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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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 202

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.

Literary Qualities

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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 the sharp tip of a spike of the rushes, with its wings glistening in the sun.

Every setting in pasture, woodland, or town is lovingly depicted, and accompanying the many word pictures are Pyle's splendid illustrations of scenes and events, the works of a master illustrator.

The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood remains a classic because of its crisp, well-integrated plot, its attractive narrative voice, its rich poetic prose, and its adroit blending of word pictures and actual illustrations. In no other of his works are Pyle's many talents as illustrator and storyteller better displayed.

Social Sensitivity

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 310

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 references to Jews in the work. When, for example, the Sheriff of Nottingham strikes a shrewd bargain with Robin, who poses as a spendthrift, Robin calls the Sheriff an "old Jew." A man of his time, Pyle shared the unfortunate social prejudices then prevalent, a problem inherent in many older classics for young people. A sensitive presentation of such works will acknowledge changed values and stereotypical characterizations, while pointing out the universal features which make these works timeless.

For Further Reference

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 163

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 work is a complete bibliography of Pyle's writings and illustrations.

Nesbitt, Elizabeth. Howard Pyle. London: Bodley Head, 1966. This study offers a brief survey of Pyle's life and work.

Pitz, Henry C. Howard Pyle: Writer, Illustrator, Founder of the Brandywine School. New York: Bramhall House, 1965. A biographical and critical survey, this source is especially strong in assessing Pyle's career as illustrator and teacher. It includes a generous sampling of Pyle's illustrations.

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