You may think you know the legend of Robin Hood, but what you know is not quite accurate. I had heard questions of whether or not the real Robin (or possibly whomever the character was based on as there’s a debate as to whether he was real or fictional) was indeed a hero. The legend of Robin Hood goes all the way back to the 13th Century but the version you know came from Hollywood, most likely inspired by Errol Flynn’s interpretation or some more recent version that adds characters for social commentary, has Robin fighting witches (I saw one series I think was from the UK that was very dark in tone but also quite good–I think it was from the 1990s), or otherwise tells the tale of a rich man who came home from the Crusades to find the wicked Prince kingdom-sitting for his uncle, King Richard, had stolen his lands and taxed the people to the point of poverty. Now Robin must gather a band of Merry Men to defeat Prince John, his wicked Sheriff or underling Guy Of Gisborne (who may actually be said Sheriff), and win the hand of the fair Maid Marian.

To quote “Weird Al” Yankovic: everything you know is wrong.

A little closer to our timeframe is Howard Pyle’s The Merry Adventures Of Robin Hood Of Great Renown In Nottinghamshire, an 1883 collection of the tales of Robin Hood and his Sherwood Forest friends. I happen to have a copy of this, a book now in public domain, and I’ll link to a Chapter By Chapter review of the book I did for my other website that includes links to find the book online free and legal at the end of this review. This is going to be an overview as well as a discussion of my copy because that’s pretty interesting itself.

Merry Adventures gives us a Robin Hood who is not a returning soldier fighting to reclaim his lands and fight an oppressive regime. Instead he’s just a young man who, while on his way to an archery contest is forced to kill a man in anger but also in self defense. Unfortunately the other guy is the nephew of the Sheriff of Nottingham, who also has a few questionable morals. It’s not as bad as more modern versions make him out to be but he’s no angel and he has good company there. A certain bishop and a priory Emmet also cause problems for Robin and his growing band. Then again, Robin and company’s favorite tactic is to force a rich man into their forest inn, have a merry time, and then force him to pay for “privilege” of being forced to go there in the first place. At best Robin and company are the lesser evil. The book follows their adventures, focusing mainly on Robin Hood himself (and it’s his actual name, not his criminal name) but occasionally spending time with his right hand, Little John, the nickname of John Little because the only thing little about him is his name.

It amazes me how many difference there are in the legend versus what’s in the story. Very little is the same. Yes, Robin Hood leads a band of outlaws out of Sherwood Forest. Yes they do good deeds with their ill-gotten gains. Yes, the story of how Robin and Little John met is intact. That’s pretty much it. Even the famed archery contest, a trap for Robin who appears in disguise, doesn’t quite happen the same way we know. Friar Tuck isn’t the always hungry comic relief…or at least not at the level I’ve always seen him as since the man is as big and strong as the rest of the band and can actually fight if he needs to. The wicked King? The worse King Henry (Prince John is mentioned but he’s a baby and isn’t taxing anyone) does is let the Bishop talk him into going back on his word to his wife when she tricks him out of a bet involving another archery contest (there’s a lot of archery and quarterstaff fighting in this book). Hardly the great villain Hollywood makes him out to be. It also explains why the guy sitting in for the King Of England wasn’t in London but in a small town like Nottingham…because he was a baby living in London with his parents. King Richard shows up near the end as the Crusades do play a small role later on in the form of a knight and his son who are aided by Robin and later speaks up for him with Richard. (Fun fact: the knight is also named Richard.)

Probably the most conspicuous by her absence is Maid Marian, mentioned in passing but not necessarily shown to be Robin’s one true love. From what research I did for the Chapter By Chapter review over on my other site by the time she reached the movies Marian’s role had been greatly built on but this is her first appearance here, as is Friar Tuck’s, and she’s an non-entity not ending up in a single story outside the off-hand mention. Will Scarlet is Robin’s nephew and joining the band seems to consist of knocking out either Robin or John. The Sheriff is greedy but outside of a growing urge to get revenge on Robin and company no real change. Guy Of Gisborne appears in one story and does he have a murder boner. The Bishop of Hereford and the Emmet Of Priory are also antagonists that pop up a few times. Also appearing are Will Stutley, Allan A Dale, and a few other named but rarely important characters. I’m not sure how many of them have been properly adapted but given the rest of the book, if it’s indeed more accurate to the original legends, I’m betting they got things wrong about them, too.

As for the book itself it actually is an enjoyable read. Robin Hood and friends (“merry men” isn’t the name of the group but just means a bunch of men in good spirits) are the lesser evil but the book focuses on good deeds and times they are wronged. Robin is kind of a dope, prone to bad judgement and willing to get into a fight, usually to his detriment, but he loves his country and his king, even when it’s the king who came closest to snagging his egotistical backside. All the characters are fun to watch in action, even the villains. There are only two deaths in the whole book beyond some people who already lost loved ones, and they make sense to the story presented. About the only “flaw” is that the outdated King’s English may lose some newer readers. If you can get passed that and remember “gay” meant something else back then, then you might enjoy these tales both when rooting for and occasionally against Robin Hood and crew.

As for my copy of the book, that’s kind of fascinating in itself. In 1945 the New York Public School System worked with Scribner and Sons, publishers of the book, and created a two volume “pocket book” sized version of The Merry Adventures Of Robin Hood, and these are the versions I have. In fact I have two more books that came to me this way as my dad went to high school in New York City but isn’t a huge reader. Oddly these came to me instead of my mom, but I’m also a huge reader so why not? Yet for some reason I never took the time to read them. I hope to read the other two books in the future. The books are rather old but still in decent reading condition if you’re careful.

However, there are some interesting decisions made here that I have to call out. The book is formatted as three (occasionally two) “chapters” grouped together as “parts” within the same book. Well, my copy is missing part the second, which got confusing in the review. This part debuts the Sherwood “inn” and features other things important not to the story as a whole but certainly as a set-up. I’m confused as to its absence. Also confusing is the decision to replace Howard Pyle’s illustrations (he was known for his illustrations possibly more than his writing; I’d have to double check that but he was known for both) with that of a student artist, Paula Winter. She also designed the cover. She does a good job imitating the illustration style of an 1800’s book and she was a good artist considering she was in high school (I imagine that if she continued on she only got better) but I did see Pyle’s art during research and looking up the “lost part” and I don’t see the reason for replacing it. His was better, being a more seasoned artist, but at least Winter’s was still pretty good.

If you want a more in-depth chapter by chapter breakdown of the book here’s a link to the category over at BW Media Spotlight that goes over each story. I’ll be choosing my next book next week but The Merry Adventures Of Robin Hood is in public domain and each chapter review I did includes links to a few different versions for you to choose from, including an audiobook version. Either way check the story out, if only to see what the modern takes get wrong. The archery contest trap is probably the biggest change.