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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

§ 6. Robin Hood

We have a number of ballads which tell different adventures in the life of Robin Hood; and we have an actual epic poem, formed upon these ballads or their very close counterparts, which embodies the adventures in a coherent whole. Between the style of the Gest of Robyn Hode, however, and the style of the best Robin Hood ballads, there is almost no difference at all; and these, for all their age of record, may well represent the end of the epic process in balladry. In metrical form, they hold to the quatrain made up of alternating verses of four and three measures, which is not very far from the old couplet with its two alternating verses of the refrain. The change in structure is mainly concerned with loss of choral elements, especially of incremental repetition. The well known opening of Robin Hood and the Monk shows both the change in form and the new smoothness of narrative:

  • 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 drawe to the dale,
  • And leve the hillës hee,
  • And shadow hem in the levës grene
  • Under the grenewood tre.
  • Hit befel on Whitsontide…
  • Then the story begins with a dialogue between Little John and Robin, passes into the third personal narrative and so tells its tale with a good plot, fair coherence of motive, character and event, exciting incident of fight, imprisonment, disguise, escape and the proper pious conclusion—

  • Thus endys the talking of the munke
  • And Robyn Hode i-wysse;
  • God, that is ever a crowned king,
  • Bryng us all to his blisse!
  • not unlike the prayer that Chaucer puts into the mouth of the nun’s priest when his tale is told. There are ninety stanzas preserved in this ballad, and it has suffered losses by mutilation of the fifteenth century manuscript. Old as it is by record, however, it seems far more finished, familiar, modern, than a ballad recovered centuries later from oral tradition in Scotland, short, intense, abrupt, with communal song for every other line of it from beginning to end, a single dominant situation, a dramatic and choral setting. Just enough epic detail has been added here to supply in tradition what was lost by transfer from actual choral rendering; and, even as it is, the taking by the hand, the turning round, seem little more than the stage directions of a play.