Chapter By Chapter features me reading one chapter of the selected book at the time and reviewing it as if I were reviewing an episode of a TV show or an issue of a comic. There will be spoilers if you haven’t read to the point I have, and if you’ve read further I ask that you don’t spoil anything further into the book. Think of it as read-along book club.
Remember, the book is in public domain. Download or read the ebook online legally and for free at Project Gutenberg, Google Books or the Internet Archive, or check out the audiobook from LibriVox. You can also use a print copy. In either case my copy may not match up with yours chapter-wise. Follow along with the very-long subtitle. For this chapter:
Giving an Account of Robin Hood and His Adventure With the King’s Foresters. Also Telling How His Band Gathered Around Him His Good Right-Hand Man, the Famous Little John.
The preface of this book has Pyle warning the readers that this is not a fantasy land but a land of fancy. If you don’t want to see a fun story of people making merry, then close the book and go do something in the mundane world. I can’t speak for the 1800s but considering the cynical concept of “realism” that permeates even Robin Hood stories as of late you have to have guts to make that declaration. Well, since fun stories with happy people battling evil forces is what I go to fiction for let us see if we get that here. The prologue in this book is like my last one, the length of a chapter, so we’ll be spending our first installment just on that as we set-up the story to follow.
Prologue (chapters will be based on our readthrough but these parenthesis will give them as written in my copy)
Interesting. In most Robin Hood tales I’ve seen Robin is a rich man wronged after returning home from the Crusades, possible given when the Crusades ended and the first tales of Robin began. He took up the cause first to regain what was taken and later because of the greedy Prince and his lackey the Sheriff. This book came out in 1883 and I’m guessing Robin of Locksley the deposed rich man had yet to become part of his history. Instead Robin is goaded into killing a deer by some drunk foresters that turns out to be the King’s deer. They probably didn’t mention that part because they were sure he couldn’t hit it with an arrow. (At the time he was on his way to an archery competition and this may be the first time I’ve seen Robin refer to the Sheriff of Nottingham as “good”.) First they welch on the bet and then the loudmouth who was shown up tries to kill him with an arrow. The angry young Robin shoots back and kills the man, and I’m hard pressed to say he didn’t deserve it given he shot at the kid first, his drunken state being the only reason he missed according to the narrator. Robin could have pled ignorance of the deer and self-defense of the man, but knowing he done messed up Robin just moves into the forest rather than turning himself in. He is unhappy about taking the man’s life and while Robin Hood is known for his archery he isn’t known as a killer. It’s the Zac Snyder method of learning not to kill. Just ask Kal-El.
The drunk man turns out to be related to the Sheriff, so between revenge and the reward (did sheriffs not get paid in merry ol’ England?) he’s happy to track Robin down. Meanwhile, others who were wronged by the government also flee to Sherwood Forest and join up with Robin. They make a vow not to kill the innocent but work to provide for the poor and pay the greedy rich people for what they’ve done. I don’t know if every rich person is the villain here (usually is though, because certain parties believe only evil people get rich…except for politicians and celebrities of course) and we don’t get a lot of accounts beyond the smaller accusations but I’m going to go with the people the book claims were wronged actually were until the story demonstrates otherwise. This part is in line with some versions of the story while others have the band already together and Robin just takes over. The thing is self-defense and ignorance aside Robin did do something wrong, and he wasn’t wronged by the tax-hungry government like later tales would state. I still feel sorry for the kid but he’s not as sympathetic this way since he’s not the victim fighting the oppressors that wronged him but a young hothead who may have been in the right against a drunk and his friends who tricked him and then tried to kill him but still is guilty of a crime.
Then of course we get to the infamous meeting with Little John at the bridge. And here’s where I mention the first problem with this pre-chapter, the endless describing. When Robin first walks to the archery competition before meeting the drunks there’s a lot of subscribing of the spring weather, the flowers, the thoughts of love (like Robin for Maid Marian), and it goes on maybe a bit too long. This time however it goes on for a lot longer, or feels that way. We have to mention every woman and donkey-riding friar Robin comes across, his acknowledgement of them, and their acknowledgement of him before they walk past each other saying nothing more than “good morning”. I’m hoping this isn’t going to get worse as we go on. I can tell you right now that the dialog here doesn’t age well and I’m having trouble seeing most of today’s kids getting into this story. Remember my copy was given out to high school kids and the writer back in the 1800s had already softened the 14th century ballads for younger readers. Also, they don’t use the word “donkey” for a donkey. Then again the King’s English Bible uses the word “ass” so take it as you will.
Apparently Robin learned nothing from our introductory encounter because he lets his temper get to him again, which is how we know this famous bridge duel. Two guys, neither wanting to give quarter, being jerks to each other, but gaining each other’s respect. Robin is given time to cut himself a decent staff so the two can have their fight and John doesn’t take the time to cross and leave while Robin goes looking for the right stick to carve. At least he’s a good sport. Robin loses of course, but they both have a good laugh about it. There is our next change from how the tale is usually told in modern tellings however, as the band comes looking for Robin and thinks John is his enemy and thus attacks him until Robin tells them to stop attacking his new friend. Robin invites John Little to not only join but be his right hand, which he will only agree to if Robin beats him in an archery contest, which is new for me. Sure, the Mythbusters once proved that the old Robin Hood bit about him sending an arrow through another arrow is right impossible but it does make for a good action scene. We also get a good description of the Merry Men’s camp, which may actually be too short, thus being the opposite of the two other descriptive paragraphs earlier. I do hope that’s a good omen though.
I do like that the book takes time to explain a reference to a famed archer, Adam Bell, whose name has not reached down through time the way Robin Hood and William Tell have.
Interestingly it’s Will Stutely, a name I’ve never seen ’till now, who gives John Little the name Little John as a jest but after a “christening” that’s the name he’ll be using from here on out. I’m not a fan of hazing rituals but as they go this is harmless enough and fun. Assuming Pyle is playing closer to the original ballads (although we do know he made some changes and added characters) and even if it isn’t that pretty much describes this prologue, harmless and fun. It’s a good introduction and while the altered origin of Robin having his land seized and declared dead by the greedy prince and sheriff makes for a better origin, since it ties in Robin’s history with his adversaries’ evil acts, what we get isn’t bad. It’s just not as good, but nobody knows if this is based on a real person or not. The prologue ends by telling us Pyle will now recount the tale of three times the Sheriff of Nottingham tried and failed to snag Robin. ‘Tis a tale we shall examine in our next gathering.
Next time: Part First ch. I