Friday 8 April 2011

Robin Hood, and meeting people in wild places

It's a lovely spring morning, and I'm heading off to London, but time for a quick blog post before I leave... and to fill you in a little on what to expect here at Steel Thistles for the next few weeks.

I'm hoping to begin a new series of Fairytale Reflections, some time in May.  Between then and now, I'll be popping in and out with posts about this, that and the other.

So, for the next few Fridays, I'm going to be talking about fairytale poems - some of my own, and some old favourites.  I'll end this post with one, but first I just have to tell you something which has been amusing me this morning as I sat out in our garden with my first cup of coffee and - as always - a book to read.  The book in question is 'The Chronicles of Robin Hood' by Rosemary Sutcliff.  I've always loved her work; and since 'The Eagle' came out recently (I haven't seen it yet, but I hear good things) I've been enjoying going back to some of her earliest books.  This was published in 1950.  I owned it as a child, and always cried at the end, where dying Robin Hood shoots the arrow into the greenwood and asks Little John to bury him where it falls.  (The only other book that could make me cry was Black Beauty.  Children have hard little hearts.  I cry all the time at everything, these days.)

Anyway, I do love Sutcliff, and this story, old fashioned as it is, is still wonderfully enjoyable, but reading it as an adult, I couldn't help but lift an eyebrow at the way in which EVERYTHING Robin does is presented as perfectly, four-square righteous... even when he's clearly in the wrong.  Just look at this.  Robin and his men have stopped a cavalcade of monks wending their way through the woods with a posse of men-at-arms and packhorses.

Little John addressed himself to the foremost monk.  'Shame on you, Sir Monk, to keep our master waiting!'

The monk is, rashly, rather rude:

The monk reined in and sat looking down at him angrily.  'And who is your master, you great oaf?'

'Robin Hood, the lord of these parts. He bids you dine with him - and he is not used to being kept waiting!'

The monk is even ruder:

'Robin Hood, is he?' said the monk with an ugly laugh.  'A foul thief if ever there was one, and he will be sure to hang on the gallows tree at the last!'  And setting spurs to his horse, he strove to ride down the three outlaws. 

Next moment Much's bowstring twanged and a long arrow hummed its way into the monk's heart.

Call me a wuss if you like, but shooting the poor man dead does seem a bit extreme to me...  Anyway, the men-at-arms flee, and the outlaws lead the surviving monk back to the glade, where:

Robin greeted his unwilling guest with all courtesy.  'Welcome to the Greenwood, reverend Sir!  It is a happy chance that has sent you to us on this feast of St John, for you shall say the mass for us...'

As a child I read all this totally on Robin's side.  Robin Hood was Good.  That was that.  Anything he did was fine.  Now, of course, I wonder how much Robin's courtesy sounded like sarcasm to the poor monk, and whether he agreed that it was a 'happy chance' to have his friend shot dead?  No wonder that - 

The monk was livid with spiteful fury, but he dared not disobey, and gabbled his way through the prayers while the outlaws knelt around him reverently...

I wonder if I'll still cry at the end?

Anyway, here's a fairy poem, as promised.  Perhaps I should say verses rather than poetry, as this is one of mine, from a long time back.  (All my poetry is from a long time back.)  And it's about another encounter with a dark man on a road through the woods or the wilds: on one of the Old Straight Tracks that Alan Garner wrote about, which Alfred Watkins saw in a vision linking the sacred places of Old England, and he called them 'leys'.

Naming the King of the Fairies: or, How to get out of the Hill

His fair face is so still and calm
You never would think he means you harm.
If he sets his hand on the bridle-rein
Your horse will start away, away –
See! Full of crows the turning sky
As on the straight ley road you lie.
Under the hill the air is dark,
The smells are all of mould and clay,
He’ll show you where the dead men are,
And like a child, lead you away.
Young Roland blew his ox’s horn
To make the dark tower tumble down –
But here he stays with Helen and John:
They toss a gilded ball and play.
You and the dark young man look on
But never a word they say.

He leads you on, he leads you down
Until you come to great Troy Town.
The walls are low, not two feet high –
Along you dance, for you must try
To find the fountain in the dark
That wells up from the centre mark.
The mazing streets are not too wide
(sing sweetly in the dry, black air)
They press you in on either side –
You’re at the fountain, in the square.
The darkness snuffles like a mole.
You’ll never leave or find your home
If once you drink from that stone bowl,
But leaning on the fountain there
The dark young man will have you whole –
You’ll stay until your bones are bare.

He takes your wrist and on you go
To earthworm tunnels far below,
You taste the clay, you taste the marl;
Those fairy ferns are pressed in coal.
Now you’re in trouble, cold as fate
Shouldering the hill’s demanding weight.
Don’t lose your nerve or feel despair
If you want to be free in the windy air.
He’ll loose your hand and go away;
He’ll leave you cramped and buried here:
You’ll choke your life out far from day
If once you falter, weak with fear.
It’s breathless-black, you’re wrapped in earth
Your mouth is clogged, you dream of death…
Pull from his grip and think of birth!
Say, ‘King Arawn, I will not stay!’
He’ll lift you to his roof of turf
And out you’ll stand on the ley.


  1. Australia has a sort of Robin Hood in Ned Kelly - a bushranger. He is seen as a folk hero by many, even adults. He was actually an out and out criminal. Even as a child I did not like him and I was never too sure about Robin Hood either!

  2. Like almost every child, I was enthralled by the legend of Robin Hood. He could do no wrong. Of course, I was only exposed to the child-friendly versions. It was only until I read the early gestes of Robin Hood as an adult that I realized how violent Robin Hood really was at times. I still love the legends and how they evolved and changed over the centuries, but I can't really get over what Robin did to Guy of Gisborne in those early gestes. It's more gruesome than it needs to be.

    Thanks for sharing your poem. I can't resist the pull of a good faerie verse!

  3. I loved Rosemary Sutcliffe as a child, too - my favourite was Mark of the Horse Lord. I must get that off the shelf, blow the dust away and re-read!

  4. Cymru, yes! - though the funny thing is, this version is supposed to BE child-friendly!

    Cat, perhaps it's tine for a dark version of Robin Hood - in which he's the villain. And the Sheriff of Nottingham is the misunderstood good guy?

    And Gillian, thankyou!

  5. The Sheriff as a good guy? Have a horrible feeling he was probably like every other politician around the place!

  6. Oh 'The Mark of the Horse Lord' is an amazing book, isn't it?

  7. I really like your poem, especially the line...
    'Full of crows the turning sky...'
    I think I shall have to go and read it again...