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Robin Hood and the Golden Arrow: Introduction

This is a fairly late ballad, not recorded until an eighteenth-century garland, though it was known to the compiler of the Forresters manuscript and is used in Robin Hood and the Shryff. It describes the archery contest, a favorite episode in the outlaw tradition, found as early as the Gest. The question must be whether it is a literary reworking of that source, or a long preserved separate account. Child obviously thinks the former is the case as he says, "The first twenty-three stanzas are based upon the Gest, sts 282-95" (i.e., 1127-82, III, 223).

The description of the arrow (lines 26-27) and Robin's response (lines 32-33) certainly seem guided by the Gest, lines 1137-52, but the rest of the story is rather different. In the Gest Robin is identified and pursued, Little John is wounded, and the outlaws take refuge in Sir Richard's castle. Here Robin wins, but is not identified, and the outlaws think it is a matter of honor to inform the sheriff of Robin's victory with a message arrow, which makes the sheriff extremely angry. This is reminiscent of the obsession in Arthurian romance with according precisely the right degree of praise to combatants at a tournament, some of whom may have been incognito.

While honor is a fully medieval concept, it seems unlikely that such an actionless resolution to a Robin Hood ballad would have derived from the earlier period, and it seems most likely that this is a late concoction departing from the Gest's episode of the archery contest rather like the Forresters manuscript ballads deriving from the Gest in combination with a broadside. It is striking that all modern versions of the archery contest go back to the daring and danger of the earlier version (including even the Disney cartoon of 1973), rather than the somewhat smug contrivance of this later ballad.

The language and style of the text bespeak its late origin, with internal rhyme in the third line, rather precise rhyming and occasionally fussy language (tricking game, line 15; whateer ensue, line 57; They thought no discretion, line 65; brave pastime, line 101). In the same way, the idea that the sheriff is properly treated by being left chafing in his grease, line 130 - really annoyed to have missed Robin and also awarded him the honor - seems a far cry from the ferocity of Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, when an arrow through the head was thought an adequate response to the oppressions of royal law, rather than this distinctly unheroic outwitting.

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