Interviews in Sherwood

Stephen Knight

Interview conducted and transcribed
by Allen W. Wright


Professor Knight was the head of the English Studies department at the University of Wales in Cardiff and is one of the world's leading experts on Robin Hood.

His 1994 book Robin Hood -- A Complete Study of the English Outlaw is a major work on the legend. He also teamed up with Thomas Ohlgren on Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales, a collection of Robin Hood ballads, plays and poems. And he edited the recently -discovered 17th century Forresters Manuscript collection of Robin Hood ballads and Robin Hood: An Anthology of Scholarship and Criticism.

Professor Knight further examined the legend in 2003 with Robin Hood -- A Mythic Biography and 2015 with Reading Robin Hood.

This interview took place over a transatlantic phone call on August 19, 1997. It is the first one to appear in the Interviews of Sherwood series. I'd like to extend my deepest thanks to Professor Knight agreeing to this interview. A few months later I met him in person at Robin Hood academic conference in Rochester, NY and we've met at several subsequent conferences.

There was some press coverage around the 1999 academic conference regarding some remarks Professor Knight made about Robin Hood's sexuality. He's graciously shared his thoughts on the gay Robin Hood controversy in Gendering Robin Hood. Click the link for more details.

More of Professor Knight's articles are available on his personal blog -

Becoming involved in Robin Hood studies

AWW: How did you become interested in the Robin Hood legend?

SK: Well, teaching ballads, really. When I was in Sydney, Australia teaching a course in ballads, I found that the Robin Hood ballads were both interesting and there wasn't much on them in literary and socio-cultural terms. Or indeed in textual terms. I thought Child [an American who produced a comprehensive ballad collection in the 1880's] was fine, but there didn't seem to be a lot of work done on them in the sort of historical, cultural studies way I'm interested in working. That's where it started from. That was about 15 years ago.

AWW: Why did you find there wasn't a lot of studies on Robin Hood?

SK: When I researched it, I found most of the work that had been done on Robin Hood was of the historical biographical sort -- "Will the real Robin Hood stand up?" But earlier in the century people like Clawson [who published a 1909 edition of the Gest] and so on had done some very interesting work, but in recent decades it had been mostly social historians working on it. Douglas Gray had written a good article in 1984 analyzing the language of the Gest, but compared with a lot of other medieval literature or late medieval literature, I thought criticism and scholarship was at an unadvanced stage. I got curious about what there was to find out.

The changing Robin Hood legend is more interesting than "real man"

AWW: What are some of your theories on the Robin Hood legend?

SK: One is that I am personally opposed to the "Robin Hood was a real man" school of thought. I feel that the social historians who are concerned with the real Robin Hood are operating a sort of empiricist, individualist myth of their own. It's a very 20th century obsession, like "Was there a real King Arthur?" and "Where did Sherlock Holmes really live?" But I think that's a blind alley. I don't think that the data is there, and it's not very interesting anyway.

I'm much more interested in looking at how the Robin Hood tradition has changed over time and in different contexts. I want to read it as a sort of text in historical/cultural studies.

AWW: What sorts of changes have you found to the legend?

SK: Well, there are a variety of Robin Hoods, aren't there? There's the very early social bandit who is clearly quite aggressive, capable of killing the sheriff, representing yeomanry -- whatever that quite is -- and clearly represents some sense of local, organic values against distant intervention and oppression by abbot, sheriff or even king.

Then, in the 16th century, there's clearly developed a gentrified Robin Hood, who eventually we learn was an earl, who was displaced who wins his earldom back. This is very interesting, because while remaining a bandit, an outlaw, he's become a conservative outlaw, standing up for true hierarchy rather than the social bandit who's resisting any hierarchy. So, the gentrified Robin Hood is another major version.

But they overlap. There are social bandit ballads being produced in the 17th century. And there are other Robin Hoods. There is a post-Reformation, anti-Church Robin Hood, the who appeared in Munday's plays and Parker's True Tale of 1632 . He's very much an enemy of the medieval Catholic church. He's been Reformed.

And I think there's a later Robin Hood who comes mostly out of Scott, Keats and so on, who is the nationalistic English Robin Hood.

And somehow in our film versions these days, we get them all mixed up together. You get Errol Flynn as "Sir Robin of Locksley", who is in part a Saxon patriot, in part a man of the people, in part a natural aristocrat. So, we get all these variant versions that come from different versions tending to mingle. I find it very interesting.

AWW: Why do you think the Robin Hood legend has changed so much over the generations?

SK: I think one reason is that it's inherently a very simple legend. If you compare it with, say, the King Arthur legend or the Roland legend, there's not much narrative that is compulsory. I mean if you have King Arthur, you've got to have a mysterious birth, knighthood, round table, Guinevere, Lancelot, grail. There's a whole schmeer of things that you tend to have. You can have a Robin Hood story by just having Robin Hood. I mean, some of them don't even have Maid Marian, some of them don't even have King Richard, some of them don't even have Little John. So, it's a very simple life form as a narrative. So it can change. It doesn't have a canonical narrative.

And the other reason I think it has varied so much is that it's an inherently popular narrative. The fact that it's in film and television in our day is characteristic about it, as it was in song and popular drama. It's almost like an oral language which is subject to very rapid, linguistic change. Because it's so popular at a low level, culturally speaking, it's very volatile. I think that's an intriguing element as well.

Robin Hood as a trickster

AWW: Do you have any favourite versions of the legend?

SK: I'm particularly fond of a film starring George Segal called The Zany Adventures of Robin Hood . I don't know if you are familiar with that, but it's a fine sort of ironic Hollywood production from, I think, the 1980's with Morgan Fairchild as a particularly spectacular Maid Marian who is extremely frustrated. At one point she says, "I'll soon be Old Maid Marian." That's a particular favourite of mine. I must say I prefer the looser versions. I certainly do think that the comic, farcical has always been an element. The Robin Hood tradition comes out of local plays and farce and theatrical mugging has always been an element of it. I think some of the least successful versions are some of the more sombre versions, a bit like Tennyson's The Foresters.

I think that there is a trickster element close to the strongest of the Robin Hood traditions. And I think that the best of the films get that. The Errol Flynn version got that. So did the Fairbanks version.

AWW: What elements of the Trickster do you see in Robin Hood?

SK: He is something like a law to himself. He creates new law, which is against old law as the trickster does. He goes in disguise very often. There's quite a lot of subversion. You know, making the Normans walk back to the castle, turning the bishop back to front on his horse. Subversive elements appear quite a lot in the friar who eats a lot and is very jovial. Subversion whether for just entertainment or political grounds is a strong element of it. The Robin Hood figure is not always a very long ways away from the Puck figure, the forest sprite who is playful, mischievous. There is a strong sense of what is coming through the tradition is true, organic law, rather than false, imposed law. And that's something that I think is not far from the fully-developed trickster tradition. I think it's a social bandit coupled with a trickster tradition inherently.

Robin Hood and social banditry

AWW: Can you give some examples of his early social banditry that you find particularly appealing?

SK: Well, something like Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne , where Guy of Gisborne is a bounty hunter looking for Robin. Little John has, meanwhile, been arrested. Robin find and kills Guy of Gisborne, dresses himself in Guy's horsehide -- why Guy is wearing a horsehide and head is pretty mysterious and semi-mythic. But then he returns in that outfit to where the sheriff is; the sheriff thinks it's Guy coming, and Robin then rescues Little John, and Little John shoots the sheriff through the head as he runs away. This is the hero's rescue of his lieutenant which is a characteristic social bandit phenomenon. And also Robin's group of outlaws are a strong commonality who protect each other, look out for each other, gather to save each other, which is a strong element of the social bandit myth as you get it described by Hobsbawm's book on bandits [Eric Hobsbawm's book, Bandits , uses Robin as the archetype of the social bandit.]

The Gest of Robyn Hode [large and influential early ballad] is moving a bit away from the social bandit to versions of gentrification. In the opening sequence, Robin is almost imitating King Arthur in wanting to see a miracle or marvel before he eats. But some of the earlier ballads are social bandit. So, is a slightly later ballad which doesn't appear before the 17th century, but was known by 1600 because it's referred to in the Sloane Life [of Robin Hood]. It tells the story of how Robin becomes an outlaw; how when he's a young man he meets the foresters, and they bet he can't perform a shooting feat. He performs it; they refuse to pay them, and then he kills them all. So it's a rather radical explanation of how he's forced into becoming a murderer, which is also a feature of social banditry.

AWW: It seems like Robin Hood has inspired real bandits, because there were a lot of people calling themselves Robin Hood throughout history.

SK: Yes, it's certainly a very usable term, isn't it? Hardly a week goes by without some story in the paper about a grandmother who robs somebody to save a dog's home. and saying "Robin Hood Granny" or something like that. It's such a compulsory term for the good criminal, isn't it? And so it's hardly surprising that there are people over the centuries who have wanted to represent themselves as Robin Hood to persuade us that they are good criminals. And there certainly were outlaws of this kind.

I'm skeptical that there was a real Robin Hood. I think it is a mythic name like Santa Claus. You become Santa Claus when you put a beard on and give presents to children at Christmas. And you become Robin Hood when you're an outlaw, and live in the forest shooting the king's deer. That did happen.

There are certainly instances of people giving their name as Robin Hood. "What's your name?" "Robin Hood, guv'nor!"

Barnsdale in Rutland and the Scottish tradition

AWW: In your book, you suggest a different location, in Rutland, for Barnsdale [Yorkshire stomping grounds of Robin Hood in many of the early ballads], has there been much response to that?

SK: No, not at all. They're very interested in Rutland. It got on the front page of the Rutland Courier. Well, my point was to indicate that there is another Barnsdale. The problem about Barnsdale is one that Dobson and Taylor in their book [Rymes of Robyn Hood] honestly as good historians acknowledge. It [the traditional Yorkshire one] was never recorded as a royal forest. And although Barnsdale is very early referred to as the site of Robin Hood's activities, it was never a royal forest, although it was a site of highwaymen on the road that runs through it.

We were actually living in Rutland, and I was amazed to find there is a substantial and ancient forest there also called Barnsdale, which was in fact a royal forest. And it's not very far from Nottingham. Only 20 miles from Nottingham, and yet indeed a site of highwaymen. The A1 does run along the side of it, the Great North Road.

Now, I'm not really suggesting that the Gest doesn't occur in the Yorkshire Barnsdale. It is clearly located in it. What I'm suggesting is that there were many Robin Hoods and there are even two Barnsdales. And it may well be that the Royal Forest of Barnsdale with outlaws was the Rutland one, and the one in the North was another highwaymen robber area. And they get conflated and mixed up, just as in the very earliest references. In Wyntoun's Chronicle of Scotland , Robin Hood is said to operate in both the Carlisle district, in Inglewood which is near Carlisle on the Scottish border, and Barnsdale. For a Scottish historian to mention Barnsdale, he may well have had in mind the Rutland Barnsdale, because the people who owned it were, in fact, the Scottish Royal Family. When Wyntoun said Barnsdale, it was more likely to be understood in Scotland as the Rutland Barnsdale than the Yorkshire one. But who knows? My point really was to say that Robin Hood is a polymorphous creation, and even the Yorkshire Barnsdale has a double.

AWW: Another Scottish connection with the Rutland Barnsdale, of course, is the Earl of Huntingdon.

SK: That's correct. It did strike me as very strange and fascinating that Rutland Barnsdale had been owned by the Earl of Huntingdon, the king of Scotland's brother. I can't show any actual link between that fact and Munday's use of the name Earl of Huntingdon [as Robin Hood's title in the Elizabethan plays]. My very strong supposition is that John Stow, the great Elizabethan archivist and historian who was close friend of Munday's, knew about it and told him about, but I can't prove that. And Stow never actually, that I've been able to find, mentions the Earls of Huntingdon [owned Barnsdale]. But he may have known about it. That's my guess, but I can't prove it, and so it's just curiosity. There's certainly no other good explanation in my view for Munday making Robin Hood the earl of Huntingdon. There is a suggestion that it is a reference to the Protestant earl from the earl 16th century, but I don't that convincing.

Late 20th century Robin Hood scholarship

AWW: What sorts of developments have occurred in Robin Hood scholarship in the last few years, since there have been a fair number of books since the late 1980s.

SK: Yes, there have. I think the historical scholarship coming out of British archivists is still going on. Colin Richmond's recently written an interesting article, and John Bellamy. I think that's still going on, the British love of "Will the real Robin Hood stand up?" I think much more interesting to me, and I believe more advantageous in the long term, has been a good deal of scholarship, mostly in North America, in two areas. One is in film study, looking at the Robin Hood films, the context in which they were made and the sort of meanings.

The other interesting area, which again relates to part of the American academy and its institution interests, is children's literature. Quite a lot of the people working in Robin Hood these days are working in children's literature. And I think that is very interesting, because Robin Hood is a major feature in children's literature. When I was researching my book, I was absolutely stunned to find how much publication in Robin Hood studies there was in children's plays, stories for children, poetry for children in Britain, but also in America, from about 1900 to about 1930. It was an absolute bloom industry. And the Americans were probably producing more than the British. And there's a tremendous wealth of stuff that the children's literature people are beginning to explore. And I think they've been very interesting areas.

The other area where I've noticed scholarship is in legal history. Quite a lot of the legal history courses are very interested in outlawry as the definition of the limits of law. It's certainly true that the edition that Tom Ohlgren and I have got just coming out has quite a lot of historical material because there was an interest in it. Many people who wanted to use the book are in fact historians of law and social historians. So I think there is a range of areas. I think we are only beginning to see the development of a broad-based Robin Hood studies, like there is a sort of wide-based King Arthur studies.

The Forresters Manuscript Ballads

AWW: Could you please tell me a bit about the Forresters manuscript?

SK: Yes, it's a small bound book with turned up in the hands of bookseller from a house clearance in 1993 in the west of England. There's no chain of providence. Nobody knows who owns it. There are no names written on it. The initials W. F., but they are not original. It's a manuscript of 22 ballads, or if you like, 21 because there are two versions of Robin Hood and the Pindar of Wakefield . It's hand-written very neatly by two hands, one of which is clearly the supervisor who writes the partials and after the fourth ballad, has written the first two stanzas of most ballads and then the second scribe follows it. That's quite a common practice. It's like an editor and an editorial assistant.

Many of these ballads are familiar. In fact, most of them are pretty familiar. There are some of them which are almost identical to ballads existing in Child's great volume 3 or 5, depending on which edition you've got. But there are some very interesting developments. For example, there's a ballad called Robin Hood and the Sheriff which is based on Robin Hood and the Golden Arrow . But it starts with a new 18 or 19 lines which tells how the sheriff was so cross with Robin stealing his goods and forcing him to eat off his own household plate, that he thought up the idea of the archery competition. So, familiar stuff, but there isn't one ballad which does this.

There's another ballad called Robin Hood and the Kin g which takes the well-known ballad, the King's Disguise and Friendship with Robin Hood , and adds to the ending of it, a story of Robin Hood's death. So, there are some original things. There's also a version of Robin Hood and Allen a Dale which is very different, called Robin Hood and the Bride. It's in a Northern dialect. It has quite different action. It just has the story of Robin arranging a wedding for a young man and his girlfriend, who is getting married to a horrible fellow.

So, there are very variant versions. The most interesting to me are two versions of Robin Hood and Queen Catherin and Robin Hood's Fishing , which is a version of Robin Hood's Noble Preferment . They are clearly better versions; they've got more stanzas. It's clear from looking at them that the versions that Child has were cut down to fit into a broadside.

I wouldn't say the manuscript gives us better text of any but two, possibly three, ballads. But what it is does show us is there was a lot of activity when the manuscript was being produced, around 1670. And what it really is is a manuscript garland. It relates closely to the 1663 and 1670 garlands (collections of Robin Hood ballads). It's better than both of them.

And I dare suspect, and will suggest tentatively in my edition that it might have been the copy for another garland that someone didn't [produce] because the 1670 one came out.

It's very interesting. It shows us how many versions are missing. Of the 21 versions, only four come from a source we can identify -- they are all copied from the 1670 garland. The rest have different sources and so on. What they remind us is that although we have a lot of Robin Hood ballads from the 17th century, 30 or so, there must have been many, many more which are lost. So, it's not exactly a new resource, but it certainly puts a different spin on a lot that we know about the existing ballads.

The Robin Hood legend in childhood, in America, and under conservative governments

AWW: I was wondering if you could share a couple of childhood experiences about Robin Hood.

SK: Well, as a child, I suppose the Robin Hood material I knew was the British black-and-white television which started in 1954, I think. It was shown in the States as well. With Richard Greene as Robin Hood. I don't know if you've ever seen these.

AWW: A handful of them, yes.

SK: He was slightly overweight, plump. And I like to think of him as "Squadron Leader Robin Hood". It's very much sort of British, post-war fiction. He's an officer class type, and the outlaws are very much lower deck or non-commissioned officers or working class. But also it reminds us that Britain in the 40's and 50's was a socialist state committed to reform. Because they're rather serious. There's not much joking in them. And they're all about how these bad Normans have mistreated the people and let the country run to rack and ruin. And they're much represented in terms of the old Conservative government from the 30's.

So, I grew up on, I must say, a rather serious Robin Hood. So, it was quite a relief to see the more comic versions that came along. But we certainly watched those faithfully when I was a child, because that was about the time that people began to get televisions. A lot of people got their televisions for the coronation in 1953. We didn't, but my neighbours did, so we then could move on from coronation to Robin Hood.

AWW: Robin Hood seems extremely popular in North America, even more so than it Britain. Why is that?

SK: Well, don't forget that cultures always like things from another culture. You know, John Wayne was a great hero in England. And the otherness of the Robin Hood stories, the fact that it is not American, must give it some attraction.

But I also think the American Robin Hood has in some way absorbed the frontier myth. The lone cowboy, the private eye figure, the Natty Bumppo figure somehow belongs to Robin Hood. I think he was Americanized by Fairbanks [in Douglas Fairbanks Sr's 1922 film] -- more active, more independent. So, I don't think it is a myth that is at odds with the American myth. I think that America has been very important in sustaining and developing the material in this century.

I think America interprets Robin Hood. There's some stress on the heroic individual working for the good of others. He's not entirely unlike those characters James Stewart played in the 1930's like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington . But there is a sort of culture yearning as it were in all cultures. And I think American interest in Robin Hood is a sign of that.

And one that goes back a good way. As I say in my book, I was fascinated that Tennyson's The Foresters wasn't produced in England. But there was a very splendid production in America which was enormously successful and much imitated. And I think that's one of the reasons there were so many early Robin Hood films. The Augustin Daly production of the 1890's and the Reginald DeKoven musical of the same period [Robin Hood: A Comic Opera , called Maid Marian in the UK] made Robin Hood a part of American popular culture, almost in the same way My Fair Lady was made a part of American popular culture or indeed Camelot made Arthur the same sort of thing. These major American productions with all the skill that the American cultural institutions have. I think that the 1938 Errol Flynn picture made by Warner's is technically the best of all the Robin Hood texts. The quality of scripting, action, directing, music is very high. So, I think of the things that America has done is produce major art cultural versions of the Robin Hood tradition.

Whereas in Britain, they still tend to be a bit scruffy. You know, pantomimes, musicals, parodies like Maid Marian, the feminist Maid Marian [comedy TV series by Tony Robinson where Marian is the brains and RH a brainless figurehead]. America has in some sense mainstreamed the Robin Hood tradition in a way that the British have not. I think it's a different sort of story in the two cultures. It's still got some of the social bandit element in it in Britain. In America, it's the myth of the natural person -- a more mainstream story.

AWW: Do you have a problem with it being brought into the mainstream.

SK: No, no. I think it's very interesting. I think that the difficulty is for the producer/director to maintain a sense of trickster vitality. For me, the problem with the Kevin Costner movie is that it was too much liberal mainstream, and not enough sort of trickster farce. I think that's why I like Men in Tights and the George Segal Zany Adventures of Robin Hood, because they are off the mainstream. They are Hollywood parody. But I think the danger of mainstreaming is that it becomes a bit sonorous. I think that shows up in Prince of Thieves , but who's to say that when it took so much money.

AWW: Is there anything else you would like to add about the Robin Hood legend?

SK: I have a speculation that I think Robin Hood is very popular at the moment. But I think that King Arthur is not very popular at the moment. I think the two have phases like a weather clock. King Arthur is popular in some periods, and Robin Hood in the others. Robin Hood is popular in time of conservative dominance. This is the Knight theory. [Laughs.] Robin Hood acts as a safety valve. Robin Hood came to the fore against in the period of Reagan and Thatcher. I'm very interested in the way Robin Hood materials tend to cluster. For example, in the Restoration [1660 onwards] under King Charles II, there is a lot of Robin Hood activity where there hadn't been under the Parliament [where there was no king for ten years after the English Civil War], and very strikingly in about 1818, 1820 under the new very conservative governments, Robin Hood material is used. I think the Robin Hood material can be used for safety valve or fairly tame resistance under conservative governments. I'm working on a timeline of this at the moment. I think we are in a Robin Hood phase at the moment.

AWW: Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to me.

This interview is copyrighted to Allen W. Wright. Please ask for my permission if you are going to quote more than small sections from it. Thank you.

Order books by Professor Stephen Knight

ROBIN HOOD: A MYTHIC BIOGRAPHY by Stephen Knight. No, this still isn't a look at possible real life Robins.  Instead, it's the biography of a mythic character or rather four characters. It divides Robin's legendary persona into four archetypes. A great introduction to the literary aspects of the legend.
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ROBIN HOOD : THE FORRESTERS MANUSCRIPT : BRITISH LIBRARY ADDITIONAL MS 71158, edited by Stephen Knight. The manuscript of this previously unpublished 17th century ballad collection was discovered in a 1993 booksale -- a major find for Robin Hood scholarship. Stephen Knight adds notes to all the ballads.
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ROBIN HOOD AND OTHER OUTLAW TALES edited by Stephen Knight and Thomas Ohlgren. It's a whopping 700 pages filled with ballads, plays, and historical background. Much of this book is online at  The Robin Hood Project at the University of Rochester.
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READING ROBIN HOOD by Stephen Knight. The latest book covers much of the same ground as Mythic Biography but includes more recent scholarship. For the slightly more advanced reader.
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