About one in ten of the Child Ballads feature the folk-hero Robin Hood. Stories of the outlaw have been enormously popular since the 15th century and if the rate of Robin Hood movies coming out of Hollywood are any indication – quality notwithstanding – he remains a beloved figure. Over time, he has been adapted and re-appropriated to represent many causes and fight many injustices. For instance, 20th century adaptations often show him fighting for an England where Norman and Saxon can live together in peace (seemingly a way to comment on modern race relations).
The earliest accounts we have available of the British folk-hero actually come from the ballads that Francis Child collected. In these stories, Robin Hood is closer to a petty outlaw than the nobleman-on-the-run he would become. He is identified specifically as a yeoman (commoner) and isn’t at all concerned with Richard the Lionheart being the rightful King. The ballads are mostly playful, exciting, and sometimes comedic – a tone that sets them apart from most of the other ballads.
“The Bold Pedlar and Robin Hood” is a brief tale about Robin and Little John encountering a peddler on the road and demanding he give up half his wares. Apparently these early incarnations were less concerned with robbing exclusively from the rich. The peddler proclaims he will grant them half his pack if they are able to move him from where he stands. Little John whips out his sword but the peddler beats him back. Robin then tries his luck but is defeated in turn.
Then Robin Hood he drew his sword,
And the pedlar by his pack did stand;
They fought till the blood in streams did flow,
Till he cried, Pedlar, pray hold your hand!
Robin asks for his name but the peddler, as the victor, refuses until they give him their names. Once satisfied, he reveals himself to be “Gamble Gold of the gay green woods” who has fled from his home for murder. Robin Hood recognizes him as his “mother’s sister’s son” (cousin), and they happily set off to an alehouse and drink the day away.
The ending reminds me of something that the popular science author Jared Diamond wrote about in Guns, Germs, and Steel. He mentions that if a tribesman from the highlands of New Guinea encounters a stranger in the woods they will often sit down and go through their family tree – trying to find a connection and a reason they won’t have to fight each other. The closest social unit in any culture has always been the family, but the importance of blood and kin always seems significantly magnified outside of modern, urban, individualistic societies. The fact that most of us encounter multiple strangers a day without fearing for our lives is, perhaps, not something to be taken for granted.
The trope of Robin Hood losing a fight and then becoming friends with his enemy is quite common in these ballads. Many of his foes end up joining his band of merry men. I find it interesting that he isn’t terribly concerned with his status as the “best” and more with attracting talented comrades. That, I believe, is the mark of a good leader.
My favorite rendition of the ballad is by Chris Caswell and Danny Carnahan, a duo from California I don’t know very well but their paired singing here is wonderfully spirited.
Child got his version of the song from “an aged female in Bermondsey, Surrey” who claimed to have often heard her grandmother singing it. It’s quite common for Child’s sources to have been old women. Similarly, the Grimm brothers’ best sources when collecting their German folk tales were older women. Many turned out to be extraordinary repositories of folk culture, such as Dorothea Viehmann, who was able to retell her stories over and over without changing a word. Whether named or not I want to salute the contributions of these matriarchs who were so instrumental in passing down the stories of the world and shaping their communities.
My Favorite Recordings
Joshua Burnell – Spotify