A Robin Hood Lesson

Robin Hood ballads are very violent. And, as legends go, they contain a lot more real history and social realism about the times they are set in than, for example, King Arthur.  The savage punishments; the forest laws; the murderous struggle for existence; the Norman oppression that drove some Saxons outside of the law and into the perils of outlawry: not all the 'merry' folklore of the legend and the romantic triumph of poor against rich in the setting of a magical greenwood can quite disguise the grim reality.  

This may be because behind the entire Saxon-Norman conflict of the ballads stands a real man.  Hereward the Wake. His heroic resistance to William the Conqueror in the Lincoln greenwood and the fens in the early years of the Norman conquest (1067-1072)  very probably inspired not only the Robin Hood legends, ballads and folktales but all the real 'Hoods' - the Saxon outlaws who continued Hereward's anti-Norman struggle - in later Sherwood and Yorkshire. 

This is short scheme of KS3 work for any teacher interested in introducing students to the man and the myth. It is based on two versions of 'Robin Hood and the Tanner'  the original Child ballad  and a modern prose version by Roger Lancelyn Green (you can read them both at the end of this post.) 

      Ask them to look up the meanings of ‘Merry’ in a dictionary. 

     "Merry Men meant ‘linked to festivals’ rather than jolly. The tradition that Robin and his outlaws were a  fun-loving lot is due to this partial misunderstanding of the word ‘merry’. That said, festivals were jolly occasions– especially the May festival with Maypoles, Morris Dancing and a May Queen where Robin Hood plays and ballads were most often put on and at the time of the year that Robin’s greenwood stories tend to be set.  
      What other words can they think of that have misleading multiple meanings, especially in youth slang.  [eg ‘‘Bad’ meaning good; ‘wicked,’ meaning wonderful. 'Uptight'?]   
      Here are some lyrics from an old song. What language do they think it is in? 

               In somer, when the shawes be sheyne,
                And leves be large and long,
                Hit is full mery in feyre foreste
                To here the foulys song:

                To se the dere draw to the dale,
                And leve the hilles hee,
                And shadow hem in the leves grene,
                Vnder the grene-wode tre.

                Hit befel on Whitsontide,
                Erly in a May mornyng,
                The son vp feyre can shyne,
                And the briddis mery can syng.*

Yes, English, but how it was sung and spoken a long time ago, with a stronger German influence to its sound, as written down in about 1450. Many of the words haven’t changed in modern English– though no-one corrected the spelling back then and the grammar is the same, if a little old fashioned sounding in places ‘The sun up faire can shine’ and a bit French in others ‘brides mery' (birds merry) for merry birds.  Can they work out what it is saying? 

* These verses are from 'Robin Hood and the Monk', often considered the finest poetry  (though not the best story) of all the Robin Hood ballads.

MAIN/DEVELOPMENT Read the class the complete chapter of Lancelyn Green’s version of the traditional ballad, ‘Robin Hood and the Tanner’.  (reprinted below) 

In threes, ask them to reread and then mime the episode that occurs in the Inn. Remind them that the key moment is where Robin’s prediction about Arthur losing the power of his legs because of the law of ale and wine and that they should end their first scene with this as a frozen picture based on the paragraph But Arthur-a-Bland stared stupidly...lay there snoring soundly.’  (reproduce/see the woodcut of this in the edition of the book given) Scene 2 – the exchange between the ‘innocent’ apparently surprised Innkeeper and the dismayed should be done as a single tableau with a caption that sums it up: this caption to be devised and spoken by the pupil playing the Innkeeper.

In groups of six, ask them to find and record examples of the following elements of the chapter they think work particularly well. (It may help to remind them that the story was originally a ballad performed at a public festival - think of Morris men whacking wooden staffs together - and that Green’s  version retains as much of this as possible:)

Language: ‘attacked Robin with such vigour that the crack and clatter of wood on wood echoed up and down the forest glades’ – use of alliteration: the reader can ‘hear’ the (two hour!) stick fight; ‘romance’ or ‘folk’ words to evoke legendary Sherwood forest setting ‘glades;’ near gothic folk-metaphors and similes taken from land-work familiar to its audience ‘neither of us will gain much by threshing the others’ bones into a bran-mash’ ‘tan your hide’ ‘like a wild boar that has tasted blood’ ‘Merry’ ‘jolly fellow’ and ‘gaily’ are typically festive words. Holiday fun.

Setting:  Magical realism? The forest is a summer one and magical. 

Green has Robin and Arthur sing the three verses quoted in the starter (above) from 'Robin Hood and the Monk' as part of this story, rather than telling the Monk story itself.  (He leaves it out of his book).  Ask them to compare this beginning of the Monk ballad as a story with the opening of the tanner story without these 3 verses.  i.e. starting from ‘It was a lovely May day... keeping a straight face with difficulty’ 
Which opening is best for setting the day and season etc? Say why
How well do the two openings introduce character?
What happens in the two different openings?
Overall, which opening gets you into the story more? Say why. 

Have a plenary to establish that while a ballad is a poem that tells a story (and both Tanner and Monk are from ballads) there might well be a tension between the two elements. Poetry might be better at setting than plot and – unlike a story – may even do without character. Story can sometimes suffer if the setting overwhelms plot and character. This is certainly true of this example, with its exquisite May forest immortalised from centuries ago but no real story. (It is one of  the least retold or televised ballads though the setting is probably used in all the others)

The Tanner story has a much grimmer setting. It begins not with a magical greenwood in May but a with a stern and realistic reminder of the real Forest Laws and cruel enforcers like Gisborne and the Sheriff. Foresters – forest workers rather than forest elves – are mentioned as one of the people the tanner sells his wares to. Real laws, bills, duties, agreements and punishments – including the stocks - are referenced throughout. The inn ‘on the edge of the forest’ is certainly the real world of the Middle Ages rather than of fairy stories,  with bills to pay and punishments if not. But, once in the ‘outlaw’ forest, as well as murderous fighting and economically useful weapon-providing trees, there is a lot of magical ‘forest change,’ (first Little John now Arthur) singing, laughing, eating and drinking and even ‘weeping with joy’ and of course that elfin horn that – here and typically -  brings the ‘merry band’ to Robin’s aid. 

Plot: a tense sparring match throughout – Arthur would sell Robin to the Sheriff for £500, Robin drinks Arthur under the table and leaves him with the bar bill; Arthur seeks revenge with a sword; Robin makes it a fair fight with oak staffs; they compare staff lengths in a comical manner but this bawdy 'weapon'-measuring doesn’t make the staffs any less murderous; neither man prevails and joining Robin’s band is no acceptable resolution until the coincidence of Little John being Arthur’s cousin makes all well. 

(Under the humour) life itself, liberty, honour, livelihood are all at stake: a lot of blood is shed to preserve them. This is an outlaw who, like his audience, is up against the rich and powerful, the elements and the odds but comes singing through. The happy ending is like the shot that wins an exciting rally at match point: and the only loser is (as always) the Sheriff. Ballads typically dramatise adversarial voices, verse by verse, stroke by stroke, like this.

How realistic an outlaw is Robin in this story? Play them this alternative version of a Twelfth Century outlaw.  The Ballad of a Twelfth Century Hood 

Compare the events of the Tanner ballad (either version)- including  the happy ending - with The Ballad of a Twelfth century Hood. They both have realistic features as well as romance/legend elements?  But which is more realistic?  What features make it so?   List them under a comparative chart headed Legend and History.

Character: ask them what kind of hero Robin is in The Tanner story. 
He is a criminal with a price on his head but he behaves with honour at every stage. Robin wins over the fearsome Tanner not by beating him physically – though he bravely holds his own – but by wits, wit and laughter. The Tanner’s original flaw – his readiness to sell out the outlaw – is blamed on his economic condition, a problem solved by his redemptive joining of the outlaws. The poor common man, even if he is an outlaw or tempted by rewards, is not the villain: the Sheriff is.

Is the Twelfth Century Hood honourable in this legendary way - or just a ruffian, like a real outlaw in the forest might be? Is the Twelfth Century Hood sorry for killing the Norman knight, the crime that sent him into the woods all those years ago? What evidence do you have for this?  Is the Abbot in any way a more civilised/ moral man than the Hood?

EXTENSION Explain that they have been asked to make ‘Robin Hood and The Tanner’ into an episode for a Robin Hood series aimed at modern 11-14 year olds. Two producers are interested: a History channel, who want a picture of the work, laws, harshness and punishment-ridden world of Robin Hood’s time told as a drama, and Hollywood, who want you to emphasise the fun, the magical forest – can you make a bit more of that elfin horn? - and the happy ending for a May Bank Holiday film. 
Storyboard a treatment of the chapter with these two audiences in mind. Do two separate treatments.


Robin Hood And The Tanner  (as told by Roger Lancelyn Green in his  Puffin Classic "The Adventures of Robin Hood")

In Nottingham there lives a jolly tanner,
His name is Arthur-a-Bland;
There is nere a squire in Nottingham
Dare bid bold Arthur stand

While Robin Hood gained many new followers by rescuing them from the cruelty of the Forest laws or the tyranny of men like Guy of Gisborne and the Sheriff of Nottingham, many more came to seek him and offer their services as his fame grew greater.

But sometimes, as in the cases of Little John and Gilbert-of-the-White-Hand, Robin went out a new follower after testing his prowess in a single combat – rather as King Arthur’s knights had done.

After Little John and Gilbert the most notable of these was Arthur-a-Bland, the yeoman whom Sir Richard of Legh had rescued at the archery contest in Barnsdale. Arthur was by profession a tanner, and he rode about the county trading in skins – buying them green from farmer and forester, and selling them again, beautifully cured and dressed, to rich merchants or even to knights and their ladies.

On one such expedition he was riding along the high road to Nottingham when he met with Robin Hood.

Robin was wearing brown and green and carrying no bow but only a quarter-staff, and passing himself off as a yeoman in search of work either as a farmer or a forester.

It was a lovely May day, and Arthur was singing as he went:

In summer when the woods are bright
And leaves be large and long,
It is full merry in fair forest
To hear the small birds’ song.

Then Robin joined in, singing the second verse by himself:

To see the deer draw to the dale
And leave the hills’ high lea
And shadow them in the leaves so green
Under the greenwood tree.

And they both sang the third verse together:

It befell at Whitsuntide
Early in a May morning,
The sun up fair began to shine
And merrily birds to sing.

‘Well met, jolly fellow, well met!’ cried Robin.
‘And well met too on this day of song!’ answered Arthur-a-Bland.
‘You are a tanner, I take it?’ said Robin, turning and waking beside the other’s horse. ‘Ah, sad news indeed have I heard concerning a new law against all tanners.’
‘New law? Sad news?’ Arthur-a-Bland’s face fell and he looked suddenly anxious.
‘All tanners who drink too much ale and beer are to be set in the stocks,’ declared Robin, keeping a straight face with difficulty.
‘Drinking ale and beer!’ roared Arthur, nearly falling off his horse with laughter. ‘By the mass, you’ll lose no freedom by that.’
‘Oh yes you will,’ said Robin. ‘You’ll lose the freedom of your legs. That is the law – of Nature!’
‘It is a freedom I’ll wager that you lose sooner than I do!’ laughed Arthur.
‘I’ll take your wager,’ said Robin. ‘Let us on to Nottingham...But tell me, what brings you by this forest road?’
‘A good ploy,’ said Arthur, ‘ a new line of trade, ha ha! There is a great reward offered for the capture of a bold, bad outlaw called Robin Hood. I have in my pocket a warrant for his arrest signed by the Sheriff of Nottingham. Why should I starve my way about the country buying and selling stinking skins, when by catching one mangy outlaw I might earn five hundred pounds?’
‘Why indeed!’ agreed Robin.
‘If you can help me to this capture,’ went on Arthur, ‘I’ll pay you well out of my reward. A hundred pounds,  now: how would that be?’
‘Let me see your warrant,’ said Robin cautiously. ‘If it be well and truly drawn out, I will do the best I can to give you the chance you seek.’
‘No, no,’ answered Arthur. ‘I’ll trust it into no hand but mine own. I’ll have no man coming between me and my reward.’
‘Have it as you will,’ said Robin. ‘But let us make our bargain too. If I bring you where you may find this Robin Hood alone, unarmed and at your mercy, will you promise to pay me a hundred pounds?’
‘That I will,’ answered Arthur eagerly, and bound himself to it by a great oath.
‘Let us go to Nottingham then,’ said Robin. ‘I know of an inn on the edge of the forest where Robin Hood is often to be found. Indeed I can guarantee that he’ll be there today.’
Off they went accordingly, and before long came to an inn, where Robin managed to put in a secret word with the innkeeper while ordering both ale and wine.
‘Well drink, shall we not, while waiting for our man?’ said Robin. And Arthur agreed eagerly.
Very soon he showed that Robin’s joke about tanners was no more than the truth: the ore wine and ale they called for, the more Arthur drank, and before long his legs had indeed lost their freedom, and he found it difficult to sit up even upon the floor.
‘Now my fine fellow,’ said Robin. ‘You see me here. I have no weapon but a staff – and that leans over there against the wall. You on the other hand, have a sword by your side, andthe Sheriff’s warrant in your pocket...Now then, what about that hundred pounds?’
But Arthur-a-Bland only stared stupidly at him for a moment, and then fell slowly over on his side and lay there snoring loudly.
Robin undid his pouch and searched it. There he found only the warrant and ten silver pieces – so he left all there except the warrant, and taking up his staff walked quietly out of the inn, after a few more words with his friend the inn keeper.
Presently Arthur-a-Bland woke from his drunken slumbers, sat up, groaned, and after looking in his pouch, called for the inn keeper.
‘I have been robbed in your in,’ he lamented. ‘I had here a warrant from the Sheriff of Nottingham that would have made my fortune: it was to capture a bold outlaw called Robin Hood. But now both warrant and reward are lost – and he that I thought my friend has robbed me of them!’
‘Why!’ cried the inn keeper with well-feigned surprise. ‘Did you not know that this friend of yours who was here only a little while since was none other than Robin Hood himself?’
‘Robin Hood!’ gasped Arthur. ‘Oh, he has tricked me handsomely! Had I but known! Well, I’ll not stay here while he escapes. Which way did he go?’
‘Along the road into the forest,’ answered the inn keeper. ‘And before you g, there is the little matter of the wine and ale that you and your friend have drunk....Ten shillings is what you owe me, and if you do not pay, I’ll lock you in my cellar until I can take you before the Justices.’
‘Sighing deeply, Arthur paid out all the money in his pouch, and then vowing a terrible vengeance on Robin Hood, he sprang up on his horse and cantered off into the forest.
‘It wa late in the afternoon when he came up with Robin, who was striding along the road, swinging his staff and singing merrily.
‘Stand, you villain!’ bellowed Arthur. ‘Yield yourself up, or I’ll cut your head open with my sword!’
‘What knave have we here?’ asked Robin, turning round and raising his staff.
‘No knave,’ answered Arthur fiercely, ‘and that you shall soon know!’
‘Why, it’s my friend the tanner!’ cried Robin. ‘Welcome, my dear friend, welcome! Doubtless you have come to pay me the hundred pounds you owe me.’
‘Hundred pounds!’ gasped Arthur, purple with fury.
‘That was the sum,’ replied Robin gravely. ‘You promised it to me if I delivered Robin Hood to you unarmed and alone. Well, I did even so at the inn: for I myself am Robin... But I think you were suffering under the tanners’ law of which I told you – for you showed no sign of raising up to arrest me!’
‘I’ll arrest you now, fast enough!’ shouted Artur, and springing from his horse he drew his sword and rushed upon Robin – who, with a quick blow of his staff, sent it flying from his hand.
‘Fight fair,’ said Robin. ‘Go, cut you a staff such as mine, and we’ll see who is to do the arresting this day!’
Trembling with rage, Arthur-a-Bland rushed to the nearest thicket, cut himself a good oaken staff, and attacked Robin with such vigour that the crack and latter of wood on wood echoed up and down the forest glades.
Once they paused for breath, and Robin remarked:
‘I think, friend, that my staff is longer than yours. Would you like me to measure them, and cut mine to your length?’
‘It matters not,’ said Arthur. ‘Mine’s a good eight feet of oak such as I use for knocking out a calf – and I’m sure it’s quite long enough to knock you out also!’
Then they went at it again, and very soon blood was trickling down both their faces. Robin raged round like a wild boar that has tasted blood, but Arhtur stood in one place and laid on with his staff just as if he were a woodman splitting a log.
For nearly two hours they ket at it, exchanging many a hit, while the wood rang with the blows of staff on staff.
‘Come, hold your hand,’ panted Robin at last. ‘Let us end the quarrel. For neither of us will gain much by threshing the others’ bones into a bran-mash’
‘I hunger still for my five hundred pounds,’ gapsed Arthhur. ‘Indeed, I must earn them, or I cannot pay the hundred which I owe to you!’
‘Come and join my merry band in Sherwood,’ said Robin. ‘I’ll promise that you’ll earn much more than five hundred pounds there- though I’ll see to it that you pay me my debt!’
Arthur-a-Bland still hesitated. ‘I am a free man,’ he said, and a tanner of note. I made sure to tan your hide – and sell it to the Sheriff.’
‘Well at least come and dine with us,’ said Robin. ‘I owe you you a good meal in exchange for the good drink I had at your expense. But I hope that you will remain with us: for I hear you are a notable archer, and I bear on my sides the proof that you are a notable wielder of the staff!’
Robin then blew his horn, and before long Little John and several others appeared among the trees.
‘By the Mass!’ exclaimed Arthur. ‘Is that John Little whom I see coming over yonder.’
‘That was his name,’ answered Robin, ‘ before he suffered a forest change and became my dearest friend and most faithful follower as Little John.’
‘Then I am with you, indeed,’ cried Arthur. ‘John is my own cousin, our mothers being sisters, and I have ever loved him like a brother. And I have been seeking him these several years.’
‘What is the matter, good master?’ called Little John as he drew near and saw the blood on Robin’s face.
‘This fine tanner has been tanning my hide for me!’ answered Robin with a grin.
‘He is to be commended,’ said Little John gravely, ‘for few can do that. But if he is so stout a fellow, let me also have a bout with him and see if he can tan my hide also!’
‘Hold your hand, good John,’ said Robin. ‘Here has been fighting enough. This our new companion is called Arthur-a-Bland...I believe that you know him!’
Then Arthur and Little John flung their staffs away and clasped one another, almost weeping for joy. And when Arthur had sworn to be loyal and true in all his dealings with Robin Hood and the rest of the Sherwood outlaws, Robin took an arm of each and ed them away towards the secret glade to eat, drink, and make merry over  the new alliance. And as they went through the tuneful woods they sang gaily:

Oh ever hereafter as long as we live
We three will be as one:
The wood it shall ring and the minstrel shall sing
Of  Robin Hood, Arthur and John!’ 

The ballad (originally in Child's ballads)

In Nottingham there lives a jolly tanner,
   With a hey down down a down down
   His name is Arthur a Bland;
There is nere a squire in Nottinghamshire
   Dare bid bold Arthur stand.

With a long pike-staff upon his shoulder,
   So well he can clear his way;
By two and by three he makes them to flee,
   For he hath no list to stay.

And as he went forth, in a summer's morning,
   Into the forrest of merry Sherwood,
To view the red deer, that range here and there,
   There met he with bold Robin Hood.

As soon as bold Robin Hood did him espy,
   He thought some sport he would make;
Therefore out of hand he bid him to stand,
   And thus to him he spake:

Why, what art thou, thou bold fellow,
   That ranges so boldly here?
In sooth, to be brief, thou lookst like a thief,
   That comes to steal our king's deer.

For I am a keeper in this forrest;
   The king puts me in trust
To look to his deer, that range here and there,
   Therefore stay thee I must.

"If thou beest a keeper in this forrest,
   And hast such a great command,
Yet thou must have more partakers in store,
   Before thou make me to stand."

"Nay, I have no more partakers in store,
   Or any that I do need;
But I have a staff of another oke graff,
   I know it will do the deed."

"For thy sword and thy bow I care not a straw,
   Nor all thine arrows to boot;
If I get a knop upon thy bare scop,
   Thou canst as well shite as shoote."

"Speak cleanly, good fellow," said jolly Robin,
   "And give better terms to me;
Else I'le thee correct for thy neglect,
   And make thee more mannerly."

"Marry gep with a wenion!" quoth Arthur a Bland,
   "Art thou such a goodly man?
I care not a fig for thy looking so big;
   Mend thou thyself where thou can."

Then Robin Hood he unbuckled his belt,
   He laid down his bow so long;
He took up a staff of another oke graff,
   That was both stiff and strong.

"I'le yield to thy weapon," said jolly Robin,
   "Since thou wilt not yield to mine;
For I have a staff of another oke graff,
   Not half a foot longer then thine.

"But let me measure," said jolly Robin,
   "Before we begin our fray;
For I'le not have mine to be longer then thine,
   For that will be called foul play."

"I pass not for length," bold Arthur reply'd,
   "My staff is of oke so free;
Eight foot and a half, it will knock down a calf,
   And I hope it will knock down thee."

Then Robin Hood could no longer forbear;
   He gave him such a knock,
Quickly and soon the blood came down,
   Before it was ten a clock.

The Arthur he soon recovered himself,
   And gave him such a knock on the crown,
That on every hair of bold Robin Hoods head,
   The blood came trickling down. 

Then Robin Hood raged like a wild bore,
   As soon as he saw his own blood;
Then Bland was in hast, he laid on so fast,
   As though he had been staking of wood.

And about, and about, and about they went,
   Like two wild bores in a chase;
Striving to aim each other to maim,
   Leg, arm, or any other place.

And knock for knock they lustily dealt,
   Which held for two hours and more;
That all the wood rang at every bang,
   They ply'd their work so sore.

"Hold thy hand, hold thy hand," said Robin Hood,
   "And let our quarrel fall;
For here we may thresh our bones into mesh,
   And get no coyn at all.

"And in the forrest of merry Sherwood
   Hereafter thou shalt be free:"
"God-a-mercy for naught, my freedom I bought,
   I may thank my good staff, and not thee."

"What tradesman art thou?" said jolly Robin,
   "Good fellow, I prethee me show:
And also me tell in what place thou dost dwel,
   For both of these fain would I know."

"I am a tanner," bold Arthur reply'd,
   "In Nottingham long have I wrought;
And if thou'lt come there, I vow and do swear
   I will tan thy hide for naught."

"God a mercy, good fellow," said jolly Robin,
   "Since thou art so kind to me;
And if thou wilt tan my hide for naught,
   I will do as much for thee.

"But if thou'lt forsake thy tanners trade,
   And live in green wood with me,
My name's Robin Hood, I swear by the rood
   I will give thee both gold and fee."

"If thou be Robin Hood," bold Arthur reply'd,
   "As I think well thou art,
Then here's my hand, my name's Arthur a Bland,
   We two will never depart.

"But tell me, O tell me, where is Little John?
   Of him fain would I hear;
For we are alide by the mothers side,
   And he is my kinsman near."

Then Robin Hood blew on the beaugle horn,
   He blew full lowd and shrill,
But quickly anon appeard Little John,
   Come tripping down a green hill.

"O what is the matter?" then said Little John,
   "Master, I pray you tell;
Why do you stand with your staff in your hand?
   I fear all is not well."

"O man, I do stand, and he makes me to stand,
   The tanner that stands thee beside;
He is a bonny blade, and master of his trade,
   For soundly he hath tand my hide."

"He is to be commended," then said Little John,
   "If such a feat he can do;
If he be so stout, we will have a bout,
   And he shall tan my hide too."

"Hold thy hand, hold thy hand," said Robin Hood,
   "For as I do understand,
He's a yeoman good, and of thine own blood,
   For his name is Arthur a Bland."

Then Little John threw his staff away,
   As far as he could it fling,
And ran out of hand to Arthur a Bland,
   And about his neck did cling.

With loving respect, there was no neglect,
   They were neither nice nor coy,
-Each other did face, with a lovely grace,
   And both did weep for joy.

Then Robin Hood took them both by the hand,
   And danc'd round about the oke tree;
"For three merry men, and three merry men,
   And three merry men we be.

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