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Robin Hood's Birth, Breeding, Valour, and Marriage: Introduction

This ballad was moderately well-known, with three versions surviving from the seventeenth century, that in the Roxburghe collection seeming earlier than the two collected by Pepys, and therefore the basis for this text. It appeared in three eighteenth-century collections before Ritson, but is not included in the early garlands, which may suggest it is less than fully popular in its distribution. That accords with its character: it is patently a literary confection, and unlike the author of Robin Hood and Queen Catherin the composer has wandered well outside the Robin Hood tradition for materials. The final reference to the King and the national hope for heirs appears to locate it soon after the Restoration in 1660 when there was a good deal of activity in constructing new forms of the Robin Hood tradition, as in Robin Hood and His Crew of Souldiers, the 1662 Life, and what appears to be the first of the garlands from 1663.

The title alone suggests an overview close to the gentrified tradition of heroic biography, but the ballad is actually less grand than its title might suggest. Robin has gentry connection, in that he is the nephew of Squire Gamwell of Gamwell Hall - a connection to be made much of in the lengthy development of the Victorian novel, especially Pierce Egan the Younger's Robin Hood and Little John (1840). Yet Squire George is a robust character, who could hardly be accused of gentrification, even though he comes from the gentry. He resembles Fielding's Squire Western in this, and another character projects a similar surprising rural directness. Robin has the good fortune to meet and instantly become engaged to a woman from the realms of pastoral, Clorinda the Queen of the Shepherdesses. But although she resembles Ben Jonson's Maid Marian (from The Sad Shepherd) in being a serious hunter, there is a direct quality to her instant agreement to marriage and her felling a buck, and also in her glee at the Tutbury Christmas fair - not to mention her shout to her forest lover as he has just killed five foresters:
The bumpkins are beaten, put up thy sword, Bob,
And now let's dance into the town. (179-80)
The same vigorous eclecticism infects the author's assemblage of material. After two relatively familiar opening stanzas, Robin's father is introduced, to be instantly supplanted by a flood of characters from parallel traditions (the Pinder of Wakefield, already connected to Robin in a famous ballad), and the Cumberland outlaws Adam Bell, Clim of the Clough, and William of Cloudeslie, whose ballad was extremely popular through the period. From further off he brings Robin's mother's uncle, Sir Guy of Warwick, from medieval romance and popular tradition. And then there is the question of the origin of the name Gamwell. As has been discussed in the context of Robin Hood and Will Scarlet (see p. 499) this may well have been another parallel outlaw story which simply becomes entangled in various ways with the Robin Hood story, much as that of Owein, Yvain, or Ywain did with the Arthur saga. After this improbably wide-ranging presentation of characters comes a brisk story in a highly competent style which celebrates the jovial squire and especially the bold, entrancing Clorinda, dark of hair and quick to shoot. But there is also rough action and comedy: Robin and John kill five of the eight foresters and then all involved enjoy the direct pleasures of the Tutbury Christmas fair, including the now defunct English market town sport of bull-running.

Tutbury, in Staffordshire, is in just the region of the Robin Hood riot that broke out in Walsall in 1497 (Knight, 1994, p. 108), and there are indications that this ballad is concocted with some local reference. The emphasis on specific personal names in lines 185-96 and at line 215 suggest that this ensemble of styles and stories is also locally connected, much as the nineteenth-century pantomimes, with just the same range of transgressiveness, also focus at times on local personalities and events.

Child found this ballad "jocular" (1965, III, 214), and while purists might frown at the mixed nature of its materials and tone, it has an undeniable vigor, not unlike some of the crass but energetic outlaw films of this century. It is particularly interesting that here, as in Robin Hood and Queen Catherin, some elements of gentrification are visible, yet the ballad as a whole lacks the constraint and the conservatism of that part of the tradition. While respectability was closing about some elements of the outlaw myth, the tricksterish and carnival forces that so often energize the material are seen, here at least, to be a good match for the forces of respectability: in later versions of this ballad the King offers Robin a place at court but, in the spirit of the Gest, he refuses.

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