Explorations in Renaissance Culture (EIRC) 38 (Summer & Winter 2012): 35–66. Winner of the Fields Award for Best Essay (2012).
By Larissa Tracy
Few outlaw tales are as popular or as persistent as the legend of Robin Hood that has made its way from fifteenth-century ballads and May games to modern blockbuster films like Robin Hood Prince of Thieves (1991) and, most recently, Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood (2010). Over the centuries there have been multiple and contested images of Robin Hood, often at the same time, serving various social agendas, sometimes contradictory, other times complimentary. Within this tradition, Robin Hood is often associated with the fair Maid Marian: his love, his paramour, his inspiration. While she has a long history in pastourelles and May games, Maid Marian does not exist in the earlier tradition of the outlaw ballads; Robin’s singular devotion, like that of King Arthur, is to the Virgin Mary. For fifteenth-century audiences, Robin’s devotion to Mary makes him a legitimate hero, on par with Arthurian tradition. It therefore contradicts his marginal status as celebrated in modern scholarship. The association normalizes Robin in the ballads and places him in an exalted, nationalist position—a hero of England, despite the localized setting, who represents the ideas and nature of being English in the Middle Ages—contrary to his liminal construction by modern critics as a border walker and outlaw.[i]
After the Reformation, moreover, in order to bring Robin in line with Protestant concerns of English national identity, the Virgin Mary was transformed into his secular lover, Maid Marian, particularly in the early-modern plays of Anthony Munday. Through Robin’s devotion to, first the Virgin Mary, and then her secularized successor, Marian, the famous outlaw is presented to late-medieval and early-modern audiences not as a liminal and transgressive figure, but as a normative construction of national and religious identity who reifies the status quo rather than subverting it.
[i]. Similarly, Robin Hood can be compared to Gawain, who shows singular devotion to the Virgin Mary in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. While some critics question Gawain’s status as an English hero, in Middle English texts of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries like SGGK, the Stanzaic Morte Arthur, and the Alliterative Morte Arthure, Gawain is held up as an honorable knight, the best of English chivalry, the most loyal of Arthur’s men, and he is often contrasted with Lancelot, who is seen more as a French hero. As Crofts and Rouse note, it is reasonable to expect that the Hundred Years War may have conjured some wartime expression of Englishness oriented against the French (“Middle English” 81). Several other Robin Hood critics have pointed out parallels between SGGK and the Robin Hood tradition, though the connection has not been fully explored. See: Knight, Robin Hood: A Complete Study, 140; Marvin, Hunting Law, 130