This book is not for you… unless you prepare yourself to be initiated into its mysteries through baptism—a Baptism by Beer. This is the shriving of Sherwood, the grace of the Greenwood, the ritual of Robin Hood.
If you think this a sacrilege, good fellow, look to thyself. You may discover one “who so plod(s) amid serious things that you feel it shame to give yourself up even for a few short moments to mirth and joyousness in the land of Fancy… these pages are not for you… you will be scandalized.” Look to thyself, thou saucy varlet; for if thou hast no stomach to come to this kingdom, I, for one, cannot vouch for the taste thou wilt have for Kingdom Come.
In The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, Howard Pyle is careful to distinguish this kingdom, the land of Fancy, from Fairy-land. The latter is a world of fantasy; whereas the land of Fancy is the world we are all familiar with but decked in gloriously unfamiliar garb. Its blue skies and greenswards are a wonderful, mystical integration between earth and heaven, between the pastoral and the paradisal. Pyle deliberately unshackles reality from the troubles of life, the perils of weather, the fears of failure, and all the myriad obstacles to joy. What we are left with is a romantic romp through a reality that is indeed real, but usually difficult to see. Here, that hidden dimension of existence dances free, unencumbered by the effects of our inherent iniquity, bursting with an indomitable optimism that springs from the secret that the world God made is, in fact, good—and full of surprises.
That a hero could tumble off a bridge at cudgel play with a tall stranger is indeed a shock—and a jest. That an archer could split a wand twice the thickness of a man’s thumb at fourscore paces with a gray goose shaft is astonishing—and a joy. That a rogue could regale a queen with tales of his bold comings and goings is unheard of—and a jubilation. But the greatest surprise in the whole of this life’s merry surprises is that they offer a glimpse of the next life—and that is precisely what makes them merry.
This hint of blessedness is corroborated by the inviolate quality of the merriment in this sanctuary—a bliss that cannot be broken. We typically call such happiness holiness, and rightly so. The land of Fancy catches a shade of such holy happiness and, through it, proposes that the countryside, folk songs, a yew bow and a bugle horn, stout doings, a pigeon pie, and a skin of good October brewing are necessary to sanity and sanctity.
This is the realm of Pyle’s Robin Hood, its patron saint. Like every good country, the land of Fancy has a law and Robin Hood demonstrates the spirit of this law by being an outlaw. He is one who lives outside the law of a too-serious society by, at once, upholding and being upheld by a higher justice than that of mere convention. The land of Fancy and all her kind thrust such stuffy seriousness aside with a rough shoulder and a laugh, making room for better company. A jolly tinker is always preferable to any dour Bishop of Hereford. A good tight butcher is better than any stodgy Sir Stephen of Trent. A whistling beggar is more desirable than any down i’ the mouth Sheriff of Nottingham. A merry outlaw is more of a monarch than any grave Henry II. The very characters of this haven (dare I say, this heaven?) personify “Better a crust with content than honey with a sour heart,” as the good Gaffer Swanthold sayeth. (Who wouldn’t choose the Blue Boar Inn’s benches over Buckingham Palace’s marble thrones?)
Robin Hood is a precursor to an ultimate merry-making, both his story and as a man. Actually, Robin Hood is more of a gold-bearded angel than a man. Allan a Dale will tell you that he is a bringer of good news. Will Stutely would maintain from the gallows-cart that his master is a deliverer of the doomed. Sir Richard of the Lea assures us he is a balm to the sorrowful. The Sheriff knows too well that he is an avenger against the hard-hearted. A legion of yeomen follow Robin Hood in serving God’s people, giving gifts as unseen guardians, moving benevolently among those who have not yet won their freedom from earthly cares. Like an angel, Robin Hood plays in the presence of the Divine in an unsullied, invincible domain. Robin Hood fights as a warrior who knows an epic inside-joke: that the battle is already won, and so laughs as he swings his staff, looses his shaft, and flies before the foe. The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood gambols in the great game of human redemption with a confidence and courageousness that we all must learn to win our own eternal suit of Lincoln green.
What is more, the enemies that we stop and strive with on Watling Street are not villains who pose any true threat to our pleasure. They are presented not so much as opponents as opportunities, for each and every one of them is won over to the merry life and joins the band. It is a far greater victory to have your antagonist become a protagonist than to lay him low in his gore. Conversion is more complete a conquest than conquering. This perfection in combat arises from a contagious, irresistible mirth—one that devises to eat, drink, and sing with the combatant before crossing broadswords. The conflicts are, notwithstanding, deeply genuine. Each truly desires to cut the other into ribbons and makes every effort to do so; but this ardor inevitably proves one of the catalysts of friendship. Such friendship, such conversion, is only presented as impossible in the single instance of Guy of Gisbourne. He is the only character Robin Hood encounters who is beyond the reach of the happy serenity of the Greenwood Tree, being a miserable perversion of everything the merry men are. Consequently, Gisbourne is the only one to fall in blood and fire by the sword, as Robin Hood slays him in the name of Our Lady.
Insofar as this book restores us to life, it is really something like a sacrament. Robin Hood fled to Sherwood Forest his heart sick with a murder hastily committed. So too do we fly to the land of Fancy to escape heartsickness and find re-creation. There, within those bosky glades, hearts are healed with laughter and lust for life. Though the land of Fancy is not serious, Howard Pyle assures that it prepares us for life again. It is strange how sanity requires an occasional fling with insanity in order to remain sane. Only with this healthy balance can we appreciate the world and find in it the merriment of new life. Since new life is a sacramental effect, the land of Fancy boasts its own baptism—with a brimming pot of ale, imparting new life with a new name. Robert o’ Locksley is baptized Robin Hood. John Little is christened Little John. Will Gamwell becomes Will Scarlet. Having blinked through the smart of it, we too can look upon our lives with the eyes of an outlaw and see the world as God made it, as Robin Hood does:
“Truly,” quoth he, “the dear world is as fair here as in the woodland shades. Who calls it a vale of tears? Methinks it is but the darkness in our minds that bringeth gloom to the world. For what sayeth that merry song though singest, Little John? Is it not thus?—
“For when my love’s eyes do shine, do shine
And when her lips smile so rare,
The day it is jocund and fine, so fine,
Thou let it be wet or be fair,
And when the stout ale is all flowing so fast,
Our sorrows and troubles are things of the past.”