Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne: Introduction

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Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne: Introduction

Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne only survives in the folio manuscript acquired by Thomas Percy (British Library Add MSS 27879), which is dated in the mid seventeenth century and clearly is a collection of pre-existing materials; this is the only one of the six Robin Hood ballads in the manuscript that Percy printed in his Reliques of 1765. He gave it the title used here, though in other more recent versions of the title Robin's opponent is called Sir Guy. This honorific is used frequently in the text, but Percy may have omitted it, as Child does, from the ballad's title because the text states that he and Robin are both yeoman (line 87), and so the knightly title seems anomalous, though Percy did add a note that "Sir" was used outside the knightly class (1765, p. 86). He edited the manuscript version considerably for meter and comprehension, though in his fourth edition he reinstated some of the original readings; Ritson also edited the text fairly heavily for his 1795 collection.

Child prints this text first after the Gest, presumably because of the evident antiquity of the story: Sir Guy is mentioned in Dunbar's poem Of Sir Thomas Norry, to be dated by the early sixteenth century, but before that a similar plot is told in a play found in a manuscript written about 1475 (see pp. 281-84 in this edition). Because Child assumed the plays were based on ballads, this might have led him to assume a date for the ballad even earlier than Robin Hood and the Monk, hence his ordering of the texts. This assumption would seem questionable: although the difference between play and ballad is not so great in this instance as in that of the Potter story, it still seems that they are generic variants of the same theme, and one cannot be placed before the other. But the ballad may well date from the fifteenth century in something very much like its present form, and as Fowler remarks it "may well be one of the earliest of all the Robin Hood ballads" (1980, p. 1782).

In making his judgment on date, Child might have been influenced by Percy's comment that this ballad bore "marks of much greater antiquity than any of the common popular songs on this subject" (1765, p. 124), though Robin Hood and the Monk was apparently unknown to Percy. Child's early location of the ballad may also be influenced by what seem to be quite ancient motifs in the ballad, notably Guy's horse-hide and head, which seems more like a ritual costume than a disguise, and also by what Dobson and Taylor call the ballad's "exceptionally violent tone" (1976, p. 141). When Robin defaces this enemy's head and places it on his bow's end, both ritual and savagery seem to be invoked. The importance of the "mythic" Robin Hood is a matter for debate, but if that interpretation has any force, this ballad is one of its locations. The idea of a conflict between a true and a false forester (who has some resonances of the devil in Chaucer's Friar's Tale), the hero's unflinching ferocity against his enemies, his understanding of their rituals (including his appropriation of their own ritual costume), his capacity to be polymorphous -- at the end, both false Guy and a quasi-priest -- his insistence on facing this enemy himself even at the expense of his own fellowship, these are all elements which create a slightly different Robin (also found in the equally fierce Robin Hood's Progress to Nottingham), more emphatic, more inspired, more like the mythic international hero than the inherently human friend to many found in other early texts.

The ballad is set in the Yorkshire Barnsdale area (line 181) and Gisborne, wherever precisely it may be, is in the same region (see note to line 138). This makes it seem odd that the outlaw's major enemy is the Sheriff of Nottingham. Though sheriffs did have some duty to pursue felons outside their precincts, this is too far for credibility, and this ballad, early though its origins are, must represent to some extent a conflation -- oral or literary -- of the differently located Robin Hood myths, a process taken further in the Gest. In the suggestion that the sheriff has employed Sir Guy (lines 99-100 and 187-90), we may well see a conscious articulation of two separate enemies, and at least one element of rationalization within this emotively intense text.

The power of this ballad also derives from its speed and its capacity to exploit the elisions and emphases of the ballad form. Though these qualities have been noted -- Dobson and Taylor speak of its "concisely dramatic qualities" (1976, p. 141), the extent of the significance of these features has not been fully appreciated by most commentators, more meshed in the tradition of realist humanism than aware of what Gray calls "the inherently expressionist form" of ballads (1984, p. 16). One example of this misinterpretation is the problem allegedly caused by the fact that Robin, having argued with John and set off on his own, cannot know that John has been seized by the sheriff -- and yet goes straight to rescue him. Child thinks this shows "considerable derangement of the story" (III, 90), and Dobson and Taylor agree (1976, pp. 140-41). Yet this sort of instinctive certainty is just what empowers the hero of romance: he is led to his heroic encounter by fortune and self-confidence. Narrative elisions of this dramatic kind are common enough throughout the ballads -- Sir Patrick Spens being a famous example.

A more striking example of this failure to "read" the genre of the poem lies in the assumption by commentators that there is a substantial sequence missing in the early stanzas. While it is evident that Robin Hood and the Monk has lost a leaf (and so about 48 lines) after line 120, and the Percy Folio has some pages torn in half, there is in fact no need to assume, as rationalists requiring the comfort of a blow-by-blow narrative have done, that there is anything missing between lines 6 and 7 of Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne. Rapid moving the text certainly is -- but then John says in line 13 that sweavens are swift, and the ballads characteristically slip very quickly into their action, often giving the impression that the audiences knew quite well who these people were and what they did, so that fussier introductions would be superfluous; compare the opening of Robin Hood and the Monk, which has a very cursory introduction to the characters; Adam Bell is another case.

In terms of style this ballad is not unlike Robin Hood and the Monk: it has a relatively consistent metrical pattern and a recurrent abcb rhyme (with one six-line stanza, lines 21-27), occasional use of the abab pattern (lines 26-30, 35-38, 43-46, 59-62), and relatively few poor rhymes (lines 6/8, 36/8, 48/50, 88/90, 100/02, 112/14). Compared with Robin Hood and the Potter the language of the ballad is in general sure-footed, lacking the element of line-filler and cliché common to the popular ballad as it develops. This vigorous language emphasizes the effect of the pace and rapid variation of the narrative, the poetic drive which is the central instrument of this fierce and powerful ballad, creating powerfully its dramatic story and deepening the thematic impact of its "mysterious story" (Holt, 1989, p. 30).

In a number of ways it summarizes major themes that are to work strongly in the myth right through to the present. The argument between Little John and Robin that makes them separate leaves them both vulnerable: in this respect the poem is a partner piece to Robin Hood and the Monk. Robin's opponent is a personal enemy, with a vengeful, almost diabolic character, and his humiliation and destruction are an essential part of the story. The whole encounter has elements of natural myth about it, suggested rather than expressed. The final triumph is dependent not only on courage and fidelity among the outlaws but also on some supreme piece of trickery that stamps their spirit as well as their success on the story. This ballad also creates vividly the essential agon versus the villain. In nineteenth-century tradition the name of Sir Guy had just the right ring for a melodramatic villain, but the mixture of menace and mystery borne by Robin Hood's central opponent is originally and splendidly created in this strong ballad, which, by combining a dramatic fight with a bold rescue, remains at the core of the whole myth.

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Selected Bibliography


Child, F. J. The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. 5 vol. (1882-98). Rpt. New York: Dover, 1965. Vol. III, no. 118.

Dobson, R. B., and J. Taylor. Rymes of Robyn Hood. London: Heinemann, 1976.

Gutch, J. M. A Litell Gest of Robin Hood with other Auncient and Modern Ballads and Songs Relating to the Celebrated Yeoman. London: Longman, 1847. Vol. II, pp. 68-83.

Thomas Percy's Folio Manuscript (c. 1640-50).

Percy, Thomas, ed. Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. 3 vols. London: J. Dodsley, 1765.

Ritson, Joseph, ed. Robin Hood, A Collection of All the Auncient Poems, Songs and Ballads Now Extant Relative to the Celebrated English Outlaw. 2 vols. London: Egerton and Johnson, 1795. Rpt. 1832. Vol. I, pp. 114-25.

Commentary and Criticism

Bellamy, John C. Robin Hood: An Historical Inquiry. London: Croom Helm, 1985.

Child, F. J., pp. 89-91.

Dobson, R. B., and J. Taylor., pp. 140-41.

Fowler, D. C. "Ballads." In The Manual of Writings in Middle English 1050-1550, new series. Ed. A. E. Hartung. New Haven, Connecticut: Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1980. Pp. 1753-1808.

Gray, Douglas. "The Robin Hood Ballads." Poetica 18 (1984), 1-39.

Holt, J. C. Robin Hood. Second ed. London: Thames and Hudson, 1989.