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Robin Hood's Fishing: Introduction

This ballad is found in seventeenth-century broadsides and garlands and was entered in the Stationers' Register in 1631. The earliest of the Wood texts, which Child relied on (dated by Wing at 1650?), is quite unclear in the final action and appears to have been cut down to fit onto a broadside sheet. The version found in the Forresters manuscript has a fuller and more lucid sequence of final action, and, as its sense of completeness appears most unlikely to have been generated editorially from the broadside version, its text is used here.

Robin Hood's Fishing has Robin leaving the forest to make more money as a fisherman in Scarborough, Yorkshire. He is very poor at that trade, but proves his heroic quality with the bow and sword when a French pirate ship tries to steal the catch. Unique as this theme is, other connections of Robin with the sea are not completely absent -- for example the remarkable occurrence of a ship named "Robin Hood" in Aberdeen as early as 1438, as well as the coastal village named Robin Hood's Bay (known as a smuggler's haven), south of Whitby and only twenty miles from Scarborough. The ballad itself has some connection with the north and probably with Yorkshire in what appears to be its underlying dialect, clearest in the Forresters version.

In its broadside versions the ballad is usually called The Noble Fisherman, with the subtitle Robin Hood's Preferment, which implies something like "professional advancement." It was entered in the Stationers' Register under the title Robin Hood's Great Prize, but this title was lost, perhaps confused with Robin Hood's Golden Prize, an archery contest ballad. Commentators have been severe on the ballad in general: Child thought it "may strike us as infantile" (III, 21), and Dobson and Taylor felt it was a "bizarre metamorphosis" for the hero (1976, p. 179). Yet the ballad was also extremely popular, appearing in "an exceptionally large number" of seventeenth-century broadsides (Dobson and Taylor, 1976, p. 179).

They attributed this to the "commercial attractions" of a song about Britain's most popular hero set in "the almost equally popular genre of a successful sea victory over the national enemy" (1976, p. 180). But it is not so clear that France was the only national enemy at the time, and it is an act of piracy, not national aggression, that Robin single-handedly frustrates. Dobson and Taylor do not follow up the interesting possibilities of their own term "metamorphosis": this ballad, for all its nautical setting is in many respects structured like Robin Hood and the Potter. In both, the hero goes from a greenwood setting to a mercantile trade, which he handles badly and so receives humiliation; yet his innate courage and skill bring him to both victory and wealth, which he shares generously. Curiously, both ballads involve Robin more or less platonically with a woman, here the widow and owner of the ship, there the Sheriff's wife.

In style the ballad has traces of a commercial author in the first attention-catching stanza, and some occasional Grub-Street-like usages -- most desperatly (line 80), most gallantly (line 122). But otherwise it is straightforward in diction and technique, without the third-line internal rhyme of the commercial songsters. The name Robin chooses, Symon of the Lee, sounds like a reference to the Gest, which also seems in mind when the hero wishes to be back in Plumpton Park (line 71). In general Robin Hood's Fishing is a skilful reorientation of the outlaw tradition, certainly exploiting a range of national feeling against the French, but also more in tune with the spirit of the Robin Hood material than has been realized by those who have treated this ballad simply as an oddity.

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