Wednesday 9 January 2019

The Magic of Sherwood Forest, by J.P. Reedman #RobinHood #Myths #Legends @StoneLord1

The Magic of Sherwood Forest
By J.P. Reedman

In British folklore, the two most famous figures are King Arthur and Robin Hood. Often, it seems they are almost ‘lumped together’, probably because both sets of legends contain feats of derring-do set within a medieval timeframe. However, when their stories are compared, there is one striking difference—magic, or lack of it.

In King Arthur’s tales, the supernatural is rife, despite the fact that there is some evidence Arthur may have been a historical figure, a Romano-British war leader of the so-called ‘Dark Ages’. Reading the body of the mythos, we encounter Merlin, lake faes, the Green Knight, giants, monsters, witches, otherworldly boars and many more fantastical beings.

Robin Hood is different. His tales appear, on the surface, to be merely stories of the ordinary man getting one over on his hated overlords—full of head-cracking quarterstaff fights, thievery at the expense of wealthy abbots, and outlaws feasting illicitly on the King’s deer in Sherwood.

Although some researchers have tried to pin Robin Hood to an actual historical figure, there is no single candidate that seems particularly convincing, especially since both Robin/Robert and Hood were common names in the Middle Ages, and the nickname Robbehod (Hooded Robber) was recorded since at least the 1200’s. A surname ‘Littlejohn’ appears in the record too. So Robin Hood is perhaps more of an invention than Arthur is…and yet his legends are far more mundane, with no magic or mysticism.

Or are they?

Thirty or forty years ago, theories abounded that Robin’s character was based on Robin Goodfellow, faery trickster and guardian of the forest—essentially a Green Man, the spirit of vegetation. The iconic 1980’s series Robin of Sherwood used these pagan and folkloric elements to give the Robin Hood legend a much-appreciated mystical touch with the first ‘good pagans’ ever shown on TV. However, despite the show’s continued popularity, the ‘Green Man’ interpretation of Robin seems to have fallen from favour in recent studies, which go for a more ‘literal’ approach to the outlaw’s origin.
However, the wheel often turns full circle in the folklore study as in other fields, and the ‘pagan elements’ theory may yet come into vogue once more. I certainly can see what appears to be a mythic element in two traditional Robin Hood ballads. One is where Robin fights Guy of Gisburne who is dressed up in a stallion’s skin and head, certainly a rather odd addition to the story which is reminiscent of the Hobby Horse, which was brought out to dance at various celebrations and believed to have powers, often relating to fertility. This version is not the ‘jolly Robin’ of an Errol Flynn film; here, Robin decapitates Guy and mutilates his face.

Then there is the fragmentary ‘Death of Robin Hood’ which appears in the 15th c Gest. Here, a sickly Robin, faring to Kirklees Abbey for healing, stumbles on an old woman squatting by a stream, lamenting loudly as she curses him. This figure is almost certainly what is known in Celtic mythology as a Bean-Nighe, the Washer at the Ford, who predicts the fate of those about to die.

The Gest continues with Robin fighting a knight with the vaguely sinister name of Red Roger before being bled to death by the treacherous prioress of Kirklees. This battle resembles the life and death struggle of the ‘Year King’, where a temporary chosen ‘king’ must fight another contender for his life, and the finale with its ritual blood-letting of Robin’s life-blood adds to a dark, unearthly feeling.

In my own novels of Robin Hood, the myths that lurk beneath the mundane veneer of the legends are deliberately brought to the fore, and blended with the local folklore of Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Yorkshire. Real history is not forgotten either, with the Siege of Nottingham and the Rebellion of William Longbeard being pivotal parts of the story.

The Hood Game
Rise of the Greenwood King

Battle. Betrayal. Blood-Feud

“The arrow swift to wound is already drawn from the quiver ; soon will the blow be struck ...”

Robin of Locksley joins the annual village games, signifying the ancient battle between the ‘Lord of the Hood,’ and The Dark.

A night of good cheer turns to terror as soldiers arrive to arrest Robin’s foster father, accused of poaching and witchcraft.

During a struggle between Robin and a Norman master, the lord is killed and Robin made “wolfshead” – a term for a hunted man with a price on his head. Joining with his cousin Scarlet, John Little and Much the Miller's Son, they must flee across the bleak moors of Derbyshire where Robin encounters St.Anne of the Well, who reveals the real meaning of the Hood Game ...

Seeking haven in the “Bright Forest,” others soon join Robin’s band, including the wild, drunken Irish bard, Alan of the Dale, Brother Tuck with his three wolfhounds, and the Lady Marion of Blidworth, rescued from the lecherous advances of Guy of Gisbourne.

Word then comes to Sherwood. The Devil is loose! King Richard Lionheart, freshly returned from captivity, retakes Nottingham back from the corrupt Sheriff, a supporter of Lackland. A chance encounter with Robin, and promises of pardons, brings the Lord of the Hood and his men into the Siege of Nottingham Castle ...
The Outlaws break free of the King's almost hypnotic hold, but Gisbourne is in pursuit using dark enchantments spun by the Witch of Papplewick.

The Hood Game
The Brazen Head

Robin of Locksley, Lord of the Hood, continues his mission to help the people of Sherwood against the oppression of the Sheriff of Nottingham, even though his wife Marian, wounded in body and soul, has left him for the safety of Kirklees Priory. Mourning her loss, Robin has become hard and embittered—the Summer Lord has turned into a Winter King. 

At the Merlin Stone, deep in Sherwood, San Tan the guardian fire speaks of one who is coming, who will shake the foundations of the young outlaw’s life. Change arrives in the form of Clarimonde, Queen of the Shepherdesses, a mysterious girl who begs the Wolfsheads to aid the people of North Yorkshire against pirates sent by the exiled Prince John. 

Robyn regains some of his old fire when he aids Clarimonde—but when she seeks to join the outlaw band he refuses and they part in anger. Clarimonde heads south on her own, leaving Robyn and his men to face a new, sinister threat from Eustais de Lisle, Sheriff of Nottingham.
Seeking revenge, de Lisle has contacted a necromancer to help him defeat Robyn o’ the Wood. The sorcerer is given a corpse, a special corpse, to weave his dark magic—and from it he crafts the terrible Brazen Head. 

The Head can only speak the truth. The Head can Prophecy.
The Head can track down the Greenwood King—even to London, where Robyn joins the doomed rebellion of the demagogue known to history as William Longbeard. 

J.P. Reedman

J.P. Reedman is the author of historical fiction on Stonehenge, Robin Hood, Richard III and the Wars of the Roses and the lesser-known medieval Queens and Ladies.

You can find J.P Reedman on Twitter.


  1. A fascinating article, I love how you are blending real history, folklore, and magic into your stories.

    1. Thank you. Even in my most 'historical' ones, a bit of myth and legend always creeps in somewhere!

  2. This is a very interesting post. I always thought there was a little bit of truth in the stories.

  3. I LOVE Robin of Shwerwood, such a great show. Interesting post, Janet.


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