- The Hero's Woods:Pyle's Robin Hood and the Female Reader
Legend tells me that, when Robert Louis Stevenson wrote his Treasure Island, he honored his stepson's request that he leave out all women, in order to create a real pirate story. That does not set well with me: a woman, I was once a girl who, like Stevenson's stepson, also sought adventure in drama, in going to another place. But the children's literature of my youth showed me that the places girls usually get to go are not so very far from the stove or the nursery, while boys get to be shipwrecked, to live as bandits in the forest, or to float down the river with a faithful friend. [End Page 197]
I spent my childhood dreaming of forests. I was sure that the woods of my Wisconsin home were perfect for my dreams of Pocahontas; I pretended I was a swamp girl abandoned and left on my own initiative as I explored our swampy marshland. But what literature supported my dreams? Where were the classical girls' stories with heroines living alone in a pastoral world? I grew up before Scott O'Dell started writing, and Wendy of Peter Pan was no one I wanted to be. I soon found that females who moved into exciting pastoral places never appeared in my books, that I had to be satisfied with Jo in Little Women as my ideal of a spirited heroine leaving home.
Consequently, my adventurous blood and my appreciation for the glories of the forest drew me into Howard Pyle's kingdom of Robin Hood, a bandit of great renown who not only ruled his forest, but who made life as an outlaw seem real, who knew how to find his forest dwelling and who understood the pleasures of a pastoral landscape. The fact that Maid Marian was simply mentioned as Robin's favorite girl whom he dreamed about before becoming an outlaw did not bother me. As a young adventurer used to playing with boys, I could make Robin's world a part of mine, much as Howard Pyle had done.
As a youth Pyle had been introduced to the Robin Hood materials collected by Ritson. As a fledgling artist looking for material, he wrote his mother that he wanted to write stories of Robin Hood for St. Nicholas Magazine, because "Children are apt to know of Robin Hood without any clear ideas upon his particular adventures" (Abbott 31). Seven years later, his The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood was published in book form. Concerning Pyle's feat of pulling together his earlier Robin Hood drawings originally published with the serialized stories, Estelle Jussim comments, "Strictly speaking, since the illustrations for Robin Hood were designed for periodical publication first, can one say that Pyle was truly illustrating a book? Perhaps not in the modern sense, although . . . he did a magnificent job . . . ."
Indeed, it hardly seems possible that Pyle could have lost sight of his forest, of his "merry men," or of his overall mood when writing the various Robin Hood stories. The woods are too firmly established, the adventures too formulated to be mere accident. How did Pyle establish a woods, found only by Robin and his fellows, that lasted in the hearts of real boys and at least in one case, real girls, for years to come?
The reader must begin with Pyle's "Preface" in order to understand that this American author was both systematically developing a very real setting and conjuring a mystical woods. Pyle wrote:
Here you will find a hundred dull, sober, jogging places, all tricked out with flowers and what not, till no one would know them in their fanciful dress . . . wherein no chill mists press upon our spirits, and no rain falls but what rolls off our backs . . . where flowers bloom forever and birds are always singing . . . and ale and beer and wine (such as muddle no wits) flow like water in a brook.(viii)
Already Pyle has told the reader what it is that makes his woods a ritualistic place which glorifies the pastoral life: Pyle's woods will be...