18th century

The First Robin Hood Novel: Robert Southey’s “Harold, or the Castle of Morford” (1791)

The first Robin Hood novel to be published was the anonymous Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time (1819). A few months after this Walter Scott published his enormously influential Ivanhoe (1819). Yet these were not the first Robin Hood stories written: in the vaults of the Bodleian Library, Oxford there exists in manuscript form the first Robin Hood novel: Robert Southey’s Harold, or, the Castle of Morford (1791).[1]

Southey (1774-1843) was born in Bristol to a middle-class family of linen drapers. At an early age his mother sent him to live with his aunt, and it is under the guidance of his aunt that his love of literature was encouraged. When the French Revolution broke out, Southey, like many contemporary Romantic-era poets, found himself in agreement with the principles of Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man (1791).[2] Unfortunately, Southey abandoned his revolutionary principles in later life, and then became an ardent opponent of parliamentary reform in the early nineteenth century when he was appointed as Poet Laureate to George IV.

Southey wrote the novel in three weeks, from 13 July to 6 August 1791.[3] The young Robert Southey was an enthusiastic supporter of the French Revolution. And the novel, like his other work, Wat Tyler: A Dramatic Poem (1794), displays all of the young Southey’s revolutionary fervour. The two main protagonists of the novel are Robin Hood and King Richard II.

In the novel Richard is a reforming King committed to cleaning up Britain’s corrupt political establishment. Richard is also an atheist, evident when he exclaims:

I wish that Villain Constantine was now living. I would proclaim a Crusade against him!’[4]

It is doubtful that Richard I would ever have uttered such sentiments. But the young Southey, as Raimond highlights, never cared a fig for historical authenticity.[5]

There are clearly Gothic influences at play in the novel. Southey admitted that he was inspired to write it after having read Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596).[6] Spenser’s influence can be seen in one of the songs that Robin sings in the novel:

A lovely damsel wanton played

Within the crystal tide

And oft beneath the glassy wave

Her dainty limbs would hide.

And oft above the waves appear’d

Her gently heaving breast.

That charm alone exposed to view

For waves obscured the rest.

‘Come Lancelot’ the nymph exclaim’d

‘Tis now the time for love

For silent is the midnight hour

And pleasant is the grove.’

With that she leapt from out the waves

Exposing all her charms

‘Come Lancelot’ again she cried

‘Come riot in my arms’.[7]

Oddly, while the manuscript has been known to Robert Southey scholars almost since time immemorial, it is not referenced in any Robin Hood scholars’ works (and believe me, I have combed through their indexes and bibliographies). Even Stephen Knight, whose work upon the later Robin Hood tradition is thorough, does not seem to have been aware of the novel, although he Knight is aware of Southey’s Robin Hood poem, Robin Hood: A Fragment (1847).

Yet the novel is significant for two reasons: first, and most obviously, it constitutes the first Robin Hood novel. Moreover, it is the first radical appropriation of Robin Hood, pre-dating Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads (1795).

The bad news at the moment is that the MS. is locked away in the Bodleian. The good news is that I have been in touch with the Director of Research at my university, Dr. Graham Roberts, and he is keen to allocate me funding in order to go and transcribe the novel and have it published.

Further updates will follow.


References

[1] Bodleian MS. Eng. Misc. e. 114

[2] Geoffrey Carnall, ‘Southey, Robert (1774–1843)’ in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004; Online Edn. Jan 2011) [Internet <http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/26056> Accessed 18 Nov 2016]

[3] Jean Raimond, ‘Southey’s Early Writings and the Revolution’ The Yearbook of English Studies Vol. 19 (1989), pp.181-96 (p.183).

[4] Bodleian MS. Eng. Misc. e. 114, f. 180 cited in Raimond, ‘Southey’s Early Writings and the Revolution’, p.183.

[5] Raimond, ‘Southey’s Early Writings and the Revolution’, p.183.

[6] W. A. Speck, Robert Southey: Entire Man of Letters (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), p.183.

[7] Speck, Robert Southey, p.184.

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