Interviews in Sherwood

Lesley Coote

Interview conducted and transcribed
by Allen W. Wright


Dr. Lesley Coote is Lecturer in Medieval Studies and Medievalism at the University of Hull. She has published widely on the Middle Ages and is co-editor of Robin Hood in Outlaw/ed Spaces [with Valerie B. Johnson] and Robin Hood and the Outlaw/ed Literary Canon [with Alex Kaufman].

Her new book Storyworlds of Robin Hood: The Origins of a Medieval Outlaw was released in 2020.

This interview was conducted by messagingl in June and July 200.

Finding Robin Hood

AWW:   When did you first discover the Robin Hood legend?

LC:        My first encounters with Robin Hood were the Richard Greene TV series and the written stories of Roger Lancelyn Green, when I was at my first school - along with Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe and the corresponding telly series. For a child, it’s important to ‘connect’ with characters in stories, in whatever medium they’re told, and I didn’t like both equally. In ‘his’ TV series, Robin Hood wasn’t someone I could connect with at all. I loved the stories – the settings, the clothes, the props, the ‘exotic’ nature of the whole thing, and the idea that this was ‘my’ history – but Robin Hood himself was like some of my friends’ dads, managerial and posh-sounding. He was nice, but seemed so full of moral righteousness; he always did the right thing and kept telling other people about it. In the stories there was a Robin who I could understand and like. He didn’t care about authority, he was independent-thinking, he had good friends but didn’t patronise them – you could believe that he loved playing tricks and games, that he could fight and get into trouble. He was someone I would have liked to be with – if I’d seen the TV Robin coming down the street, I’d have dodged down an alley out of the way! I liked the telly’s minor characters, Little John and Friar Tuck. I liked Marion – she was daring and intelligent – but couldn’t see why she insisted on being with boring old Robin. Children also react to illogicality, so I couldn’t get my head around why on earth Robin didn’t notice she’d suddenly become a different actor! I still hate it when series do that… it assumes that the audience are stupid.  

            The opposite was true with Ivanhoe. In Scott’s book he’s so damn good, so much better at everything than anyone else. I wouldn’t want to know anyone like that… I couldn’t understand why Scott insisted on always introducing my favourite character (Rebecca) with references to her race, color and religion, and why Rowena’s race, color and religion made her somehow more suitable as a match for the hero. Television and film made characters like Rebecca much more ‘real’ and important, and the way her race and ethnicity were treated (pretty badly by old people) was more like my own experience of late Fifties’ and early Sixties’ Liverpool. Robin Hood, or Locksley, was a rough thug-with-a-heart in Scott’s book (which was disappointing), but was treated with more reverence on the small screen, where he was portrayed more like the hero of the written stories. Ivanhoe himself always seemed so much more desperate and ‘endangered’ in the modern retellings. They focussed more on being young, misunderstood and ‘picked on’, and less about ‘good’ people versus ‘bad’ ones (where ‘good’ and ‘bad’ were based on some pretty spurious values).  

Robin Hood Scholarship

AWW:    What led you to Robin Hood studies and has academia changed much?

LC:        When (Dr) Brian Levy and I decided to break with tradition and use film as a fundamental part of our teaching technique, medievalism as a subject was considered to be of little or no value by our university managers, or by many of our university colleagues. It helped that I had been teaching film theory for the Department of Film Studies and Brian had been using film in the Department of Modern Languages - both of these departments gave us a ‘home’ at various times, when English and History would not. Students loved it, however; at one time we had over 90 of them on a single course! But still no cigar…

           (THAT was how I really ‘got into’ Robin Hood, as he - along with King Arthur - was an obvious choice for our two introductory courses: Brian and I started giving presentations and writing articles together, including the IARHS conference in York, and I’ve been associated with the IARHS (International Association for Robin Hood Studies) ever since).

           The commercialisation of university management changed things. Medievalism, fantasy in particular, has become more important as managers seek to include materials which are more attractive and ‘student-friendly’. In the past few years I was finally allowed to construct and teach a course on medievalist fantasy. Game of Thrones has to be thanked for that, whatever you think of the telly version or of George Martin. It remains to be seen if this will change the negative attitudes of managers and planners towards ‘traditional’ medieval studies. It isn’t possible to ‘do’ medievalism without them, and student uptake proves that… however, the signs are not hopeful.       

Storyworlds of Robin Hood

AWW:   Your new book is called Storyworlds of Robin Hood. What are Storyworlds?

LC:        The term ‘storyworld’ was first defined (by T P Wiseman) in relation to stories of the Siege and Fall of Troy. It refers to the whole gamut of characters, tropes, objects and images which are used by writers and artists to tell the stories around a particular set of events. For Troy, it would include not only Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, but Dares’ Excidium Troiae, Virgil’s Aeneid, Racine’s Andromache, Pat Barker’s Silence of the Girls, that terrible film with Brad Pitt and Brian Cox, as well as the medieval Brut legend. This means that there’s one storyworld for Robin Hood, to which all ‘Robin Hood’ productions refer, and to which they belong, no matter when they were produced. Other outlaws and tricksters have storyworlds of their own – Till, Reynard and Troubert, for example. The Virgin Mary has her own miraculous storyworld, and so do the pastourelles and the fabliaux. That being said, these frequently have things in common - my book is largely about that. My point is that medieval audiences and writers, knowing many or all of the alternatives, would be aware of such connections and could exploit them when composing, reading, writing or listening to stories about Robin Hood. Therefore - when we are trying to understand Robin Hood material (in this case from the medieval period) it helps to know about other storyworlds that collide with his, and their relationship with it. Other ideas, genre for example, become very interesting when considered within this framework.

AWW:    What is one of the ways that the Storyworld around the late medieval Robin Hood is different from the Storyworlds of today’s legend?

LC:        The most important difference between the medieval Robin Hood and now? Probably the need to contend with Robin’s moral goodness (or lack of it). Since he lost his medieval justification (his relationship with the Virgin Mary), people have mostly felt the need to give Robin and his men a backstory to explain why they’re into robbery with menaces, general thuggery and personal violence. Even if authors don’t justify him morally, they still address his morality, good or bad. That may be one of the reasons why modern stories are generally stymied from the beginning - Robin has to have a good, excusable or at least understandable, if not ever so moral, reason for what he does. Medieval authors didn’t need to waste much time on that.  

Future Directions for Robin Hood Studies

AWW:     Is there anything you feel Robin Hood scholarship needs to better address?

LC:        This is difficult, as there’s a lot of great research out there right now, and it’s beginning to move away from exposition and narrative of the early materials - which has been done if not quite to death, almost - towards more widely-ranging analysis. I like the medievalism research and the new creative work being done on Robin Hood and his associates, like novels, films and other digital production. I like work which doesn’t treat everything in terms of narrative, but which brings other skill sets than literary criticism and historical analysis (languages, art and art history, film/media/digital game theory, etc) to bear on the material, too. With the idea of one ‘storyworld’ among many others, I’m trying to help draw Robin Hood studies (and outlaw studies in general) away from the idea that they are somehow ‘niche’ - which is how many scholars I’ve met see them. In the Middle Ages they were part of a culture much wider than Britain, or the English language; they were related to many other important cultural ‘worlds’, and are equally important for our understanding of the period. I hope the book opens up some fresh ways of thinking about, and of researching and teaching, this material - for all chronological periods.   

AWW:     Is there anything else you’d like people to know about your book?

LC:        The book isn’t trying to be at all comprehensive. I’ve taken threads from the context of the early Robin Hood stories, teased them out and followed them. The hope is that I can provide a springboard for research to follow some fresh trails… at the same time also offering a (quite cheap) book that teachers and students can use to explore the medieval world, starting with the Robin Hood stories. I hope this helps to make the medieval past more accessible, interesting and above all FUN!

           (It was due in April, but delayed because of Covid… should be generally available in August).

AWW:    Thank you!

Order Lesley Coote's Books on Amazon

STORYWORLDS OF ROBIN HOOD: THE ORIGINS OF A MEDIEVAL OUTLAW  by Lesley Coote. A look at the early Robin Hood and the cultural landscape of the character
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ROBIN HOOD IN OUTLAW/ED SPACES edited by Lesley Coote and Valerie B. Johnson. A collection featuring new approaches to Robin Hood scholarship, including Valerie B. Johnson's masterful article "A forest of her own: Greenwood-space and the forgotten female characters of the Robin Hood tradition". If you are in shock of the academic pricing, I'll say that the Kindle edition is substantially cheaper.
Buy Robin Hood in Outlaw/ed Spaces: Media, Performance, and Other New Directions on
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ROBIN HOOD AND THE OUTLAW/ED LITERARY CANON edited by Lesley Coote and Alexander L. Kaufman. Another collection of essays on the Robin Hood legend. This one includes Valerie B. Johnson's article "What A Canon Wants Robin Hood, Romance Novels, and Carrie Lofty’s What A Scoundrel Wants".
Buy Robin Hood and the Outlaw/ed Literary Canon on
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