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Reviewed by:
  • Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography
  • Elizabeth L. Pandolfo Briggs (bio)
Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography. By KnightStephen. Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 2003

One rarely has the opportunity to read the biography of someone who never physically existed, but that is exactly the opportunity Stephen Knight has given us with Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography. This book is more history text than literary criticism, with its detailed cataloguing and analysis of early source material and versions of the Robin Hood story. Knight includes even the most recent versions of the Robin Hood story in print and film, placing them in a literary historical context. Knight's expertise as the leading Robin Hood scholar shines through this readable, entertaining, informative text that serves as an excellent introduction to Robin Hood studies. However, Knight's book has a limited applicability in the field of children's literature.

Knight describes his book as follows:

This book is a mythic biography in two ways: it deals with both the human and the superhuman manifestations and meanings of the figure; but it is also a biography of a myth, that is, a single study of a figure who has over centuries and in many places and many genres had a varying but powerful identity. The myth can be read to reveal both the multifaceted potency of the figure and the remarkable ways in which different periods have, through this recurrent myth of resistance to authority, represented their own ideas of what constitutes oppressive authority and how, in dreams, wishes, or even reality, that might be resisted.


Knight divides his study into four chronological yet overlapping chapters: "Bold Robin Hood," which focuses on the earliest manifestations of the figure as a bold yeoman; "Robert, Earl of Huntington," which deals with later versions of the myth in which the figure is portrayed as a passive noble; "Robin Hood Esquire," which covers the nineteenth-century portrayals of Robin Hood in which the two earlier versions were combined to create a new hero in a new outlaw tradition; and "Robin Hood of Hollywood," which surveys the twentieth-century versions of the Robin Hood myth.

The strength of the book lies in the first two chapters, which track the Robin Hood myth from its earliest surviving appearance, in Piers Plowman (1370s) until the end of the eighteenth century. Knight has exhaustively researched ballads, gests, songs, plays, games, manuscripts, even doodles in the margins of manuscripts, to follow the evolution of one of the most pervasive figures and themes in Western culture, as well as the interplay between the stories and the societies producing them. The result makes for fascinating reading.

The third chapter continues this work, covering the creation of the type of Robin Hood story with which we are most familiar. In this chapter Knight discusses events in the Robin Hood mythic biography most important to creating an enduring outlaw hero: the 1795 publication of Joseph Ritson's literary life of Robin Hood; and John Keats', Sir Walter Scott's, and Thomas Love Peacock's treatments of the Robin Hood story in 1818-1819, when the "noble bandit now came to symbolize values central to the nineteenth and even twentieth centuries-especially ideals of national identity, masculine vigor, and natural value" (100-01). Knight's literary discussion of these crucial works is just as informed and compelling as the earlier chapters of the book.

It is late in this third chapter that Knight first mentions children's literature, as he notes that from the mid-nineteenth century onward Robin Hood stories were increasingly directed to young readers. Unfortunately, as the amount of material to cover grows in the latter part of the third chapter and the fourth chapter, Knight's analyses loses some of their earlier depth. Knight primarily gives summaries and evaluations of Robin Hood versions, delineates their historical lineage, and contextualizes them culturally, while skipping much of the literary analysis present in his earlier discussions. Knight begins a review of nineteenth-century Robin Hood stories for children with a sentence acknowledging Bennet A. Brockman's argument that outlaw stories such as Robin Hood might have contributed to the growth in children's literature, but...


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pp. 185-186
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