“‘Methinks this is no common man, this Robin Hood. Almost it seems that he doth right in spite of the laws, and that they be wrong indeed if they have forced him to flee to the greenwood and become outside the law.’” —Richard the Lionheart
Of the many images that might come to mind when we think of Robin Hood, the image of the saint must surely be one of the last. But the miracle of Henry Gilbert’s Robin Hood is that its eponymous hero is so imbued with the virtues of the holy saints that he must be regarded as one of the most attractive and noble types of Christ in all of literature. For this reason alone, Gilbert’s masterpiece deserves to be far better known than it is.
But lest such praise blast this hope by giving the impression of a novel bereft of the delights we have come to expect from Robin Hood and his band of merry men, I should note, here at the start, that Gilbert’s Robin Hood is brimming with the same Dickensian warmth and vivacity for which Howard Pyle’s far better known The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood is justly admired. Yet, as might be guessed from my opening statement, Gilbert’s retelling of the Robin Hood legend is so much more. It achieves a depth of characterization that goes far beyond anything found in Pyle and re-conceives all the familiar set-pieces of the story along the lines of a sweeping narrative arch that gives to the whole the grandeur of an epic.
Not surprisingly, Gilbert’s tale begins with an account of how Robin became an outlaw. What is surprising, however, is the way Robin is imagined to have done so. Rather than falling victim to his own youthful impetuosity, as happens in Pyle’s retelling, Robin risks all in the service of his true love, Fair Marian. On the day she was to have been wed against her will to the villainous Sir Roger de Longchamps, Robin intervenes and in the course of a fight kills the errant knight. Knowing that Longchamps’ powerful friends will have him declared an outlaw, Robin takes refuge in Sherwood Forest and there awaits the day he can once more roam the country as a free man.
What follows in Gilbert’s tale is a series of vignettes in the course of which Robin gathers about himself a band of wretched and dispossessed men, sick to death of their oppression by the ruling class. Among them are Little John, Will Stuteley (not to be confused with Will Scarlet), Friar Tuck, and Alan-a-Dale. Yet these vignettes are not simply strung together like pearls on a string but rather are woven together to form a larger, seamless story, one whose meaning transcends the quotidian concerns of the characters caught up in the drama and comedy that unfolds in the pages of Gilbert’s novel. War and peace, justice and mercy, sin and grace, are themes that run through them all and lend to the whole a realism that transforms levity into joy.
But if one should ask what gives these stories their peculiar power to charm and beguile, I think the answer must be Robin Hood himself. Outlaw and thief though he may be, it is, as I have already suggested, hard to think of a more attractive or noble character in all of fiction. Near the end of Gilbert’s tale, King Richard gives as true a description of Robin’s character as any when, disguised as an abbot, he declares, “‘Tis clear he knoweth and loveth freedom greatly, and hath much pity for those who have to sit in duress and see the sunlight crawl across the floor of their cells.’” Coming even closer to the mark is Richard’s praise of the man when, casting aside his monk’s robes to reveal himself to Robin and his men as the king they love so well, he echoes the words used in Scripture (Acts 13:22) to praise King David’s zeal for the Lord: “‘[B]y the Trinity, I have never met in the greenwood a man so much after my heart as thou art’” (emphasis added).
If Gilbert’s Robin Hood is a romantic hero in the mold of King David, an enemy of injustice and a friend to the downtrodden, he is also very much in the mold of that greatest of medieval saints, St. Francis of Assisi. Though Robin’s methods of fighting oppression of every kind might raise an eyebrow, as indeed did some of St. Francis’s holy antics, King Richard’s judgment of the man is one that is hard to gainsay: “Thy justice is a wild justice, but like thy bolts, it hits the mark. I forgive thee much for that.’” A man of deep faith, Robin is shown to have an especially strong devotion to Our Lady, not unlike the Poverello, and to enjoy her favor. As Little John tells the kindly Sir Herbrand de Tranmire: “My master is as wise a man as that limb of Satan. Besides, he hath right on his side, and is under the special care of Our Sweet Lady, and he that hath her blessing, who may avail against him?’”
And although not exactly a lover of poverty, Robin Hood loves the wide open spaces of the natural world every bit as much as St. Francis and, what is truly marvelous, the natural world gives ample evidence of loving him in return. Like a second Adam breathing new life into a ruined Eden, Robin imbues Sherwood Forest with so much of his own irrepressible humor and joie de vivre that it is described more than once in terms that call up images of paradise. We see this especially through Marian. Despite having lost all her lands and every familiar comfort to marry Robin, she is happy, we are told, because “she was with him she loved best, and ever about her was the free life of the fresh woods and the wild wind in the trees.” We see it also in the noble Sir Richard at Lee and his wife, who, like Marian, having lost everything to remain true to Robin, are yet able to say that “they had never been happier than on this the first night of their lives as outlaws in the greenwood.”
Like the friends of the bridegroom in Christ’s parable, the outlaws are happy as long as they are with Robin Hood. For this reason alone, Robin Hood might fairly be thought of as a type of Christ, surprising as this may seem. In this respect, we may liken Gilbert’s Robin Hood to C. S. Lewis’s Aslan of The Chronicles of Narnia: an unlikely image of Christ, effective as much for his failure to conform to our prejudices as for his inherent attractiveness.
If Henry Gilbert’s Robin Hood falls short in any way, it does so by being too short. It ends all too soon! We are left wishing he had included more scenes and more dialogue between the principal characters. In this respect, at least, he is outdone by Howard Pyle, who gives us a more intimate picture of the daily doings of the people of Sherwood Forest and Nottinghamshire. But the fact that we are left wishing for more is, at the same time, a testament to Gilbert’s craftsmanship, no more so than in his deeply affecting, almost miraculous realization of Robin Hood; it might even be a stirring of that same restless longing that speeds the saints like arrows to their heavenly mark.