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Robin Hood and Will Scarlet: Introduction

This ballad is found in seventeenth-century broadsides and early garlands under the title Robin Hood Newly Revived. Child printed it under that title, which has been generally accepted. Ritson, however, decided this was Robin Hood and the Stranger, for which a tune was known (and other ballads were said to be sung to it) but no words. Ritson's title is not appropriate because other ballads are as well qualified for that title, but Robin Hood Newly Revived is itself a poor name as it has nothing to do with the content of the ballad and is basically a publicist's blurb. In this edition the ballad is named Robin Hood and Will Scarlet because it appears to be dedicated to explaining the arrival in the outlaw band of a well-known figure (like other ballads in this section) and so deserves a parallel name.

However, the outlaw who is introduced seems quite different from the hard-handed figure who began his career as Will Scathelock and stood with Little John beside his leader as Cai and Bedwyr support Arthur in early Welsh tradition. This ballad uses the "prequel" pattern as a way of absorbing into the tradition the materials surrounding Gamelyn, hero of a separate epic romance, and perhaps also as a way of using materials from the lyric ballad Robin and Gandelyn.

Robin Hood and Will Scarlet has a familiar set of opening moves, so familiar they may smack of a written rather than oral tradition: a "Come all ye" opening; the motif of adventure before food; Robin meets a stranger in the forest. This stranger is distinctly aggressive (as others have been, like the Beggar and the Tinker whom Robin meets in minor ballads, Child nos. 133 and 127). Robin's threat to shoot is matched by the stranger and it seems that the fatal situation of Robin and Gandelyn is developing. But instead a fierce sword fight follows.

So much is familiar in the "Robin Hood meets his match" tradition. But the stranger reveals he is "Young Gamwell," who is fleeing to seek his uncle, Robin Hood. This action is reminiscent of Gamelyn, where the hero flees to the forest having killed his brother's porter and is welcomed by the outlaw king. Gamwell, it transpires, is Robin's sister's son (an especially strong version of the uncle-nephew relationship) and he is welcomed, absorbed into the band and immediately becomes one of the inner group, with Little John and Robin (as seen in The Jolly Pinder of Wakefield and other ballads).

In form the ballad seems relatively early and not too heavily marked as literary. It has some strong colloquial diction, as in For we have no vittles to dine (line 9) or Go play the chiven (line 30), and the ballad in general lacks the elaborate diction and internal third-line rhyme that tend to mark the commercial products of the period; the occasional weak rhyme also looks back to the earlier and orally oriented performed ballads.

However, unlike other seventeenth-century ballads, there are no other references to suggest that this story existed early, though the title Robin Hood Newly Revived might be taken to suggest that a previous text had been reshaped for publication. In its earliest form, as its final lines indicate, it has attached to it seven stanzas of Robin Hood and the Scotchman, and there is a second part to this ballad which exists separately as Robin Hood and the Prince of Aragon. In spite of the possibility that an earlier ballad existed connecting Gamwell directly to the Robin Hood tradition, there is nothing to suggest that this whole ballad was not itself produced in the commercial context by a writer particularly well attuned to the earlier style of ballad. Intriguing as the connections of this ballad may be, all that can be said certainly is, as Child sums up, that it appears to "have been built up on a portion of the ruins, so to speak, of the fine tale of Gamelyn" (III, 144).

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