Pyle's Robin Hood: Still Merry After All These Years
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Pyle's Robin Hood:
Still Merry After All These Years

Throw your heart into a picture then jump in after it.

—Howard Pyle

This year is the one hundredth anniversary of the publication of Howard Pyle's The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood of Great Renown, in Nottinghamshire. During the century it has remained in print, Pyle's re-visioning of the Robin Hood stories (his first book and the first time this material had been shaped in such an imaginatively coherent way) has become an acknowledged classic. When it appeared, the English art critic Joseph Pennell made the fussy objection that Pyle, an American who had never visited England, had "given in Robin Hood some beautiful ideas of a country he does not know."1 But Pennell went on to observe that "the book made an enormous sensation when it came out [in England] and even impressed greatly the very conservative William Morris, who thought up to that time . . . nothing good artistically could come out of America." Theodore Roosevelt was an ardent admirer of the book, and gave it his endorsement by taking along his is specially bound copy on a well-publicized expedition to Africa. Closer to our own time, the author-illustrator Robert Lawson described The Merry Adventures as "the most perfect of children's books,"2 and more recently, Selma Lanes notes that "there are lovers of fine books who feel Pyle's Robin Hood represents the highwater mark of American Bookmaking."3

But The Merry Adventures was not a stunning commercial or popular success during the first years of its publication. It was an expensive book, the result of Pyle's insistence on particularly high production qualities that increased the price of the book and dug, in Pyle's words, "a pit" for it.4 As cheaper editions appeared during the latter part of the century, the book sold increasingly well, so well, in fact, that it had the dubious distinction of being "curtailed" (as Pyle's chronicler, Charles Abbott, so euphemistically calls it) for an elementary school edition in 1902. Scribner's, the book's original publisher, has continued to release new editions of the work in this century—like the handsome Brandywine Edition of 1933, with a few additional drawings by several of Pyle's famous pupils, and the mutilated 1946 edition (still in print) which removed the borders from Pyle's illustrations and changed the face and size of the type, declaring that "Pyle, were he alive, would heartily approve this new format."5 It's very doubtful that Pyle would have approved; but he might well be heartened to know that the first edition does survive, in Dover's inexpensive facsimile. After all, in reflecting on his life's work, Pyle remarked that Robin Hood remained his favorite book, the only one he felt might someday become a classic.6

On the other hand, Pyle would no doubt be disappointed to learn that most children today do not become familiar with Robin Hood and his exploits through The Merry Adventures (except indirectly) or through the medium of print at all, even though there are some twenty books currently available that deal with Robin Hood's adventures in one form or another—from $200 reprints of 19th century Robin Hood "garlands" to the supermarket version with the Muppets. Part of Pyle's purpose in doing The Merry Adventures had been to bring the traditional stories to children who "are very apt to know of Robin Hood without any very clear ideas upon his particular adventures."7 But rather than reading anyone's version of the Robin Hood stories, most of us continue to discover Robin through the "ballads, songs and snatches" of the oral tradition, which still works "by word of mouth," just as it did among the boys in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer back in 1816 before Pyle's book appeared:

"Well, say, Joe, you can be Friar Tuck or Much the Miller's son, and lam me with a quarterstaff; or I'll be the Sheriff of Nottingham and you be Robin Hood a little while and kill me."

This was satisfactory, and so these adventures...