A True Tale of Robin Hood: Introduction

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A True Tale of Robin Hood: Introduction

Martin Parker, the best known professional ballad writer of the early seventeenth century, produced his lengthy compilation by early 1632. It was entered in the Stationers' Register in February; the copy in the Bodleian Library has been thought to have been produced late in 1631. Child printed his text from the copy in the British Library, but the Bodleian copy (here called Bod.) is used here as a base text, being both slightly more accurate (see lines 28, 80, 152, 263, 352, 374, 470) and perhaps an earlier edition. Both these early copies have been cropped for binding in a similar way, and at times the edition of 1686 needs to be consulted, including for some words in the highly elaborate subtitle:
A brief Touch of the life and death of that Renowned Outlaw, Robert Earle of Huntington vulgarly called Robbin Hood, who lived and dyed in A.D. 1198, being the 9 yere of the reigne of King Richard the first, commonly called Richard Cuer de Lyon.

Carefully collected out of the truest Writers of our English Chronicles. And published for the satisfaction of those who desire too see

Truth purged from falsehood.
So scholarship and moralism arrive in what Parker suggests is the otherwise frail and fantastical realm of Robin Hood story. This is more a blurb than a commitment, however, because, as Child wryly points out, in his rejection of "fained tales" Parker uses plenty of the ballad fictions. He clearly is familiar with Grafton, and also is obviously aware of the Gest through the "Saint Maries" Abbey connection (line 33). And he follows fully Munday's gentrified representation of the hero (Lord Robert Hood by name, line 12). Incidents are drawn from Robin Hood and the Bishop, Robin Hood and Queen Catherin, Munday's The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington, and probably the ending of Robin Hood's Fishing. Child suggested that the fight against the abbot (lines 173-220) and the Bishop of Ely (lines 221-56) came from "some lost broadside" (III, 227), but this Bishop figures in Munday, and the abbot story could easily be an assemblage of similar events.

Child finally remarks that Parker may have chosen his title A True Tale as a challenge to the popular proverb "Tales of Robin Hood are good for fools," but it is clear from his sub-title and his final words that Parker is specifically associating himself with the popular scholarship that then, as now, sought to identify the real Robin Hood: he ends by quoting -- probably composing -- the alleged epitaph raised by the Prioress of Kirklees for her dead cousin.

Parker's business was to publish fluent and credible texts of some size on popular subjects of national interest, including King Arthur and St. George. His was, in a sense, the hardback trade parallel to the paperback world of broadsides. His A True Tale is in effect a new version of the Gest, a major compilation for a serious audience in a new context of readership. The Gest was suited to certain fifteenth-century tastes with its episodic narrative, its casual and sometimes humorous moralism, and its sturdy anti-authoritarianism. Parker's text bespeaks new values of biography and historicism, a hero not only named and placed, but also given a developed career with motives for his major deeds. It is also a text that thoroughly embraces central government and sees the old Catholic churchmen as the major enemy; insofar as Robin attacks them he is valued, but as an enemy of the modern state he is to be deplored. The readers are to be delighted that in these latter dayes / Of civill government there are a hundred wayes / Such outlawes to prevent (lines 433-36).

None of the humor of the earlier (and later) ballads survives, nor does their concern for the forest and natural values. Robin is worth discussing because he was a man of fame (line 10), generous and brave, fiercely anti-clerical -- castrating monks and friars was a normal practice of these sparkes (lines 65-72). He only shed blood in self defence, and mostly that of the crewell clergie (line 274). Not only did he not resist the king seriously, he sued for his favor (via a message on an arrow) and the king would have agreed had not his advisers thought it a bad precedent (line 327). Robin's resistance faded away, as he did himself through the treacherous prioress and a faithless fryer (line 365).

Parker's need to negotiate what for his period were the rather complex politics of this outlaw is shown by the fact that some eighty lines follow the death of Robin, as the author works through a whole series of lessons to be drawn in a cautious, conservative way from this account. The events would now be unpossible (line 429), and in these days of guns, civil government, and of plenty, truth and peace (line 462), we can note the truth of this saga, but also confine it to the past.

Time, change, and politics have, it seems, overtaken the timeless present of the Robin Hood myth as it had been; later periods will take the same historicist viewpoint but re-interpret it in terms of heritage and good times passed. But that will not come directly from Parker's model. His solid, capable, and thoroughly controlled ballad epic -- that is the only suitable generic name -- was no doubt both too long and too unfanciful to be really popular. It has some unappealingly sheriff-like propensities in its attempt to imprison the outlaw hero in the anti-clerical statis of its period, and even in the measured confidence of its orderly but somewhat lifeless stanzas. The extra rhyme of the abab scheme implies closure and authorial control rather than the more open and rough vigor of the older ballad meter.

Where Munday produced a sprawling dramatic rehash, and Ben Jonson a failed piece of forest fancy, where the later novelists were to find the Robin Hood materials too elusive for their best success, Parker did have the distinction of making a substantial genre fit firmly to the Robin Hood material -- though in the process he misplaced the untidy dynamism and the elusive touches of myth that lay, and in some sense still do, behind the many tales, true or not, of Robin Hood.

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