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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume II. The End of the Middle Ages.

XVII. Ballads

§ 16. The Greenwood

Last of all, the greenwood. Johnie Cock, says Child, is “a precious specimen of the unspoiled traditional ballad.” A single situation and event, it contrasts sharply with a long story like Adam Bell as well as with the various pieces, short or long, which deal with Robin himself. From Johnie Cock to the Gest is a process of great interest to the student of traditional verse. Had the Gest, indeed, been made by its humble rhapsode in an unlettered age, the epic process would have had even more scope, and would have drawn upon poetic sources already claimed for deliberate composition and the literary record. As it is, Robin may be proud of his place. “Absolutely a creation of the ballad muse,” he is the hero of a sterling little epic, and of thirty-six extant individual ballads, good and bad; the the good are mainly of a piece with the old epic material, and the bad are indebted for their badness to the corruptions of the broadside press, the editing for garlands and the exhausted vitality of late tradition. Robin has a definite personality throughout, though the degenerate ballads, as in the case of late poems about Charlemagne, make him anybody’s victim. Any local hero could be exalted by the simple process of outwitting and trouncing the old master of that craft. One of the latest poems, a dreary compilation called the True Tale of Robin Hood, the only piece in Child’s collection which is not anonymous, is the work of Martin Parker. But one forgets trash. Robin remains as the best ballads and the Gest have drawn him—generous, brave, pious, with a touch of melancholy and a touch of humour unknown to the strictly choral muse. The narrative art of this good verse is very high. No story is better told anywhere than the story of Robin’s loan to Sir Richard and its payment; humour is held firmly in hand; and Chaucer himself could not better the ease and sureness of the little epic. Nor does the Gest improve in all ways upon its material. Robin Hood and the Monk is a sterling piece of narrative. The brief close of the Gest, telling, in five stanzas, how Robin was “beguiled” and slain, and rather awkwardly quoting an unconnected bit of dialogue, should be compared with the ballad of Robin Hood’s Death from the Percy folio. Here, in spite of eighteen missing stanzas, the story is admirably told. Every incident counts: the testy humour of Robin at the start, the mysterious old woman banning him as she kneels on the plank over “black water,” the fatal bleeding, the final struggle, revenge, pious parting and death—good narrative throughout. It is clear that a process had taken place in the gradual formation of this cycle which not only brought its several parts into fair coherence, but, also, exercised a reactionary influence upon tradition itself. In any case, with these ballads of Robin Hood, balladry itself crossed the marches of the epic, and found itself far from the old choral, dramatic improvisations, though still fairly close to the spirit and motive of traditional verse.