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.
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.
(The entire section is 1,121 words.)