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Robin Hood Rescues Three Young Men: Introduction

This ballad has many slightly different versions, some of which show the influence of other Robin Hood ballads. Such a complex set of overlapping texts is common in the case of the "big'' ballads like Lady Isabel and the Elf-Knight or Clerk Saunders but unusual in the Robin Hood tradition. As a result, the title of this ballad itself is not easy to fix: Child calls it Robin Hood Rescuing Three Squires, but only in some versions are the potential victims called squires. In others they are the widow's three sons or three brothers, and sometimes they are Robin's own men. The essence of the ballad is that Robin disguises himself as the hangman in order to rescue wrongfully condemned men, and a general title, Robin Hood Rescues Three Young Men, seems the best.

The ballad is found in a much damaged form in Percy's folio MS and the base text here is the earliest full version, found in an eighteenth-century garland; though the Percy version is a little different it only covers two incidents in a fairly long ballad, and while these are useful for collation and emendation, it would be inappropriate and require substantial editorial invention to link those episodes into the other text. The story clearly goes back some way; this is the only substantial borrowing from the ballad tradition to appear in Munday's The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington, of 1598-99, where the rescue is of Scathelock and Scarlet, Robin's men and sons of Widow Scarlet. In that and in other versions of the ballad there seems some link between this old woman and the one who changes clothes with Robin for his protection in Robin Hood and the Bishop. On his way to rescue the young men Robin usually changes clothes with a beggar, in a scene that resembles one from Robin Hood and the Beggar I (Child, III, 157, see stanzas 16-18), though there the Beggar then becomes a worthy opponent in a "Robin Hood meets his match'' structure.

The ballad, though recorded late in full form, appears to have a direct style likely to derive from the early seventeenth century at the latest: rhyme is reasonably accurate but not over-precise, diction is colloquial and direct with no sign of bookish invention. There is a good deal of repetition with change (lines 13-20, 37-48) as well as a good deal of rhetorical repetition (lines 73-74, 77-79, 89-92), both of which suggest an oral context of some kind. This is also a strong story of quick and decisive action, where Robin moves between the widow, the beggar, and the sheriff with speedy confidence. The ballad has the dramatic flavor of the earliest texts, and at least some of their sense of social conflict; the outlaws' real threat to bad authority is suggested when they move the gallows from the town to hang the sheriff in the glen, their own territory, where he has done his damage.

Unelaborate but highly effective, Robin Hood Rescues Three Young Men is clearly one of the more strongly popular of the mainstream outlaw ballads, and its multiplicity and manifold changes indicate how close it remained to the popular voice, rather than, like some others, becoming set in a literary form.

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