Interviews in Sherwood

Valerie B. Johnson

Interview conducted and transcribed
by Allen W. Wright

Introduction

Dr. Valerie B. Johnson is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Montevallo. She has been published articles on a wide variety of topics, including several about Robin Hood. She also co-edited (with Dr. Lesley Coote) the collection Robin Hood in Outlaw/ed Spaces.

Dr. Johnson has helped organize several of the conferences for the International Association for Robin Hood Studies and currently maintains their website. From 2006 - 2012 she was also the webmaster of the University of Rochester's Robin Hood Project.

In addition to Robin Hood Studies, she is an expert in medieval literature and culture and space studies.

Click here to visit her WordPress site.
Click here to visit the International Association for Robin Hood Studies.

This interview was conducted by email in July 2019

Discovering Robin Hood

AWW:   How did you first discover the Robin Hood legend? Before becoming involved in Robin Hood scholarship, what versions of the legend had the biggest impact on you, and why?

VBJ:        My very first contact with Robin Hood was through books, mostly reworkings of Pyle, and my father read to me from the Children’s Classics edition. I remember being very small and listening in fascination.

            A few years later, when I was about 6 or so, I was sick and home from school with chicken pox, so my parents let me watch the Disney Robin Hood on our new home video system (Betamax – we later changed to VHS when Beta tapes were no longer available, but I still have that Betamax cassette and box). It was the highlight of an otherwise painful and isolating week!

            When I was a few months shy of 11, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves arrived in theaters, and I was obsessed. I was too young to see it unsupervised, so my father (bless him) sat through two screenings in the theater with me before telling me that I needed to find book versions if I wanted to re-experience the story. That’s when I found Robin McKinley’s The Outlaws of Sherwood in a public library: I was visiting my grandparents in California (we lived in Maryland) and I have incredibly vivid memories of finding the book. The mass market paperback cover was intriguing: trees, outlaws with normal expressions – I always found the relentless cheer annoying, even as a child – and it was Robin Hood, so I picked it up on one of our trips and read it voraciously. The story drew me in; to an 11-year-old girl, it was literally the first time I’d found women (plural) who acted and felt like me in the Robin Hood tradition. It was certainly far more welcoming to girls and women than Prince of Thieves. I finished reading the book while sitting in a tree down the road from my grandparents’ home, and it was tremendous. Then I read the author’s note where McKinley talked about how she’d researched material – historians and ballads and other retellings, who knew that was even a thing? Not tween-me! –closed the book, and decided, then and there, that I was going to get a PhD in Robin Hood studies. (Note: I did not get a PhD in Robin Hood studies. I got a PhD in English literature and culture, with a focus on medieval English vernacular political poetry.)

            The impact McKinley had on me was massive: I finally saw myself in the tradition, and representation really does matter. It gave me a lot of confidence – in McKinley’s novel, Marian’s the expert archer, running her usual double life, and she’s also the mastermind behind a fairly strategic rebellion that seeks to provide the oppressed and poor with dignity. Robin is guilty of a crime, and he carries that guilt, owns it, and sees his work with the outlaw band as a means to leave the world better than he found it.

            McKinley came at a good time for me, since I was also running into sexism in other circles – I was a comic book fan at that age as well, and every time I walked into a store the clerks always tried to steer me toward comics “appropriate” for girls (which were inevitably not what I wanted to read). Sometimes they’d ask if I was lost; some of them looked at me, and then looked at the books on the shelves and realized how suggestive and sexualized is comic book art. The novel was a welcome relief. It gave me a strategy, a way to imagine myself when no other medium provided it: the Marian in Prince of Thieves, after all, started out as a warrior but the narrative forgot that and by the end of the film she was literally screaming for help as the Sheriff starts to rape her; the Marian of the Disney film sits at home sighing over pictures of Robin, or simpering as he gets to do things. McKinley’s Marian, and Cecily (an original character), were active and engaged and got to do things.

Entering Robin Hood scholarship

AWW:    What was your path to becoming involved in -- and now a leading light of -- Robin Hood scholarship?

VBJ:       Truly, it started with Robin McKinley’s author’s note at the end of The Outlaws of Sherwood, because that was the absolute first time I’d seen a direct connection between a creative work and scholarly research. But I learned about literary and cultural research into Robin Hood during my undergraduate senior honors thesis at Smith College.

            That was a year of intensive research, reading all the criticism I could find, working through the recently published TEAMS edition (for a student it is the best possible edition on the market, past and present), and synthesizing all the massive amounts of research I’d done into three chapters that made coherent arguments about discreet and chronological segments of the tradition. As I was finishing, my thesis advisor Nancy Mason Bradbury spoke with me very frankly about graduate school and what I wanted from it. I decided I wanted to get some work experience and live life outside academic restrictions for a while – and when I was ready to go back, I remembered that she’d suggested Thomas Hahn as a possible mentor at the University of Rochester.

            Tom Hahn is the best mentor I could possibly have found. When I arrived to start my MA work, Tom suggested I attend a biennial conference for Robin Hood studies at the University of Delaware; he also had me auditing his Robin Hood course, and I learned a lot about different elements of the tradition and the sheer depth of material that was out there. In fact, I met a lot of top scholars at that conference – Stephen Knight, Lorraine Stock, Sherron Lux, John Marshall, Allen Wright, and many more. It was my first academic conference, and it really set a high personal standard for intellectual quality.

            Later that year I wrote my Masters thesis on Robin Hood romance novels, drawing heavily on Tom Hahn’s personal collection of Robin Hood materials that I was also working to catalog. I applied to Rochester’s PhD program from within the MA program, and got in; they told me I didn’t have to write the MA thesis as a consequence, but as I’d taken out a student loan to pay for the MA I wasn’t about to let that go to waste, and I really wanted to do that research and writing!

            IAs a PhD student, I realized I needed to be able to demonstrate that I was a strong “conventional” medievalist, one who could teach and research on core authors and topics, so I decided to avoid Robin Hood in my dissertation…but it became a running joke between Tom and I about whether or not he could persuade me to reference Robin Hood (appropriately and relevantly) in footnotes or the main text of my work. I also helped Tom organize the 2009 IARHS biennial conference at Rochester (“Robin Hood: Media Creature”), which was a huge undertaking and really showed me the extent of how important unpaid academic labor is to intellectual communities.

The Robin Hood Project and the International Association for Robin Hood Studies

AWW:    From 2006 - 2012 you served as the webmaster and designer of the University of Rochester's Robin Hood Project website and now the International Association of Robin Hood Studies website. What are some of your memorable experiences as a webmaster?

VBJ:       Sheer joy when someone else took over the technical elements and improved them! Prior to that point I was designing, coding, copy editing, writing content – it was a huge undertaking, and a massive time sink, because I was teaching myself how to do it, explaining to others what to do, creating templates and style guides to ensure continuity, etc. I definitely appreciate quality web content now, and I try to make sure my students realize the huge amount of effort it takes to produce a site with any intellectual rigor. It is so easy to just consume content these days without thinking about the hundreds of hours a person has to give to make that content. That’s part of why the IARHS blog is on a free access template and the Bulletin of the International Association of Robin Hood Studies is also built on an open access template – it means we can focus on content, even if we don’t look as slick as other sites. 

AWW:    You are also on the committee for the International Association for Robin Hood Studies. What's the current state of the association? (I think I might be a charter member, unless I now been made a wolfshead.)

VBJ:       The organization is incredibly loose and free, which has benefits and downsides. The benefit is you’re definitely still on the rolls! The downside is that we can’t pool our resources and feast together – by which I mean we cannot offer bursaries to students / retired / unwaged to attend our conferences. We can’t collect money to keep our server space for the Bulletin, so I pay for it personally. It means the people who do the yeoman’s work of keeping the association together – and that’s definitely Alex Kaufman, by the way – aren’t getting the support they should have, and we all do work without pay or much credit. The Conference Committee is designed to provide some loose oversight into what gets the IARHS “brand” label, and because it’s an official committee whose members were elected, those of us who were elected and who do the work can list the committee as service to the profession in our annual evaluations with our employers' universities.

            Mostly I think of the IARHS as members of our list serve and those who come to events we organize, whether panels at larger conferences or our own biennial meetings. We’re not limited to scholars or independent scholars, and I love that aspect of the organization.

Medieval and Medievalism

AWW:    One of the things I like best about your scholarship is your approach at the nature of the tales. You mentioned a distinction between what is genuinely historical medieval setting and medievalistic setting of modern films, TV shows and books? Could you please highlight a couple of the distinctions?

VBJ:        Medievalistic settings are what “feel” realistic or evoke realism – it’s intelligent evocation of genre expectations, essentially. But medievalism often has nothing to do with history or historicity, to the point that if a Robin Hood film were to have elements that are genuinely historical that go against medievalism or medievalistic expectations, then those historical elements “feel wrong.” Speculative genres like fantasy and science fiction have the same restrictions. For example: we like to situate Robin Hood retellings in the 1190s, which is a pretty arbitrary date that isn’t supported by any of the earliest surviving stories. The final decade of the 12th century gives us “good” King Richard (who did not speak English, by the way, only French; he also stated he’d sell England if he could get away with it) and “bad” Prince John (not a great ruler, either, but not a scheming villain stereotype). This is narratively satisfying: we have a clear villain in John, and a romantic warrior in Richard, so Robin and company can easily take sides, even if the historical reality was far more complex. But at the same time, the 1190s also create problems: historically there’d be no Friar Tuck! Of the four major orders of mendicant friars, none received papal approval prior to the first decade of the 13th century (and hence protections and status like those enjoyed by Tuck). As best we can determine, friars didn’t officially enter England until a few years after the death of King John. Don’t even get me started about longbows, costumes, languages, social stratifications, ecological composition of forests and wooded spaces, etc.

            In my view, the key issue is that medievalism is easier to work with than history; medievalism offers an artist or content creator a chance to make something lovely, and the results can be really beautiful in visual media and deeply satisfying. Additionally, medievalism allows a storyteller to represent or push their own particular agenda – so, for example, most of our perceptions of what Robin Hood “should be” and what “feels authentic” is filtered through the lens of 19th century British nationalism and imperialism. Some of those 19th century components include the racial strife between Normans and Saxons, the idea of a golden era that has somehow been disarrayed by newcomers, and the concept that highly stratified class-based societies were worthy of nostalgia.

            Historical contexts or historically accurate representations require a really prohibitive amount of background that sometimes actively gets in the way of an enjoyable story (or a story that a content producer judges will be marketable). Also, and this is pretty important, most audiences aren’t engaging a Robin Hood narrative to learn about literary history, cultural history, or material history. They come to stories of Robin Hood (and indeed to medievalism generally) for something else entirely, and that can be escapism, it can be a mirror that reflects the present but with just enough distance and distortion to enable clarity or insight, it can be the deep enjoyment we take in a predictable and known story that engages us precisely because we know how it will end – in fact, that predictability is the pleasure many audiences find in repetitive genres like video games, romance novels, superhero comics, action movies, etc. All that is fine!

            Audiences coming to Robin Hood stories have massive expectations that have nothing to do with the history of the narrative, nothing to do with the material reality of outlawry. Ultimately, too, the selection of a particular date is completely arbitrary. There is nothing historically accurate about the Robin Hood tradition as a whole, and even our early literary artifacts are several centuries older than most audiences realize since the earliest surviving manuscript witness of a Robin Hood story is from the 1460s.

Maid Marian and Women in the Legend

AWW:    I was deeply impressed by your article "A Forest of Her Own" in Robin Hood in Outlaw/ed Spaces where you examined the three prominent female characters in the ballads -- the Sheriff's Wife, Clorinda, and Maid Marian. You highlighted how the transformation that male characters experience when entering the greenwood-space is temporary, brief or limited for the female characters in the legend. You end with encouraging greater representation -- allowing women to have the same kind of access to the greenwood that men have generally experienced. What do you think about the various additional women characters in the modern books, movies and TV shows. Are there any who have handled this particularly well? And what needs to be done to improve the legend?

VBJ:        Thank you!

            I don’t think that there are many modern productions that have provided the necessary representation. Often there are two women in a Robin Hood story, whether film or television: Marian and her serving woman, and that unequal power structure is often used for comedic effect (but perpetuating class, education, and regional stratification that can easily read into racial divisions). Women have significantly fewer lines of dialog – so, to give you a sense of this, I like to point to a tool that’s publically available.Hanah Anderson and Matt Daniels of The Pudding (formerly Polygraph) collected scripts from some 2000 films to analyze lines of dialog. (The Anderson-Daniels study – including non-final versions of films, since the data is from scripts – is located at https://pudding.cool/2017/03/film-dialogue/index.html.) Marian is assigned 1,094 words in the film. By contrast, Robin Hood has 5,179; Little John, Azeem, and the Sheriff have a minimum of 500 words more than Marian, each, and in some cases significantly more. So if Marian was assigned fewer than 1100 words in the script, she’s certainly lost more in editing – dialog is often cut and streamlined to make films flow.

            Novels and short stories are where women get more representation. Even when Marian is the focus character and the whole story is told from her perspective (or mostly from her perspective), authors often feel compelled to fall back on a narrative of women fighting against oppression for equality. This is appealing to modern readers because it resonates with many of our own experiences in the present! However, it also means that we never do get to see a Marian who doesn’t have to spend the entire narrative proving to the outlaws and the audience that she’s just as valuable as any male member of the outlaw band. We never get to see a Marian who has the freedom to just be an outlaw, a Marian who can act like a Robin. To compare subgenres for a minute: how often, in superhero stories or space opera, do we get detailed explanations of how things work? Pretty rarely! But in the matter of the greenwood (or really any genre where a woman is doing something) a woman’s ability to do something requires a lot of explanation to become “realistic” or acceptable.

            The sad fact of the matter is that when it comes to representation of women and racial or cultural minorities, the Robin Hood tradition very rarely provides an audience with more than a single example per story. This is tokenism, and because medievalism is very convincing and “feels” right (because this is what we’ve seen over and over again, in every film and tv show and comic and novel, etc.), it’s easy for audiences to extrapolate and make factually inaccurate assumptions about a variety of subjects, including medieval women and rights, the presence of persons of color in medieval Europe, the extent of travel and multiculturalism, hygiene practices, or even lifespan. This loops back to your question about historical settings and contexts: I find that the expectations we bring to these medievalism productions are so significant that we actually discount those rare accuracies (when they do appear) as insignificant or wrong because we’re not used to seeing them! That’s confirmation bias, essentially, and it’s got to be accounted for when we think about why it’s important to us that a Robin Hood film – a tradition that is pure medievalism – be historically accurate.

AWW:    You've also shed light on some Robin Hood stories that have been ignored by Robin Hood scholarship at large. What individual works, genres and media do you think deserve more attention from Robin Hood fans and scholars?

VBJ:        Robin Hood romance novels and young adult novels are a really under explored area – I wrote my Masters essay on a selection of the romance novels, and there are so many fascinating variations, ranging from ultra conservative and even oppressive views of the tradition to stories that have genuinely innovative approaches to the material. I personally enjoy stories that focus on Marian’s adventures, whether parallel to Robin’s own or independent of the greenwood or even as part of her own awakening to her potential as a person with meaning and value. So I come back to Robin McKinley’s The Outlaws of Sherwood often, and I enjoy the backstory of the Marian in Gayle Feyrer’s The Thief’s Mistress (she’s a roving intelligence agent employed by Eleanor of Aquitaine), and I have a longstanding fondness for Jennifer Roberson’s The Lady of the Forest. Part of my attachment is due to my own nostalgia for where I was in my life when I first met these Marians in these books, but even when the stories don’t age well I still find elements in those three novels that I wish would come forward more in television and film. There are hints, of course: in the 2006-2009 television series, in which Marian is played by Lucy Griffiths, Marian begins the series as the mysterious vigilante called the Night Watchman, but this is undercut by the hideous way her character is written out of the series. In the 2010 film, in which Marion (Marian) is played by Cate Blanchett, she teaches Robin how to be “Robin Hood”; and in the 2018 film, in which Marian is played by Eve Hewson, she reads very much as an activist-organizer. Marian is rarely the star of a greenwood tale, and I think it’s significant that the only production where she’s the genuine focus is a rowdy comedy / satire, Maid Marian and Her Merry Men (1989-1994).

Students and the need for diversity

AWW:    I'm intrigued by your students' projects. What experiences have you had teaching the Robin Hood legend? What opportunities are there for students?

VBJ:        I’ve only had one chance to teach a course that focuses only on Robin Hood materials – usually I’ve been able to include a unit in courses that focus on medievalism, or heroes, or cinematic representations. The University of Montevallo gave me the opportunity to teach outlaw ballads as a genre, and that was fantastic – because genre is so fluid and mutable, particularly for early modern and medieval materials or trans-temporal traditions (like Robin Hood), I used representations of disability and ableism within those ballads as the focus for the discussions, and to guide student projects. I want to make the Robin Hood materials accessible, and while there are many archives, digital and material, not everyone can engage those archives – so we did our best to explore how to make existing materials accessible, and how to think about some of the assumptions we bring to historic genres and literary materials.

AWW:    What impression of Robin Hood do your students have? How is their Robin Hood different than the one you first encountered?

VBJ:        My students are inevitably rather scarred by the differences between their childhood Robin (inevitably the cheery little fox of the Disney film) and the early modern / late medieval ballads. The early Robin Hood stories feature a man who viciously attacks and mutilates an opponent (Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne), who plays nasty identity games (Robin Hood and the Potter), and who leads a band that is perfectly willing to kill a child-servant (Robin Hood and the Monk). All these early stories set up the action with Robin Hood going off on his own, usually after being pretty rude or abusive to Little John, and even when Robin feel a little more “noble” (A Gest of Robyn Hode) he’s still pretty crude and rough. My students often say that thinking critically about the tradition has ruined their childhood memories, and honestly I think that’s good: it means we’re thinking, engaging, and revising what we’re presented with as children. I experience it too: once when I taught The Outlaws of Sherwood some of my students made really astute observations about a deeply uneven power and age imbalance in one of the relationships in that novel, and it was so accurate that I wondered how I’d never noticed myself – it now adds depth to my re-readings. I enjoy the book more because of those critical observations, and it helps me explore multiple interpretive possibilities.

            Passive consumption orwholesale acceptance of cultural artifacts - whether those artifacts are films, novels, art, or whatever -- iscompletely antithetical to critical thinking! What’s the point in consuming those artifacts if not to feel and experience and learn?

AWW:    One of the aspects I like best about your students' projects is the dedication to inclusivity. And from what I've seen medieval studies have had some challenges from a less-than-inclusive group of scholars? What do you think Robin Hood Studies needs to do in order to be inclusive?

VBJ:        Fundamentally, scholarship and study are about continually confronting what we don’t know and questioning what we thought we knew in light of new information – and then working to learn in that new context. When we stop questioning and examining, we begin to rest upon assumptions – for example, for a long time we thought that digitizing the Robin Hood ballads would make them universally accessible. Now we’re realizing that is not the case: the contents of the ballads, the language of the ballads, the media or format of the ballads, all these factors can block access to the material.So we need to provide access, and we need to frame the material in ways that helps audiences see where they can find their own ways to engage. Once we have access, we need to address how to include more people, to increase the number of scholars and minds who grapple with the materials. We need a plurality of voices in any field, and part of what I try to do with my students is give them the tools they need to find their own points of entry to our material. Sometimes that’s a familiar path, but often it’s new and different.

           To move forward and be more inclusive, I think Robin Hood Studies will need more scholars who aren’t primarily medievalists (or medievalismists), because different fields and specialties bring different perspectives and knowledge. In addition to literary, cultural, historical, and film components, we need to routinely engage fields that deal with topics like race, gender, sexuality, language, economics, social psychology, and many others. To fail to do so will be to stagnate and remain static in the face of change, which is never an effective survival strategy.We need scholars and thinkers from all races, cultures, genders, sexualities, and classes. We need diversity.

Current and future projects

AWW:    What are you working on currently?

VBJ:        I’m quite fascinated by the outlaw tale Robin and Gandelyn. Presently I’m developing an article that argues that the greenwood in this poem (and in other outlaw tales) has become a cultural space with capacity to mobilize human action: that the greenwood is liminal has long been accepted, but I’m interested in exploring how greenwood revenge and vengeance uniquely combine natural and human forms of justice. I’m inspired by modern uses of space: we issue permits in common places to authorize protests, vigils, and celebrations, but there’s something about that common place that makes us want to use the space – and that’s an underlying concept that I’m exploring. I don’t know if the argument will go in that direction, but I hope it does!

AWW:    Thank you for your amazing responses.

Order Valerie B. Johnson Books on Amazon

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 Amazon.com
Buy Robin Hood in Outlaw/ed Spaces on Amazon.co.uk
Buy Robin Hood in Outlaw/ed Spaces on Amazon.ca

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 Amazon.com
Buy Robin Hood and the Outlaw/ed Literary Canon on Amazon.co.uk
Buy Robin Hood and the Outlaw/ed Literary Canon on Amazon.ca

ROBIN HOOD IN GREENWOOD STOOD edited by Stephen Knight. Professor Knight's original title for this collection was "Robin Hood with Brains". This one includes Valerie B. Johnson's article "Agamben’s homo sacer, the ‘State of Exception’, and the Modern Robin Hood".
Buy Robin Hood in Greenwood Stood: Alterity and Context in the English Outlaw Tradition on Amazon.com
Buy Robin Hood in Greenwood Stood on Amazon.co.uk
Buy Robin Hood in Greenwood Stood on Amazon.ca


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© Text and Location pictures, Copyright 2019 Allen W. Wright - All Rights Reserved
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