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Robin Hood's Progress to Nottingham: Introduction

This ballad appears in several seventeenth-century broadsides and the early garlands, and is the first to appear in the Forresters manuscript, under the title Robin Hood and the Forresters: that text seems a retelling, with some literary effect, of the Wood text preferred by Child. It represents a story that was certainly known by the time of the Sloane Life of Robin Hood in the late sixteenth century, so it is not clear why Child calls it "a comparatively late ballad" (III, 175) and prints it so late in his volume (no. 139), when, because of the earlier nature of the story, it should stand between The Jolly Pinder and Robin Hood and Little John (as no. 125).

The fierce tone of the ballad is very different from most that first appear in the seventeenth century: it tells how Robin, harassed by fifteen foresters, shoots them down in what seems an orgy of self-defence. Even the people of Nottingham are badly hurt as they chase the young hero, and there seems to be a grand guignol relish about the fact that in the process Some lost legs, and some lost arms (line 67). There is no sign that the ballad was meant to be read as grotesque or ironic, and it remained popular in the garlands. It harks back to the violent anti-forester spirit of Johnie Cock (which Child carefully placed just before the Robin Hood ballads) and has similarities in that way with the conflict between Robin and Guy of Gisborne.

The language and rhyme suggest this is a fairly old ballad, quite possibly of sixteenth-century origin as the Sloane Life would suggest, though it was presumably produced in prequel mode as a way of explaining how Robin became an outlaw, quite different from the gentrified explanations that he was over-generous (Grafton and Parker) or simply had clerical enemies (Munday). In this respect this ballad shows the multiple character of the tradition, and that the earlier severity of the outlaw survived in contrast to more sophisticated versions. The garlands of 1663 and 1670 print somewhat gentrified pieces like Robin Hood and Queen Catherin (Child no. 145) alongside this ballad's powerful assertion of how a social bandit can be created by the violent malice of the agents of law.

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