Wednesday, 1 May 2019

A Review of The Adventures of Robin Hood by Roger Lancelyn-Green

The Lancelyn Greens still own most of the land around the area where I grew up.

About a year ago while working out in a local gym, I saw a strange looking man fiddling with a shop-shutter across the way. When I told the gym owner about this he said it might be the last heir of the Lancelyn Greens who apparently wanders around and, if he sees something wrong with a doorway or something, will just spontaneously do DIY on it, since his family probably owns it anyway.

That’s my factoid, now to the book.


This is Lancelyn-Green's attempt to 'pull a Malory' and jam a range of sources written at different times into one clear coherent story with a beginning, middle and end and some kind of meaningful 'character development'.

In this he broadly succeeds. There are some mildly tiresome elements, some less-interesting repetitions, some rather odd and interesting things I had never seen before and the book as a whole gets better as it goes on.

Robin Hood is genre trash, much more than the Arthurian tales.

The old Chivalric tales might, in part, be genre trash for the late middle ages audience, but they do have their great poets and some exceptional writers. There are some very 'high' stories in that matter. And there is a clear grouping and pulling together of the matter in Malory, so at least there is a 'canon' albeit rather fuzzy.

The only old Robin Hood tales are a bunch of ballads for commoners. The poetry isn't that great. The re-tellings keep popping up at irregular intervals. None of them really have a claim to be the 'canonical' Robin Hood.

There is no core story they are all responding to and no absolute age in which they belong. They just keep.. happening.

(Actually, the Errol Flynn film might be the closest thing we have to a core version of the story. It absorbs a lot from the 19th Century tellings and really seals that particular feel and aesthetic.)



I've started to think that there is a kind of historical/fictional universe linked by subject, aesthetic and attitude and that it centres around the work of Sir Walter Scott and runs nearly up until the 1960's.

I talked, in my review of The Worm Ouroboros, about how I felt like it was influenced by 19th Century Theatre.

This feels like part of the same continuum.

It’s a matter of costumes, colour, 'scenes', subject, language and storytelling.

This Robin Hood uses illustrations by Walter Crane (who I think did some for the Faerie Queene). They are lovely. I'm pretty sure they are about 30 years older than the book itself.

The Crane costumes, the descriptions in Walter Scotts work, the costumes and aesthetic in the Errol Flynn version and the equivalents in 'The Court Jester', which is nearly a generation older than the Flynn Hood but which takes part in the same aesthetic and is a little bit of a send up of it, are all the same. Or if not the same, they are directly explicable to each other.

Scott tends to clothe his main characters in Technicolour, he writes these stagey, but very dramatically compressed scenes where you can really feel the stage setting, people speak in this pseudo-historical declarative way, and the storytelling is vivid, pared down, very good and with a strong, simple moral through-line.

This all feels like fragments of the same kaleidoscope. I think it’s about the birth of Anglophone mass popular culture, the same place Sherlock Holmes comes from. This bubbling stew of 19th Century storytelling and illustration, 1930's-to-50's 'technicolour cinema with its fixed cameras, pink people and elaborate sets, and, the missing piece for me, 19th Century theatre which I suspect links it all together.

Although in this re-telling, it literally is a crossover with the Walter Scott fictional universe. A scene in the book directly meshes over with scenes in Scotts 'Ivanhoe', they have the same Prince John, the same hidden Richard, Ivenhoe turns up in this book exactly as Robin Hood turns up in that book. And the Prince John in the Flynn Hood in the 1930's has the same feel and weight as that in the books. He talks the same way (he’s a bit better and more amusing when played by Claude Rains).



Robin himself is an impulsive, violent risk-addict who compulsively puts himself in dangerous situations simply to bawd his enemies. He is almost featureless for most of the story, he gets a description at the beginning, but after that, he seems to have no identifying features except that he is 'Robin Hood' - when people see him they either see no-one special, or they see the celebrity bandit.

Robins method of insurgent recruitment is to just fight someone and be charming about it and if they are any good he attempts to bring them in.

After Will Scarlett dies (not a huge loss, see below) Robin has a really good, and very dark scene where he makes the Forest Wardens, his enemies, run for Nottinghams town gates and calmly shoots them down one by one.

Disguises work by chivalric logic, just as they do in Mallory, put on different clothes - BOOM you are invisible.

There's a whole Norman/Saxon inter-culture conflict/resolution thing here with Robin being Half-Saxon (just like Ivanhoe) and John favouring the Normans.

Maid Marian is a really surprising SFC, she bargains with her dad that she can go to the forest whenever she likes on condition she doesn't bone Robin, he agrees as he knows he can't stop her anyway and her word is like iron once given, then she organises her own fictional sham-escape to let her dad get away with meeting Prince John, who expects to find here there. She fights Robin in disguise as a guy and impresses him so much he tries to recruit her and has a lot more to do than in any even recent film version I've seen. I have no idea how much of this is Lancelyn-Green or his sources.

Will Scarlett looks great but does nothing. This seems to be true in most versions. The Christian Slater version where he's Robins somewhat bitter illegitimate brother is actually the best version I've seen.

Little John and Friar Tuck are exactly as you imagine them.

There are a few other named Merry Men but they don't really matter.

Prince John forms his own bad-guy squad, John himself is untouchable, as he is royalty so Robin can't kill him, which gives him a good contextual reason to be an eternally-threatening reoccurring villain.

He has the Sheriff of Nottingham, something of a nonentity in this, Guy of Gisbourne, an equally-manly anti-Robin who is into Marian and comes as close as anyone to taking Robin out.

He has an evil Bishop who, like John, Robin can't kill. And Worman, an ex Merry-Man and forest expert who hates Robin and is largely dislikeable.


A brief word on Prince John.

Prince John is a, perhaps the classic Anglo Anti-Man. We can see what Anglo masculinity is meant to be because we can see Prince John doing it wrong. The Rocky, Superman, Maximus or Robocop do it "right".

(This comes through much more in the Walter Scott description;

Attended by this gallant equipage, himself well mounted, and splendidly dressed in crimson and in gold, bearing upon his hand a falcon, and having his head covered by a rich fur bonnet, adorned with a circle of precious stones, from which his long curled hair escaped and overspread his shoulders, Prince John, upon a grey and high-mettled palfrey, caracoled within the lists at the head of his jovial party, laughing loud with his train, and eyeing with all the boldness of royal criticism the beauties who adorned the lofty galleries.

Those who remarked in the physiognomy of the Prince a dissolute audacity, mingled with extreme haughtiness and indifference to, the feelings of others could not yet deny to his countenance that sort of comeliness which belongs to an open set of features, well formed by nature, modelled by art to the usual rules of courtesy, yet so far frank and honest, that they seemed as if they disclaimed to conceal the natural workings of the soul. Such an expression is often mistaken for manly frankness, when in truth it arises from the reckless indifference of a libertine disposition, conscious of superiority of birth, of wealth, or of some other adventitious advantage, totally unconnected with personal merit. To those who did not think so deeply, and they were the greater number by a hundred to one, the splendour of Prince John's "rheno", (i.e. fur tippet,) the richness of his cloak, lined with the most costly sables, his maroquin boots and golden spurs, together with the grace with which he managed his palfrey, were sufficient to merit clamorous applause.)

The most recent and vivid 'Prince John' I can remember is Commodus from the Gladiator movie, but perhaps you can remember one more recent


The Anglo hero male tends to be heavy and square. You feel his weight when he walks. Prince John is tall, slender and often graceful. He dances or seems to dance. (Hiddlestons Loki is a physical Prince John, Helmsworths Thor is a Rocky.)

Fancy and Femme.

The Anglo male has a uniform or costume but doesn't change it much. He can dress well but must never be seen to care too much about dressing well. His style is spare. Prince John dresses magnificently, he wears rich fabrics, he cares about fashion, he is visibly seen caring about how he looks, his care for his appearance is a touch feminine.

There might be a scene where he puts on perfume.

Courageous but not directly brave.

Lancelyn Greene, Walter Scott and Ridley Scott all have Prince John/Commodus, being conditionally brave in specific ways. He might be shifty and manipulative, but he will fight in a crafty way and will even risk his life if he thinks he can win. He is craven, but not a coward. His bravery is almost never direct or oppositional.

Prince John is manipulative, he is not direct.

High Power Distance and Insidious.

Geert Hofstede thinks Anglo cultures have a particularly strong marker relative to other global cultures; a very low power distance combined a very strong sense of individual separation.

By this reading, Anglo-cultures are full of people carefully treating each other as near-equals while maintaining a strong personal and emotional separation. (At least relative to other world cultures).

Prince John is distressing to be around. He has a high power distance, he is visibly and behaviourally 'better' than those around him and reinforces this constantly, and he is insidious he is too close, physically and emotionally. He puts his hands on you.

This particular combination is designed to be almost physically discomforting for many men raised in an anglo-derived culture. He acts like he is better than you, and he is intimate at the same time.

Also - He'll do something fucked-up regarding women.

To cap everything, he will break the rules male/female relationships in some way. Either by nearly punching Maid Marian (in Lancelyn Greene) or trying to fuck his sister (in Gladiator).

So there we have the essential Anglo-culture anti-man. To be opposed by Rocky/Robocop/Superman who is square and heavy, tends to stamp around, has a controlled minimal aesthetic which he is never seen to specifically arrange, addresses problems directly and physically even or especially when that might be dangerous, treats people in the same direct and respectful way, is 'friends with his men' like Maximus and when he has a necessary power distance usually minimises it, and does this while being highly emotionally contained and controlled, separate to the world around him.

And has normalised/ relationships with women, never hits a girl, is friends with his female sidekick and definitely does not want to fuck his sister. Man/AntiMan.


King Richard

Opposing, or as the kind of shadow to Prince John in the Robin Hood mythos, is King Richard.

Richard, when he turns up is absolutely the Man of the Man/Antiman pairing. He is in (necessary) disguise, but hangs out with peasants and criminals without being a snot about it, and assumes low status personas without complaint, he is super physically tough, large, solid and strong (he even has an in-disguise punching competition with Robin Hoods crew and beats them all, even knocking out Robin Hood, so you know he is special). He is gingery blonde while John is a brunette, honourable and direct as soon as he reveals himself and immediately marries Robin Hood to Marian while John was trying the exact opposite.

But Richard is much much more interesting while he is not on the page. His presence, that of the absent but honourable king, hangs over the whole of the tale like a bright ghost, permeating the story and lending it some of its mysterious energy.

Richard is the 'good king', who would never do any of the bad things Prince John does, and so everyone who opposes Prince John, while seeming to do criminal things, is actually super-loyal and extremely honourable, knightly almost, they are just loyal to a guy who isn't there right now.

Robin Hood is essentially a crime story, and a lot like one of Hobsbawms 'social bandits' (which I think are largely bollocks IRL but whatever).

But of course Robin Hood is simultaneously a criminal and not, e is an outlaw and rebel, and a supporter of authority and stability. It's just that Good King Richard isn't physically here right now. When he comes back, all this apparently criminal stuff will be legal and true and good, and all the stuff the other guys did will be bad and unlawful.

So the story exists in this strange, heightened, legal, moral and physical limbo, a shadow state which could resolve at any time one way or the other. It is like living in a dream.

This is captured in Robins elaborate games he plays with those he meets in the forest. He can only rob from the 'unjust' and only in the cause of good king Richard. So he invites people to dine with him (with implied threat of force) and asks them questions about their wealth and beliefs. Then checks the details.

Depending on who they are and who they support, and how their story checks out, Robin can take everything they have, or even give them gold and resources from his own store. He does both in different stories, rewarding the 'good' and robbing from the 'bad' and corrupt (and those against King Richard).

If you were doing a ‘posh’ version of Robin Hood, this fundamental indeterminacy is probably something you could highlight and really step on, its very ‘literary’ because of the ambiguity and rather sad as, living outside a fictional construct, we know Richard is inevitably going to be kinda useless.

Almost every encounter in the Greenwood is like an elaborate game of identities, status and loyalties made under the shadow of the fear of force.

Lets talk about the Greenwood a little


The Greenwood

Robin in the Greenwood is maybe the first in a long series of Hidden Rebel Bases in which life is actually really cool and a lot better than just living in a house or something.

Most rebel bases in Star Wars, most Pirate Coves in films, maybe elements of Peter Pan, a little touch of exploiting a fallen world in 'fun' zombie films.

Out here, beyond the reach of the law, we lead lives of danger and privation, with no asprin or central heating, HOWEVER, we have a free supply of infinite deer to roast, seemingly no problems with running water or hygiene, we look clean most of the time, it never seems to rain or snow, we are comfortable, well fed and have all this cool gear we purloined/took, so actually, out here on the edge, its actually better than any place you have lived.

People go through the Greenwood, Robin Hood robs them.

Except when he doesn't because he's in disguise and looking for information, or to trick the Sheriff.

Unless the person going through the Greenwood is themselves in disguise, or is the Sheriff.

Or they are King Richard in disguise, or Maid Marian in disguise, or some random guy with a quarterstaff who you don't know, but once Robin fights them for a bit, hey, they can be a Merry Man.

Unless it’s a trap set by Guy of Gisbourne.

Unless Robin blows that trap, by blowing his horn, which always summons his merry men, within the space of one scene. (Never let Robin use the horn).

Unless Prince John, who is in disguise, sent the evil Bishop, (his ally), through the forest deliberately, telling him it would be OK and that he could lie and tell Robin Hood he was carrying funds for King Richard, meaning Robin would let him go, but John knew Robin Hood would see through that lie and capture the Bishop, but that would distract him and give him (John) the ability to sneak up on Robins camp, and find Maid Marian (dressed as a man, but he sees through that disguise) and capture her, but he couldn't have predicted that the tall Palmer who met up with the Bishop and who was captured with him purely by chance and taken to Robins lair to witness the scene with Maid Marian, was actually his brother King Richard, back from the crusades, who removes his disguise and sends John away, allowing Marian and Robin to marry.

Round and round and round we go. The best story fragments subvert or alter this pattern in some way. One of the fun ones is when Robin and Little John go looking for a disguise so they can sneak into Nottingham. They find a beggar covered with layers of rags. They try to bully this beggar, who knocks out Little John and swaps clothes with him, then in a second scene, does the same to Robin. So they get their disguise, just not in the way they expected.

The shadows and tricks and schemes seem like images of real trickery. I used to read a bit about counterinsurgency, and the situations there, in any particular instance, were the same. Identity, loyalty, deception. The authorities can't use their military power as the insurgents will just fade away, they can't mobilise the population against them as the population will warn the insurgents, the insurgents use disguise and tricks to navigate towns and social structures, the authorities use the same tricks and disguises to lure and trap the insurgents. Everyone is playing this elaborate game of identity and deception all of the time.

Robin is immune to force in a way, he can evade or defeat any physical threat, only deception and illusion can challenge him. He comes near death first when Guy of Gisbourne finally gets smart, disguises himself and pretends to be exactly the kind of wandering tough Robin would usually fight then recruit, then secondly when he fails a perception check after mass because he was thinking about Jesus and is tricked into meeting with 'the King' assuming its Richard, but Richard is really dead this time and now its King John so Robin is fucked.

These things happen towards the end of the story, and its these injections of a living breathing world where enemies learn and adapt, and where dreamlike feudal-political situations start to decay in the way they would in real life.


The End

The story, or meta-story, really improves a lot towards the end as reality and the dark inevitability of Feudal politics starts catching up with Robin.

We have the return-of-the-king scene where Richard unveils himself - here in Walter Cranes wonderful image

This scene is in every good version I can remember, its usually where the story ends.

But in Lancelyn-Green, it’s just the end of the second act. And then we get to deal with the consequences of Richard actually being a bit of a tit and going back off to kill people in the Levant.

Robin is relatively safe while Richard is alive, but once he dies, John becomes the King for real, and time and reality catch up with Robin in a series of scenes which come piling on in rapid succession.

He is captured, escapes, but is injured, seriously and permanently for the first time. He starts to feel old, less like technicolour Errol Flynn and more like a living man.

He escapes with Marian, but an excellent night-flight scene has him gradually losing followers and only getting away by stashing Marian in a nunnery and drawing them away.

Then he has one last and pretty interesting and fun adventure at Sea, where he is out of his element.

Then returns, old, injured and tired, and has a final sad end which I will not ruin for you.

Lancelyn-Green throws in an Epilogue in which Henry, the eventual son of Prince John, gets lost in the forest and encounters an aged Friar Tuck and Little John and is charmed by their tales of the Outlaw Robin Hood, he tries but cannot find that place again, they have faded into myth.

Its the slow collapse of this mosaic of assembled balladry that makes the story worth reading for me, or at least, worth reading 'as-a-story' rather than just reading the ballads and poems individually. 


  1. I love these literary explorations. Your theory about a 'Walter Scott' era in Anglo (popular) historical fiction is really interesting. What do you think is the touchstone example of his approach among Scott's own work - Ivanhoe?

    1. Probably yeah, though as usual I am speaking from limited knowledge as I haven't read that many of his books. We need someone like Jess Nevins to see if its a legit theory.

    2. It's legit. (I'm, like, 30% Victorianist at this point. I get to say these things.)

      I mean, Scott and his imitators were never the *only* strand in popular historical fiction: Hugo and Dumas were both absolutely massive in both Britain and the US, for example. But well into the 20th century, 'Ivanhoe' and 'Robinson Crusoe' were basically *the* books that Anglophone boys read while they were growing up, and the result was that each new generation of historical popular novelists - from GPR James and William Ainsworth in the 1830s to Stanley Weyman in the 1890s - wrote very much in the shadow of Scott. I'd say his influence only started to be eclipsed in 1936, when 'Gone With the Wind' came out and changed everything forever.

      I think your observation that Scott's influence lives on into early cinema is a very shrewd one. Even a film as late as 'The Vikings' (1958) feels very Scott-like to me in many ways.

    3. This is the kind of in-depth content people need, especially when it agrees with me.

      Fully agree about the Vikings. I wonder how late you can trace the form?

    4. I think the big shift happens in the 1960s. Films like 'A Man For All Seasons' (1966), 'The Lion in Winter' (1968), and 'I, Claudius' (1976) represent a very different kind of historical storytelling. But I know that people carried on making old-style historical epics throughout the 1960s - I've just not seen enough of them to know whether they were still recognisably part of the same tradition.

  2. Lancelyn-Green was massive for me growing up - especially his Tales of the Greek Heroes and Myths of the Norsemen. Either I didn't pick up his Robin Hood, or it didn't make as much of a mark, but I recognise the features of tying myths/legends/tales together into a tighter canon than they might otherwise have had. As I recall, his Tales of the Greek Heroes starts with a chapter of him discussing how the Greeks themselves made a canon out of the multiple tales of Zeus and the goddesses that he mated with.

    He was also a pal of C.S. Lewis, at least to the point of writing a few notes on Lewis's unfinished tale of Menelaus when a few chapters of it were published.

    1. There's a garden of in his old house of statues of stuff from his books, I gotta get a look in there some time. Plus his widow is still knocking about the Wirral visiting things.

  3. I've had an idea for a while of an OSR class or fantasy setting archetype called "The Pervert" that's sort of intended as a commentary on how society views sex, gender, and sexuality, and while not the same as the anti-man as you describe it here, I think there's some overlap. I think it would be interesting to have an "anti-man" OSR class, in that if you take away the awful 'queer coded as evil' subtext, you basically just get a Vance / picaresque Rogue, except if they are or were wealthy / "high class".

    1. I wrote a 'rake' class a while back, which was basically a rogue whose abilities were all based around being a sexy fop in a gorgeous waistcoat rather than a sneaky murderer with a dagger fetish. You might find it germane to your interests.

    2. Oh ya, that is totally what I'm thinking as far as an "antiman" class, that's great! The concept for The Pervert is a little different, but this is a good template for an OSR-style social-based class in general.

  4. I think I might have read this one as a kid. The ending really blew my mind, it was a real shock for being 8 or 10 and mainly reading comic books or whatever it was at the time.

  5. One of the things I've always found interesting about Robin Hood is that the story is usually framed with Robin not being the real hero; Richard is the one they are all waiting for, and Robin is a sort of placeholder, doing his best until the, um, return of the king.

    Yes, in practical terms, he is the protagonist, of course, but the idea that he's just holding things together until Richard gets back is always there, and in some stories Robin even says as much.

    The only other protagonist-who-isn't-the-actual-hero I can think of right now is Jack Burton in Big Trouble in Little China, but I don't think it comes through there as well as it does in Robin Hood.

  6. How would you rate the Disney version? Out of five lions

    1. I haven't seen it for a long long time but I watched the shit out of it on VHS back in the day. Four out of five?