Robin Hood and Guy of Gisbourne

Notes on the ballad


Click here for the full text of the ballad

On the summer solstice, the horse-headed man, with rusted sword and arrows, representing the waning of the year, beheads the green man who represents the waxing year. According to the theories of Sir James Frazer and Robert Graves, this is a distant memory of an actual practice of human sacrifice. At some point in prehistory, the green man (a sort of vegetation/fertility god, and figurehead to his people) refused to be sacrificed, and cheated death by changing places with the horse headed man, and assuming his identity (In much the same way, Aztec priests used to wear the flayed skins of the sacrificial victims; Athene flayed Pallas and assumed his identity and Apollo flayed the satyr, Marsyas). This required the consent of the Lady "who is both Mother and May", and a change of costume. Robin Hood does not always wear Lincoln Green, In one story, Robin is described as leading his men into Nottingham, in June dressed in red. As Robert Graves notes, in June, stags change into their summer coats. The name "Robin" may be related to the latin "robus" meaning red. Robin Hood is also often nicknamed "Brown Robin"

I am implying here that the ballad is based on a kind of ritualised performance or play, hence the emphasis on the costumes and the compression of time and distance, when after killing Guy, Robin is able to travel through the forest and find John without any apparent difficulty. My theory is supported by a fragment of a verse play dating from 1475, in which Robin says:
"This knyghtys clothis wolle i were
And in my hode his hede woll bere"


The tune of the ballad has been lost. Louis W.Chappel apparently set it to a traditional tune known as "The chirping of the lark" or "The lark", but there doesn't seem to be any evidence that this was the original tune, besides the reference to the woodwele (see footnote to the ballad)

This story has some similarities to "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight", and also to the story of Samson, as Samson is compared to a lion (waxing year), but is later treated as an ass (waning year).
Readers of "The Golden Bough", might be interested to know that in France, gue or gui means mistletoe. [1] On the island of Sein in Brittany, there is (or was, I don't know, if you know, Please leave a message in the guestbook) an annual mistletoe feast, involving a procession of musicians, and children carrying bill-hooks and oak branches, and leading an ox and a horse covered with flowers. After them follows a crowd, which stops at intervals, crying "Gui-na-ne, voila le Gui" [1]. The name Guy may be related to various words meaning "horse" , and also to words for "mind", "reason" and "spirit"

Ronald Hutton, in his book The Stations of the Sun records that in the area where Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire meet (i.e. the same area that most of the Robin Hood stories are set in), there was a tradition in the last century of parading an "old horse" made of wood and old sheets, operated by a man inside of it, at Christmas, and singing a popular song, "poor old horse". While they were singing, a blacksmith would try unsuccessfully to shoe the horse, while the horse strenuously resisted, to the amusement of the audience[4]. "The Stations of the Sun" is a comprehensive guide to the traditional festivals of the British isles, which explores many different interpretations and academic controversies. It is generally sceptical of the ideas of Frazer, and the idea of pagan influence upon traditional festivals. If you think I'm writing nonsense, this is the book for you!

"Hobby horses", like the one described above used to be quite common in English festivals. The New English Dictionary has the following entry:
"Hobby, Hobyn, Robin, Robbie, a small or medium sized horse"
The words "hob" (as in "hobgoblin") and robin are related. In many festivities, the hobby horse appeared alongside someone dressed as Robin Hood. It has apparently been suggested that the hobby horse represents Robin Hood himself (Richard Wolfram "Robin Hood und hobby-horse" [festchr fur R.Much] Wiener Prahist, Zeitschr XIX 1932 257-74) [5].

No one seems exactly sure where Guy of Gisbourne came from. There is a "Gisburn" in Lancashire, but formerly within the boundaries of West Yorkshire. In 1380 the mayor of York, John de Gisburn was overthrown in a peasant uprising related to the peasants revolt the following year. Guisborough, on the south slopes of the North York Moors has also been suggested. Perhaps Robin's rival was originally "Guy the Guiser", meaning someone who wears a mask? An ancient image of a figure wearing a horse head mask was found in pinhole cave, Derbyshire.

For some reason this fascinating, beautiful and violent story has never found it's way into any of the Robin Hood films which I have seen. Usually, Gisbourne is portrayed as a minor villain or henchman of the sherrif, as in the Kevin Costner version*. Perhaps this story with it's pagan and mythical elements has been glossed over by those who wish to believe in a single, historical figure named Robin Hood. I do not hold this view. Robin Hood is far more interesting than that! I believe "Robin Hood" was (amongst other things), a pseudonym used by rebels, revolutionaries, bandits and poachers. Names such as "Robhode" occur regularly in medieval court proceedings as early as the 13th Century, but these surnames are rare or non-existent nowadays. The name "John Doe" is similarly rare outside of police files. "Robin Hood" meant: "You've got me banged to rights, but I'm damned if I'm telling you my name". It was a statement of defiance and solidarity, just as the rebels of ancient Rome declared: "I am Spartacus!". The Robin Hood tales are (as the saying goes) "fit for fools", but chaotic tomfoolery is a powerful remedy for oppression, and the monolithic regularity of state power (see the page about The fool on the moon).

The Gunpowder conspirators were described at the time as "Robin Hoods"**. I have speculated elsewhere that a similar mix of politics and paganism may have given rise to Jack Straw. To this list of mythical and semi-mythical anarchist heroes, we should also add Ned and Nora Ludd. The Luddites who smashed looms during the industrial revolution in protest at the poor pay and working conditions of the factory workers***, claimed to be the followers of Ned and Nora Ludd, but these characters did not really exist. Ned Ludd was also known as "King Ludd", which suggests to me that the Luddites were anarchists, poking fun at the concept of Royal power. The fact that such a group chose not to have any hierarchical power structures or leaders will come as no surprise to todays radical environmentalists. The authorities can easily neutralise a hierarchical rebel movement by imprisoning or executing its leaders. I don't think that it is coincidence that Lud was a Celtic god of humour, whose spring festival is believed to have given rise to April Fools day[5]

There is a much better known story, (part of "A Gest of Robyn Hode") in which the Sheriff of Nottingham organises an archery contest, in order to capture Robin. It bears a number of similarities to this story:
For example, in both stories, Robin conceals his identity, only to reveal himself by his skill at archery. The latter story ends with Robin beheading the sheriff.

*As far as I can see, there is only one scene in "Robin Hood Prince of thieves" which is derived from the traditional legends of Robin Hood, and that is the scene in which Robin and Little John fight with quarter staffs over the river. Most of the rest of the film is inspired by previous Hollywood films, the BBC series "Robin of Sherwood" (in my opinion, the best portrayal of Robin Hood on screen ever), and Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. I may be wrong about this, but I don't think that Robin Hood was ever linked to Richard I and the crusades, before Ivanhoe. Likewise, the idea of Robin as an aristocrat who has lost his land, also originated fairly late in the development of the legend. I'm not a huge fan of this film [back]
**Tellingly, Guy Fawkes was beheaded, and his head displayed on tower hill as a traitor. The fact that Tower Hill was where the head of the Celtic God Bran ("raven") was said to have been buried, suggests that a human sacrifice tradition had become a convenient way of dealing with enemies of the state (Mircea Eliade develops this idea in "The divine King in England" and "God of the witches"). Guy Fawkes was not of course burned, but the annual burning of the Guy has strong elements of human sacrifice and the scapegoat. Ronald Hutton argues that Guy Fawkes night cannot be a pagan tradition, because there is no evidence for the burning of effigies on the 5th of November prior to 1605[4]. I would argue that this aspect of the pagan mindset did not die with the coming of christianity, it is still with us today, and it is encouraged because it is useful to the powers that be. In the past, effigies of the Pope have been burned, and in 2001 it was Bin Laden's turn. I have heard it said that Guy Fawkes was set up, much as the anarchist Marinus van der Lubbe was fingered for the Reichstag fire. Robert Catesby was the real ringleader of the plot, Guy Fawkes seems to have been singled out as the scapegoat. Perhaps his name had something to do with it? Alan Moore's excellent graphic novel "V for Vendetta" features an anarchist hero who disguises himself as Guy Fawkes. Moore believes that we should not burn Guy Fawkes, but celebrate him. I agree entirely. He was after all the only man ever to enter parliament with honest intentions :-) [back]
***Although "Luddite" has come to mean someone opposed to progress and technology, the Luddites did not smash mechanised looms to protect jobs. There were two types of loom in the mills, one which produced high quality fabric for sale, and one which produced cheap cloth from waste thread, which was made into cheap clothing which fell apart and was given to the workers as part of their wages. It was the latter type of loom which the Luddites smashed[back]


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