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

(This is an updated version of an earlier post I made)

Scholars generally point to 1819 as the year that the first Robin Hood novels appeared, these being the anonymous Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time and Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe.[i] However, an attempt was made during the late eighteenth century, well before the aforementioned works, by Robert Southey, to give Robin Hood his ‘big break’ in that most famous of literary genres. Held in the archives of the Weston Library, Oxford is an unpublished manuscript by Robert Southey for a Robin Hood novel entitled ‘Harold; or, the Castle of Morford’ (1791).[ii]

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Robert Southey

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. He was a pioneering medievalist, for in addition to ‘Harold’ he authored Wat Tyler (1794), Joan of Arc (1796), and also edited a version of the Icelandic Edda in 1797 and a version of Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur in 1817 (to Southey is credited the first English prose account of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, as well as the first use in English of the word ‘zombie’, although the word was used in a different context than it is understood today).[iii]

There is one main issue with the manuscript: it was bound in a codex at some point during the nineteenth century; while such a practice has the obvious advantages of keeping all of the pages together, it has also meant that many of the words on the margins of the leaves have been obscured. While close attention to the context can offer clues as to the meaning, ultimately it means that oftentimes, when these words are not clear, you are guessing what Southey originally wrote. Furthermore, binding all of the leaves so tightly together has meant that, in some cases, the ink from one page has rubbed off on to the opposite page, which can in some cases render the job of transcription even more difficult. The saving grace, as far as practical issues are concerned, is that the young Southey’s handwriting is neat and legible.

The novel was clearly envisaged as a gothic tale. It opens with the short and perhaps rather dramatic sentence: ‘it was night’, which anticipates Edward Bulwer Lytton’s ‘it was a dark and stormy night’ from Paul Clifford (1830).[iv] Further gothic motifs include aristocratic villains, family secrets, betrayals, murder, as well as ghostly visions in ruined castles, as related in the following scene:

Harold […] arrived at the borders of the forest about midnight. By the pale light he discovered a castle which at first struck him as his paternal seat he advanced towards it with a hasty step. It was [illegible] and he concluded that it was not the Castle of Alnwick. He roam’d for some time amongst the ruined courts in an agony of grief the stair case was entire he determined to explore the building and if possible acquire some spot where he might rest in safety. He ascended and passed along an extensive gallery with several apartments on either side. He entered one of the smaller ones and threw himself upon the ground determined there to pass the night. He had not remained long in this situation the dismal toll of a bell from the turret roused him […] The firm footsteps of a person in the gallery struck his ear he rush’d into it and beheld at the northern end a figure in armour stalking along it turned and look’d at him by the moon beams which shone thro the broken pane he perceived the armour was bloody. He exclaimed My Father! The spectre turned into a room at the farther end of the gallery. Harold followed him but he saw no more. The appearance overcame him entirely.[v]

As with most nineteenth-century Robin Hood novels, Robin Hood is not the main protagonist but is a man who comes to the aid of Harold and King Richard I, the latter who is in disguise as a knight-errant, in a similar manner to his role in Scott’s Ivanhoe. In fact, there are some passing resemblances to Ivanhoe which definitely are deserving of further consideration: Harold is a returning crusader, just like Scott’s eponymous title character; some of the characters also bear some curiously Saxon names which are comparable to those found in Ivanhoe: there is one character named Athelwold, similar to Athelstane in Ivanhoe (Southey actually misspells Athelwold as Athelstane on one occasion).[vi] A character named Ulfrida also appears in Southey’s novel, a name similar to the crazed Ulrica in Scott’s tale. The fact that Southey and Scott were friends may suggest that Scott knew about this MS. and borrowed ideas from his unpublished novel.

There is also a clear attempt by Southey to draw upon the early modern Robin Hood tradition. A character named Aeglamour is a member of Robin Hood’s band, which suggests that Southey was aware of Ben Jonson’s The Sad Shepherd (1641), in which Aeglamour is the eponymous sad shepherd who Robin assists with his troubles (Jonson’s work had been edited for a scholarly audience a few years prior to Southey’s authoring of Harold).[vii] The Bishop of Hereford makes an appearance as one of the villains who has deprived Harold’s brother, Tancred, of his estate.

The character of Robin Hood has all the usual traits, being described as,

the famous outlaw Robin Hood, a man worthy of a better fate; the spoils which he takes from the wealthy he distributes among the poor; his birth is unknown, and it is but a very few years since he chose this barbarous way of life.[viii]

Refreshingly, there is not attempt to ‘gentrify’ Robin Hood by making him a member of the upper classes. Instead, in keeping with earlier traditions, he is depicted as a yeoman forester. We first meet him when Richard and Tancred wander into the forest, and they find that Robin Hood has kidnapped Marian, the daughter of the villainous Baron of Morcar, to marry her:

Welcome my good friends exclaimed the outlaw and you too strangers my assistants in this happy enterprise welcome. Let all be happy. Mirth and pleasure reign. My trusty friends pay homage to the queen of the forest the wife of Robin Hood. For as such I may now present her to you. What monarch can be more blest than me?[ix]

Southey’s Robin Hood is also something of a political reformer, and resolves to help Richard to rid his land of corrupt politicians. The young Southey was a firm believer in the ideals of the French Revolution, and no doubt his portrayal of Robin Hood and Richard as a reformist king stems from his enthusiasm for the rights of man.

Southey also inserts several poems into his narrative which are written in the style of ballads. This is the song celebrating the outlaws’ life:

Rises now with orient ray

Bright the gold on the orb of day

Aw’d by his effulgent light

Swiftly they the shades of night

On the leaves with silver hue

Glittering shines the pearly dew.

Scar’d by the hunters now the deer awakes

And swiftly scuds along through o’er bushes and o’er brakes.

What pleasures can the palace yield

Equal to these woodlands give

How blissfully the outlaws live.

Who roams at will [illegible…illegible…] and field hill

How happily dwell we in the wood

And o’er the flowery field

How happy live we in the wood.

Beneath the sway of Robin Hood.

The deer with spreading antlers crowned

Stalks stately o’er the [illegible]

The bowman fits his dart

And fixes the sharp point within the victim’s heart

He falls upon the ground

We hail the prize with choral strain

Feast on his flesh and Nottingham brown ale

List to the minstrels song and merry outlaws tale

What pleasures can the palace yield?

Now we with sober mien comes

And darkness hides the sky

The labour of the day is done

And home the outlaws hie.[x]

All of Southey’s unpublished works remain in copyright until 2039, so there will be no edited version of the text before then. It is part of his juvenilia, and it is not his best work, therefore I doubt Robin Hood studies will suffer too much from its absence. Copyright issues prevent me from making my transcriptions of the manuscript publicly available, however I will be happy to answer any queries about it.


[i] See Stephen Knight, Reading Robin Hood: Content, Form and Reception in the Outlaw Myth (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015); Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003); Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994).

[ii] Bodleian MS. Eng. Misc. e. 121 is the original manuscript. There is also a duplicate of the novel, copied out, apparently, at some point during the nineteenth century: Bodleian MS. Eng. Misc. e. 114.

[iii] “Zombie”, in The Oxford English Dictionary Online

[iv] Bodleian MS. Eng. Misc. e. 121 3v.

[v] Bodleian MS. Eng. Misc. e. 121 15v.

[vi] Bodleian MS. Eng. Misc. e. 121 21r.

[vii] Francis Waldron (ed.), The Sad Shepherd; or, A Tale of Robin Hood (London: J. Nicholls, 1783).

[viii] Bodleian MS. Eng. Misc. e. 121 3r.

[ix] Bodleian MS. Eng. Misc. e. 121 10r.

[x] Bodleian MS. Eng. Misc. e. 121 12v-12r.

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