsome outlaw ‘Hood,’ who has captured her heart with his passion for justice. Court intrigue tangles Marian in its web when she discovers horrendous truths about Prince John and the Sheriff, placing her life in jeopardy and forcing her to confront the hidden truths in her own family. Of course, everything would be much easier if she wasn’t head over heels with the one man the Sheriff would risk anything to kill…”

Hood by Stephen Lawhead

Robin Hood retold as a medieval Welsh historical fiction. “Hunted like an animal by Norman invaders, Bran ap Brychan, heir to the throne of Elfael, has abandoned his fathers kingdom and fled to the greenwood. There, in a primeval forest of the Welsh borders, danger surrounds him—for this woodland is a living, breathing entity with mysterious powers and secrets, and Bran must find a way to make it his own if he is to survive.”

Hawksmaid by Kathryn Lasky

“Daughter of one of England’s most famous falconers, Matty knows her destiny lies with her father’s magnificent birds even before she begins to hear their thoughts and speak their language. As tragedy strikes close to home and the sinister sheriff of Nottingham rises to power, Matty’s friend Fynn is forced to become Robin Hood and she herself becomes Maid Marian.”

Outlaw by Angus Donald

Alan a Dale’s story, set during the reign of Henry II. “When he’s caught stealing, young Alan Dale is forced to leave his family and go to live with a notorious band of outlaws in Sherwood Forest. Their leader is the infamous Robin Hood. A tough, bloodthirsty warrior, Robin is more feared than any man in the county. And he becomes a mentor for Alan; with his fellow outlaws, Robin teaches Alan how to fight—and how to win. But Robin is a ruthless man—and although he is Alan’s protector, if Alan displeases him, he could also just as easily become his murderer.”

Morningstar by David Gemmell

This backlist bump is an “epic fantasy based on the classic Robin Hood legend. Jarek Mace, a thief who preys upon wealthy nobles, is hailed as a hero. But is he a soldier of honor, or just a mercenary?”

The Gallows in the Greenwood by Phyllis Ann Karr

Everyone knows the Robin Hood legend, but for this retelling, Phyllis Ann Karr has found a historical precident to create a female Sheriff of Nottingham and suddenly the whole myth explodes, taking on new meanings that resonate deep within contemporary culture.”

Marian by Ella Lyons

Tomboy Marian Banner must turn into a little lady when her father moves them from the countryside to the big city of Nottingham. “But into Marian’s dull new world comes someone exciting—a girl named Robin Hood who is as courageous and dedicated as she is small. Robin is determined to become a knight, and she won’t let her gender stand in her way. The two girls quickly become inseparable. … When Marian’s father is killed and the king takes an interest in her, she’ll need Robin to prove she’s the hero she always wanted to be.” Lesbian YA retelling of Robin Hood.

In the Greenwood” by Mari Ness

So it’s not a book, but it’s just too good not to include here. I can’t give even a bare summary without potentially spoiling it, so just go read it.

Sovay by Celia Rees

An 18th century retelling. “In 1794 England, the beautiful Sovay dons a man’s cloak and holds up stagecoaches in broad daylight. Posing as a highway robber began as a lark to test a suitor’s devotion. But when she lifts the wallet of one of England’s most dangerous men, Sovay begins to unravel a web of deceit and duplicity.”

Greenwode by J Tullos Hennig

Pagan, gay fantasy reimagining. “When an old druid foresees [a] harbinger of chaos, he also glimpses its future. A peasant from Loxley will wear the Hood and, with his sister, command a last, desperate bastion of Old Religion against New. Yet a devout nobleman’s son could well be their destruction—Gamelyn Boundys, whom Rob and Marion have befriended. Such acquaintance challenges both duty and destiny. The old druid warns that Rob and Gamelyn will be cast as sworn enemies, locked in timeless and symbolic struggle for the greenwode’s Maiden. Instead, a defiant Rob dares his Horned God to reinterpret the ancient rites, allow Rob to take Gamelyn as lover instead of rival.”

The Scarlet Forest: A Tale of Robin Hood by AE Chandler

“You are invited underneath the great greenwood tree to hear how a young man became a hero, and a hero became a legend. When Robin takes a shortcut through Sherwood Forest, the path he chooses leads not to Nottingham’s archery contest, but to a life on the run from the law. Unable now to become a knight, and joined by his childhood friends, Robin Hood leads the most infamous outlaw band ever to evade the king and his sheriff. … The forest is waiting.”

The Hooded Man by Courtney Sheets

“When her father is brutally murdered in front of her eyes, Marian of Locksley is thrust into a world of treason and greed, where the ultimate prize is the throne of England. Left with little choice, she disguises herself as Robin of the Hood, an outlaw despised by royalty and loved by the people…and the wickedly handsome, steadfast Will Scarlet.”

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Kristen McQuinn: Kristen McQuinn is a medievalist who dreams of reading more, writing more, and traveling more while being the best single mama by choice she possibly can be. By day, she can be found working with English teachers at the University of Phoenix, where she also teaches the occasional class on mythology, Shakespeare, or Brit lit. Sometimes she updates even her own blog. Follow her on Twitter:@KristenMcQuinn or www.hergraceslibrary.com.  Twitter: @KristenMcQuinn