15 July 2019

FEARED BY THE BAD, LOVED BY THE GOOD ...

John Matthews. Robin Hood. Amberley Books. 2019.

The archer. The outlaw. The dweller in the woodland. Robin Hood has been a part of the English psyche for hundreds of years, barely waning in popularity even in the internet age where ‘Robin Hood’ taxes are mooted whilst films and television shows feature him and his infamous band of Merry Men. 
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His adventures were one of the earliest things that I remember reading about in a book featuring bold, elaborate coloured plates, along with those of King Arthur, that other national icon from the distant past. In some ways it may be said that a criminal is a strange figure to cherish, although even in the USA, some criminals had a folklore build up around them as friends of the common person, doing as they wished despite the anonymous, uncaring blanket disapproval of the State.

John Matthews has been writing on such subjects as King Arthur since the nineteen eighties. His many books include titles such as King Arthur: From Dark Age Warrior to Mythic Hero, The Wildwood Tarot, and The Mystery of Spring-Heeled Jack: From Victorian Legend to Steampunk Hero. His approach to his subjects may be said to encompass the mystical and romantic aspects as opposed to the nuts and bolts of mundane facts. He delves into the liminal borders of British folklore, seeking the essence of who we are and what we come from. He is also a member of the Beneficent Order of the Greenman.

Robin Hood has been searched for extensively, especially in recent times. There is a plethora of titles claiming to have discovered knowledge of the actual person from which we derive this aspect of our national myth. Almost as soon as a book is published claiming the ‘real’ Robin, another comes along to topple it and claim contrariwise. This book differs from those by examining the mythic side of the woodsman. He and his men are famous for dressing in Lincoln Green; fairies were said to be jealous of humans who did the same. Robin’s name has similarities to Robin Goodfellow, also known as Puck, a nature spirit. Puck, of course, made famous by William Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night's Dream. The famous huntsman compares with that Leader of the Wild Hunt, so distinctive in European folklore, Herne the Hunter. Alongside those humans who lived in the forest were said to be the Wild Man, known as the Woodwose. It is both gratifying and surprising that there is so much lore in Britain with which the Hooded Man resonates, especially including that of the Green Man that lives on in Britain’s churches.

The sheer enthusiasm that Matthews has not only for Robin Hood but for the folklore of Britain is palpable when this book is read. His years of research show in the fluency with which the subject matter is written down. He crams information on the page so that reading is constantly interrupted by Googling one idea, then another. This is actually high praise, as this much fresh data on such subjects is not usually found in one book. Not all of the ideas are new or original, but their treatment here is both reverent and refreshing. His thoughts come alive on the page, bringing the reader the spirits that shape the British as a people. The afterword looks at the concept of the Green Woman; appropriate in our age of the spiritual feminine.

There is no scholarly language to deal with here. Everything is laid out clearly, yet there is a lot of information. There is an index, bibliography, black and white plates and even the various ballads of Robin Hood all between these covers. Because of the approachable English, this book could be read by newcomers to the folklore of Robin, or even by those who are familiar with it. They may find themselves pleasantly surprised by the concepts expressed and the links made in this pleasingly fruitful book. -- Trevor Pyne.


And for those of us old enough to remember:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BbyYr6L5xQM

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