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Robin Hood and the Potter: Introduction

The ballad survives only in one manuscript, Cambridge E.e.4.35, a collection of popular and moral poems dated around 1500. It is written in what Dobson and Taylor call "a clear bastard hand" (1976, p. 123) and the text is complete, though at line 271 a line appears to be missing through scribal error. Child thought there were other gaps, but if a six-line stanza is acceptable (as is found elsewhere), and since there is no break in the sense, all the other gaps he identified disappear except that before line 224, and that too may be the result of an irregular stanza.

Like the other early manuscript ballad, Robin Hood and the Monk, Robin Hood and the Potter plays no part in the popular printed tradition, though Robin Hood and the Butcher, based closely on this ballad, is in both Pepys's and Wood's collections and also in the earliest surviving garlands of 1663 and 1670. Although this Potter version was not reprinted until Ritson's edition of 1795, which gave it its present name (as in other early ballads, the title focusses on the first action, before the encounter with the sheriff is developed from it), the story was clearly well known, since Copland's edition of the Gest (c. 1560) also prints two short plays, one of which is a dramatized encounter with a potter that begins like the ballad.

The relation between the play and the ballad has been misunderstood. Child said the play was "founded on" the ballad (III, 108) and this is also the conclusion come to by Steadman, as is suggested by the title of his essay on "The Dramatization of the Robin Hood Ballads" (1919); the same view has been proffered by Simeone (1951, p. 266) and Nelson (1973, pp. 47-51). Ritson's comment is somewhat subtler, saying the play "seems allusive to the same story" (1795, p. 60). In fact the plays and ballads are generically different treatments of the same themes, covering the issues central to the myth to different degrees and in genre-appropriate ways (Knight, 1994, pp. 112-13). The Potter play has a quite different narrative from the parallel ballad; it shapes a vivid dramatic action which, as in most of the early plays, leads up to a good rousing fight as finale.

The events and structure of the ballad are a good deal more complex. There are three sections, here represented as fitts, as suggested by the language of the texts (see lines 119-20, 237). Fitt 1 occurs in the greenwood, and is basically a "Robin Hood meets his match" sequence. Fitt 2 transfers the action to Nottingham, with Robin in disguise. He encounters the sheriff, and this is fleshed out with an archery competition, as found in the Gest and in the later ballad Robin Hood's Golden Prize. Fitt 3 sees the return to the greenwood, where the sheriff is surprised and the outlaws gather about Robin at the sound of his horn.

Among these familiar events are a set of themes central to the myth. Major features are: Robin is a yeoman among yeomen; recurrent suspicion of the towns and its activities; Robin's innate skill at archery; the full and free ethics of the forest. These mesh fully with the values found in other early texts, a fact which seems to contradict Holt's view that this is a "tale very dependent on comic situations" (1989, p. 34), but Robin Hood and the Potter also adds some other themes. The generosity and honesty characteristic of Robin in other early texts are here interwoven with more obvious aspects of the trickster: this is, as Dobson and Taylor note, "more deliberately light-hearted" than parallel texts (1976, p. 124), and the humor of the outlaws, the wry responses of Robin and the ironic tricking of the Sheriff are all stressed and realized with buoyant humor: presumably it is this element that Holt downgrades as "trite" (1989, p. 34).

This text makes specific the suspicion of towns and business practices touched on elsewhere, as when in the Gest Little John refuses to measure cloth like a draper, or when Robin returns the knight's repayment to honor them both. Robin is a comically bad marketeer, and the canny folk of Nottingham throng to buy his pots (Robin Hood and the Butcher relishes this motif): Robin's largesse is continued when he pays the potter with reckless generosity for his whole cartload at the end. Throughout the ballad the world of mercantile values is mocked and dismissed.

With the same sense of excess, Robin smashes the feeble townsmen's bows offered to him by the sheriff, trounces professional marksmen and thoroughly trivializes the threat of the sheriff - who is found much more deadly in other texts, where his own death is a reflex of that threatening personality. The conflict with the sheriff is also, it seems, fought in part on the terrain of masculinity: Robin Hood and the Potter is the only early text which shows Robin in relation with any woman (except the Virgin Mary and the treacherous Prioress). The text seems deliberately to insinuate that the sheriff's wife is more than a little interested in the powerful potter. When they first meet she speaks more respectfully than might be expected, addressing the quasi-potter as "sir" and by the end of the ballad she compares this enigmatic masculine figure favorably to her mocked husband: Holt saw in this contact "a distant distorted echo of courtly love" (1989, p. 126).

These thematic features might well be held to compensate in their complexity for what has been seen as a relative simplicity in style. Dobson and Taylor find this "a much less skilful work of literary composition" than other early texts (1976, p. 124) and Ritson went so far as to say "the writing is evidently that of a vulgar and illiterate person" (1795, p. 60). There is a fairly limited use of cliché and line filler (lines 30, 52, 54, 62, 102, 122, 166, 226, 252, 275, 314), but the rhyme pattern is decidedly irregular, exhibi-ting various departures from the standard abcb: either incomplete rhyme (114/6, 134/6, 193/5, 201/3, 234/6, 254/6, 282/4), rhyme varied to abac (33-36, 53-56, 77-80, 101-04, 117-20, 200-03, 245-48), varied to abcc (85-88), or even abbc (89-92, 168-71, 293-96?), at times a lack of rhyme altogether (93-96, 191-94, 249-52) and the last of these variants, full rhyme abab (1-4, 37-40, 57-60, 137-40, 176-79, 208-11, 214-17, 225-28, 233-36, 259-62; because of the possibility of half rhyme being acceptable, some of the abac and abcb cases could be taken as abab).

Less than polished as the ballad certainly is in terms of style, it also has, as Dobson and Taylor remark a "direct form of address" (1976, p. 124). It uses dialogue more than other early Robin Hood ballads (55% of the lines, as against 45% in Robin Hood and the Monk and 50% in Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, the other two dialogue-heavy texts). In keeping with that it is notable for a rapid change of viewpoint, especially in the opening greenwood sequence. This dramatic yet simple quality has led to the connection of the ballad to the minstrel style, that is a rather casual technique based on direct communication and emotive effects, assumed to indicate a popular context. But it is notable that this technically simple ballad has some complexities. Though Robin Hood is firmly a yeoman, he is also, as in Robin Hood and the Monk, noted for his quality of being corteys and free, the latter adjective having both its senses of lordly generosity and yeomanly independence. The tone and impact of the ballad may well show more art than has sometimes been assumed: its plot is quick-moving and highly effective, its tone vigorous and direct, with a strong and well-maintained level of irony. Gray, in connection with these elements, sees aspects of the fabliau behind the ballad (1984, p. 18).

These subtleties may also be thematic. At the beginning and end the ballad asserts the elusive value of god yemanrey, and it may well be that this text, like other early Robin Hood ballads, is something of an exploration and realization of just what these values might be. As with other newly formed genres, they may relate to new social formations: Tardif has argued for the importance of disaffected craftsmen in the formation of the Robin Hood genres (1983, pp. 131-32). This ballad appears to develop some values consistent with this thesis, promulgating ideas of a newly identified social stratum, neither serf nor lord, interested in communal values and threatened by a new world of towns and laws imposed from a distance. For them the youthful, witty, brave, and cunning hero, representing and leading his band of near equals, is a good deal more than trite, and his mythic values come strongly through a text whose literary surface is simple and, therefore, capable of wide diffusion.

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Selected Bibliography Texts

Cambridge University MS E.e.4.35.

Child, F. J., ed. English and Scottish Popular Ballads. 5 vols. Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Company, 1882-98. rpt. New York: Dover, 1965. Vol. III, no. 121.

Dobson, R. B., and J. Taylor. Rymes of Robin Hood. London: Heinemann, 1976. Pp. 123-32.

Gutch, J. M., ed. A Lyttele Gest of Robin Hood with other Auncient and Modern Ballads and Songs Relating to the Celebrated Yeoman. 2 vols. London: Longman, 1847.
Vol. II, 21-35.

Ritson, Joseph, ed. Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs and Ballads Now Extant Relative to the Celebrated English Outlaw. 2 vols. London: Egerton and Johnson, 1795. Rpt. London: William Pickering, 1832. Vol. 1, 81-96.

Commentary and Criticism

Child, F. J, pp. 108-09.

Dobson, R.B., and J. Taylor, pp. 123-25.

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

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

Knight, Stephen. Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994.

Nelson, Malcolm A. The Robin Hood Tradition in the English Renaissance. Salzburg Studies in English Literature, English Drama 14. Salzburg: Institut für Englische Sprache und Literatur, Universität Salzburg, 1973.

Simeone, W. E. "The May Games and the Robin Hood Legend." Journal of American Folklore 64 (1951), 265-74.

Steadman, J. M., Jr. "The Dramatization of the Robin Hood Ballads." Modern Philology 17 (1919), 9-23.

Tardif, Richard. "The 'Mistery' of Robin Hood: A New Social Context for the Texts." In Words and Worlds: Studies in the Social Role of Verbal Culture. Eds. Stephen Knight and S. N. Mukherjee. Sydney: Sydney Association for Studies in Society and Culture, 1983.