“Robin Hood in Outlawed Spaces” by Valerie Johnson and Lesley Coote

Reviewed by Stephen Basdeo

Robin Hood scholars consistently publish excellent new peer-reviewed research in edited volumes, and the latest offering from editors Valerie Johnson and Lesley Coote is no exception to this. This new book entitled Robin Hood in Outlaw/ed Spaces: Media, Performance, and Other New Directions contains essays written by a number of different scholars on varying topics. There truly is something for Robin Hood scholars and medievalists of any calling, whether they work in the field of medieval studies, nineteenth-century literature, or twentieth-century culture, and this review only picks up on a couple of the highlights from the collection.

The essay collection opens with an introduction written by both of editors in which they define their key terms of reference. For those wondering what the ‘outlaw/ed spaces’ of the title signifies, Johnson and Coote waste no time in explaining what they mean in the very first paragraph of the book itself:

This volume is united by a common thread to the outlaw at all stages of “his” or “her” history, highlighting a similarity of character as well as of cultural function inherent in the person and context of the “outlaw narrative.” Essential elements of the narratives, for example, include disguise, trickery, official proscription, corrupt legality, and the overturning of accepted ideological imperatives and values/systems; similarly, the outlaw’s function as resister and challenger, a rebel as well as freedom fighter, remains consistent (p. 1).

For example, Robin Hood is represented many times in the canon of established texts as a trickster type of figure, but the texts produced about him can themselves be the creation of a trickster author passing his work off as a newly-discovered medieval manuscript. Although the essays commissioned by Johnson and Coote’s deal with many of the ‘forgotten’ aspects of the legend, even mainstream Robin Hood authors did this from time-to-time. Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819) purports to be, in the preface, a translation of the fictional Wardour Manuscript (which Scott even had printed specially in Gothic type).

At least Scott’s readers knew he was writing fiction and that they were reading a creative work. However, such a case of more dishonest forgery is the subject of an excellent essay by Alexander L. Kaufman, which analyses the “medieval” ballad of The Courtship of Robin Hood with Jack Cade’s Daughter (pp. 70–87). Kaufman has previously worked not only on Robin Hood literature but has also carried out research on the life and ‘literary afterlife’ of the fifteenth-century rebel, Jack Cade. The ballad of Robin Hood and Cade’s daughter was written and published as a chapbook in 1822, most likely by James Maidment. Yet every prominent antiquary at the time was ready to believe that this was a true Robin Hood ballad of medieval origin. The chapter is definitely an entertaining read, and one which sounds as though it could be one of those YouTube videos where pompous art critics or pretentious wine merchants are given an obvious cheap copy of something, proclaim its quality, and then unmasked as fools: Maidment wanted to fool—or ‘test the knowledge’—of his friend, Robert Pitcairn, who thought his own research skills were so brilliant that he could without a doubt spot a forged text. So, Maidment decided to concoct this ‘ancient’ ballad; he knew his stuff, inserted lots of archaic words and prefaced the publication with words to the effect that it was found in the library of Captain Cox, a prominent sixteenth-century antiquary. And it worked: Pitcairn was fooled and even the serious historian, J. M. Gutch, was convinced by the text’s authenticity, and published it in his ballad anthology entitled A Lytell Geste of Robin Hode (1847). As entertaining as this story is on its own, Kaufman does make a wider point about the idea of ‘forgery’, ‘canonicity’, and ‘authenticity’ in the Robin Hood tradition. What do such words mean in the context of a legend in which—and this idea may resonate with moviegoers—every ‘text’, be it a film or a book, proclaims itself to be the ‘real’ story? Kaufman is not finished with this text, and I look forward to reading more of his research on this matter.

Jack Cade

18th-Century Illustration of Jack Cade

Another highlight of this collection is Valerie Johnson’s ‘A Forest of her own: Greenwood-space and the forgotten female characters of the Robin Hood tradition’. Modern audiences and scholars typically envisage ‘the greenwood’ in Robin Hood stories as a unique social space in which all people enjoy liberty and equality. Yet as Johnson argues, when we examine the place of women in Robin Hood texts, especially early modern ballads, women always occupy a place outside the greenwood, which is typically a male-dominated space. On the other hand, women are never represented as full citizens, so to speak, of the medieval greenwood; in most Robin Hood texts and films, for example, Maid Marian is never full resident of Sherwood Forest but often only visits in passing. This was especially present in Victorian texts which, as one might expect, often reinforced nineteenth-century gender ideology. Women in Robin Hood texts are always exceptional, as Johnson says in her analysis of Robin Hood’s Birth, Breeding, and Valour, and Marriage to Clorinda, who enters the greenwood as an ‘exceptional’ character:

Her singularity is closely linked to her gender: she is exceptional for a woman, because outlaw traits are all those typically ascribed to male outlaws. Clorinda’s own voice is muted, because she has little dialog and most of it is given over to topics that a lady might be expected to ask in polite conversation . . . This indicates a narrative reluctance to grant her equal status (p. 31).

A reader might respond by saying: so what? The above ballad was written in the seventeenth century, so surely it is to be expected that women are marginalised in a Robin Hood story from that era? Yet these issues do still matter: In a world in which modern audiences still have reservations about a woman playing the role of Doctor Who in 2018, Johnson’s essay asks readers to consider issues of ‘exceptionality’ in the representation of women in popular culture. For example, many films today pride themselves on ‘strong female leads’ (there is even a special category on Netflix for this) but underlying statements such as those implies that, as Johnson points in her analysis, the woman—let us say a superhero—is exceptional and heroic for a woman. I shall now have to revise some of my own work on Maid Marian in light of Johnson’s essays.

There are many other excellent chapters which deal with many themes but 1,000 words cannot do justice to them, so you will have to read the book yourself. All the essays are well-written and mostly jargon-free and, where complex language is used, the key terms and theoretical concepts are explained in full. Although Johnson and Coote’s book is an academic work, there is much to interest the non-specialist.

Valerie B. Johnson and Lesley Coote (eds.), Robin Hood in Outlaw/ed Spaces: Media, Performance, and Other New Directions (Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 2017), 243pp. ISBN: 9781472479914