illustration of Robin Hood standing in the forest with his bow in one hand

The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood

by Howard Pyle

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Themes and Characters

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1094

The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood is narrated by a genial, imaginary speaker who leads the reader through the land of Fancy and down the metaphorical road of Robin's life. The narrator pulls the episodes together by means of foreshadowing and summary statements, offers droll comments on the action, and draws subtle thematic conclusions about the moral implications of the merry adventures. This minstrel-narrator makes a congenial traveling companion, one the reader remains comfortable with throughout the long journey.

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Robin Hood is the sun around whom all the characters revolve. As a rash youth, he is outlawed for killing a man. Although he commits this act essentially in self-defense, the initial antagonism is caused by Robin's youthful pride. Once outlawed, however, Robin grows into a responsible leader of his band. Quick to laugh, even at his own expense, Robin is a trickster addicted to sport and rollicking good times, and is ever ready for adventure. Shrewd but generous, just, and compassionate, he serves as an exemplar, embodying all of the virtues requisite in the upright person. He is the best of all his merry men, the magnet who attracts not only his loyal followers but also certain "law-abiding" citizens such as Sir Richard of the Lea and Queen Eleanor herself. Robin is the epitome of the Saxon yeoman—handsome, fresh, boyish, and a model for youthful emulation.

Methinks I would rather room this forest in the gentle springtime than be king of all merry England.
Robin's band—Little John, Will Scarlet, Allan a Dale, Friar Tuck, Will Stutely, Midge the Miller's Son, David of Doncaster, and a host of tinkers, tanners, and palmers—are merry denizens of the green and golden world of high romance. They lead charmed lives without wives, families, jobs, or grown-up responsibilities.

Their frequent disguises indicate that they are without defined roles in society; adolescents, they are ever in the process of becoming adults. They enjoy an enviable freedom in the greenwood and live lives devoid of rancor, envy, and malice. They are brave, resourceful, fun-loving, clever—in every way fit followers of their lovable and worthy leader. Clothed in their Lincolngreen apparel, Robin and his band of merry men blend into the forest that so naturally sustains them.

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Their foil is the corrupt Sheriff of Nottingham, a cowardly man of sour disposition. He is a narrow-minded, pinched soul who, whenever possible, tries to take advantage of those under his jurisdiction. He attempts, for example, to extort money and possessions from Robin, who comes to him in the guise of a spendthrift. An avaricious man, his stratagems for cheating others usually backfire because of Robin's intervention. Always conscious of his dignity and position, the Sheriff is mean-spirited and treacherous, as contemptible and dishonest as Robin is upright and admirable.

In the same category as the Sheriff are the proud and greedy prelates, the Bishop of Hereford and the Prior of Emmet. These are churchmen given to luxurious living and extortionate dealings with those beneath them in rank or wealth. The Sheriff and his legal and clerical colleagues are everything Robin and his band are not. They are the true outlaws in that they violate the civil and religious laws they are sworn to uphold. Robin and his band, on the other hand, uphold the spirit, if not the letter of the law. This ironic conflict provides the tension in Pyle's action-filled plot.

A central theme in the work is the moral imperative to exercise charity and compassion for the less fortunate. Robin and his men are always helpful to those in distress, arranging, for example, for Allan a Dale to wed his true love, Ellen, even though she has been sold by her father to a rich but elderly suitor. Robin also helps Sir Richard of the Lea recover his ancestral lands, which have been seized by the covetous Prior of Emmet. Robin is famed for "robbing the rich to give to the poor," in that he restores to the rightful owners the wealth and land that has been stolen by the Sheriff and his henchmen. The most admirable traits of Robin and his band are their charity and selflessness, as well as their dedication to just distribution, qualities that insure their heroic stature.

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Latest answer posted April 16, 2015, 6:50 pm (UTC)

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A second important theme in the work is the importance of choosing duty over pleasure. This theme underlies the adventure of Little John, who goes to the Blue Boar Inn with its "humming ale" and "sweet companions" when he should be completing an important errand in the neighboring town of Ancaster. For this negligence, Little John is soundly trounced by the stout Tanner of Blyth, who is eventually inducted into the band.

The ballad of "The Wooing of Sir Keith," sung by Will Scarlet, celebrates an Arthurian knight whose devotion to duty is rewarded. He agrees to kiss loathsome lady when none else will, and at his kiss, her enchantment is dispelled. She regains her beauty and grants Sir Keith her hand and fortune in marriage. Will Scarlet interprets the ballad to indicate that "a duty which seemeth to us sometimes ugly and harsh, when we do kiss it fairly upon the mouth, so to speak, is no such foul thing after all."

A related theme is the need to distinguish between reality and illusion, an ability that the Sheriff never develops. His duplicity and greed frequently lead him directly into the snares Robin sets for him, snares a more honest man would avoid.

The book also makes a clear point that violence and bloodshed are to be shunned whenever a more peaceful solution is possible. The youthful Robin is haunted by having killed a man and vows to avoid unnecessary bloodshed. His long reign in Sherwood is assured by winning over his foes through the exercise of his wits. When Robin slays the treacherous man-beast, Guy of Gisbourne, he is clearly acting in self-defense. After his later experiences in King Richard's wars, Robin tragically forgets the important lesson of nonviolence. Thus, in the last climactic battle, many good men are slain, from Robin's band as well as from among the Sheriff's followers.

Robin's sorrow over the carnage induces a fever that his cousin, the Prioress of Kirklees, uses as a pretext to bleed him to death. Robin, though an outlaw, strives ever to live peaceably, realizing that violence and bloodshed only beget revenge and more bloodshed— a theme Pyle highlights throughout his Robin Hood. This lesson, although seriously offered, is never laboriously presented, being instead submerged in the merry high jinks of these youthful heroes.

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