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Robin Hood and Maid Marian: Introduction

This ballad appears only once, in a broadside ballad collected by Wood which may well be post-Restoration. Much about this ballad suggests that it was deliberately constructed to add an element to the Robin Hood tradition. It is the only ballad where Maid Marian plays a part; she is briefly mentioned in Robin Hood and Queen Catherin and Robin Hood's Golden Prize. The diction seems characteristic of popular literary style (gallant dame, line 5; Perplexed and vexed, line 30; a shaded bower, line 63), while also having a distinctly broadside element (With finger in eye, shee often did cry, line 28; With kind imbraces, and jobbing of faces, line 56). The internal rhyme in the third line indicates a late and popular production.

Commentators have been severe on the ballad. Child calls it "this foolish ditty" (III, 218), while Dobson and Taylor speak of its "complete lack of literary merit" and call it an "extreme and implausible attempt" to combine Robin the lover and fighter (1976, p. 176). The events of the ballad had already been foreshadowed in Munday's play, where Matilda Fitzwater goes to the forest, becoming Marian in the process, to meet the Earl of Huntington, alias Robin Hood. The popularity of Robin Hood ballads was so great that several of these "prequels" seem to have been produced, as in Robin Hood's Progress to Nottingham and Robin Hood and Little John.

Structurally the interesting thing about Robin Hood and Maid Marian is that it shows the only credible way to join the outlaw band is to fight a draw with the leader: this is a "Robin Hood meets his match" ballad in a wider sense than usual. Foolish as commentators have found it, the notion of the hero's fight with his lover is a potent one, whether it testifies to the woman's possible martial skill, or the enormity of mistreating woman, or both at once. Found in the recent film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), the motif is here taken quite seriously, down to the length of the fight and the sight of blood, however improbable it may be that Marian does not hear Robin's voice until he asks for respite (line 50).

Robin Hood and Maid Marian clearly shows the gentrification process finding its way into the popular genres, but it does not seem to have been very popular, never appearing in the garlands and very little referred to or reworked even after Ritson made it well known.

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