Nominally the book is set in "merry England in the time of old," the thirteenth century, when Henry II ruled the land. However, Pyle admits in his preface that the country and the historical characters who figure in the work are "all tricked out with flowers and what not, till no one would know them in their fanciful dress." Instead of the scrupulously accurate settings he provides for his historical novels, Pyle sets his Robin Hood tales in a time out of time, a nostalgic golden age. In the preface, readers are invited to escape into a "land of fancy," a "No-man's-land" separated from "every-day life."
The setting remains fanciful and idealized throughout. Robin's adventures take place for the most part in an Arcadian greenwood "wherein no chill mists press upon our spirits, and no rain falls but what rolls off our backs like April showers off the backs of sleek drakes." Sherwood Forest provides a pastoral retreat wherein every want of food, drink, and protection is supplied to the band of merry men by an ever beneficent Nature. Part of the great charm of this work comes from Pyle's frequent descriptions of seasonal changes and of the different faces of nature.
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Pyle's instinct to present a tightly woven plot does not desert him in The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood. His sources for the book were a loose collection of ancient ballads about Robin Hood. These ballads rarely suggest motives for human actions or provide any sense of cause and effect. Pyle, however, clarifies both logic and character motivations, thereby weaving the ballads into a coherent story. Through frequent summaries and forecasts and by internal references to previous adventures, Pyle binds his material so seamlessly that the reader forgets these tales were originally only loosely related.
The success of Pyle's Robin Hood depends not only on his skillful splicing of the medieval ballads but also on his creation of a narrator whose enthusiasm reflects genuine pleasure in telling the tales. This narrator is witty, colloquial, and genial. His language is rich in striking metaphors, poetic rhythms, and quaint aphorisms.
Robin Hood also derives much of its charm from Pyle's careful attention to the natural setting. The work is filled with delightful word pictures of the changing seasons, as in the following description of a languid summer's afternoon:
All across the meadow lands the hot air danced and quivered, and in the limpid waters of the lowland brook, spanned by a little stone bridge, the fish hung motionless above the yellow gravel, and the dragon-fly sat quite still, perched upon...
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Pyle wrote predominantly for boys in a late-Victorian era dedicated to the formation of the mens sana in corpore sano, or "the healthy mind in the healthy (male) body." This tradition praised the boy with "pluck." Consequently, The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood features only male heroes and extols what Pyle and his contemporaries thought to be male virtuescourage, physical prowess, and adventurous independence. The very few women who make brief appearances in Robin Hood fill stereotypical roles: they are young maidens to flirt with; or they are motherly figures like Queen Eleanor; or they are femmes fatales, deadly women who entrap and harm men, such as the treacherous Prioress of Kirklees who bleeds Robin to death at the end of the book. This stereotypical treatment of women and Pyle's narrowaudience focuss may prove troubling to parents and teachers dedicated to providing young people with a gender-balanced reading list.
However, modern young people can certainly be made to understand that the virtues extolled in Robin Hood do not pertain to males alone, nor do the roles assigned to women in the work amount to the only life options now available to female readers. Despite its origin as a book for males, The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood can be enjoyed by today's young women as well.
A socially sensitive parent or teacher will also want to clarify for young readers Pyle's disparaging...
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Topics for Discussion
1. As the prologue indicates, Robin is outlawed when he shoots one of the King's deer on a wager and then kills a forester. Should Robin be outlawed for this? Who is in the wrong—Robin or the forester?
2. Little John tumbles Robin into the stream during their bout with the quarterstaff, and then refuses to accept Robin's invitation to join his band. Why does Little John initially refuse? Why does he change his mind?
3. After he kills the forester, Robin decides to avoid direct confrontations and bloodshed. The narrator remarks that Robin's long reign in the greenwood is directly attributable to this avoidance. What strategies does Robin resort to instead of direct confrontation with his enemies? Cite several specific examples of these strategies as employed by Robin Hood.
4. Robin is always quoting the wise sayings of a certain "Gaffer Swanthold." Which of Gaffer Swanthold's sayings remind you of proverbs currently in use?
5. Why does Robin Hood reprimand Little John for stealing the Sheriff's silver serving pieces and utensils? How does this event differ from Robin's earlier confiscation of the Sheriff's three hundred pounds?
6. Why is Robin Hood delighted to see Little John beaten at a bout of quarterstaff by Arthur a Bland, the Tanner of Blyth?
7. After hearing a tale of one of King Arthur's knights, Robin quotes an aphorism from Gaffer Swanthold: "He who jumps for the moon and gets it not...
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. In his preface, Pyle admits to dressing "good, sober folks of real history" in "gay colors and motley" so that "you would not know them but for the names tagged to them." Among those whom Pyle so disguises are King Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Richard the Lion-Hearted. Choose one of these English monarchs and read a reliable biographical source concerning him or her. Write a report in which you discuss the ways Pyle deviates from or follows the facts known about Henry, Eleanor, or Richard.
2. The Robin Hood ballads were collected in the eighteenth century by Joseph Ritson (Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, 1795). If your community library has an edition of this book, read one of the original ballads and write a report in which you discuss the differences between the ballad and Pyle's version. How does Pyle adapt the original ballads to fit them into The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood?
3. After Little John is bested by the Tanner of Blyth, Robin is beaten by his own nephew, Will Scarlet. This beating is a just punishment for Robin's failure to see what Will Scarlet is really like rather than what he merely appears to be. In short, Robin is deceived by appearances. This failure to see the reality beneath appearances is repeated in other situations throughout Pyle's Robin Hood. Which other characters in this work likewise fall to detect reality beneath appearances, and what are the...
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The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood was Howard Pyle's first book. Toward the end of his career, Pyle again celebrated the life and deeds of a traditional cultural hero, King Arthur. In a series of four volumes (The Story of King Arthur and His Knights; The Story of the Champions of the Round Table; The Story of Sir Launcelot and his Companions; and The Story of the Grail and the Passing of Arthur), Pyle points to the knights of the Round Table as models of courage, humility, and moral rectitude. His vigorous account of the adventures of Arthur and his knights is one of the earliest and still one of the best renditions of this significant cultural legend available for young people today.
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For Further Reference
Abbott, Charles D. Howard Pyle: A Chronicle. New York: Harper, 1925. This is the standard biography.
Agosta, Lucien L. Howard Pyle. Boston: Twayne, 1987. This work offers a thorough critical introduction to the life, literary works, and illustrations of Howard Pyle.
"Howard Pyle Commemorative Edition." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 8 (Summer 1983). This is a collection of critical essays on Pyle's life, career, and works, marking the publication centennial of The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood.
Morse, Willard S., and Gertrude Brinckle. Howard Pyle: A Record of His Illustrations and Writings. 1921. Reprint. Detroit: Singing Tree Press, 1969. This...
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