Good morrow, good fellow, and a right lusty blade thou art. For whom shineth this autumn sun if not for thee? Whence hath the world tended if not hither, and whither goeth it but hence? Now by the good Saint Dunstan (whosoe’er he may be), this day seemeth the very morn of creation, and the day of salvation withal. Now will I hie me to the shower, for methinks I am wondrously smelly. In forest glades dwell I not, but haply nigh unto the South Saskatchewan River, whereat befall many merry adventures yesteryear and anon.
Methinks this turneth into crap.
The stories of Robin Hood first captivated me when my fifth grade teacher read them to us from a book by Howard Pyle. I went home and begged for my own copy, but it was Grandpa Gliege who put it under the Christmas tree for me that year, and later I inscribed it myself as a way of showing my gratitude.
I was enchanted by these stories’ marvellous diction, and to this day they hold more charm for me than any late-born movie like Men in Tights can do. Here, as a seasonal example, is Pyle’s description of the arrival of autumn: “Now the hips burned red in the tangled thickets and the haws waxed black in the hedgerows, the stubble lay all crisp and naked to the sky, and the green leaves were fast turning russet and brown. Also, at this merry season, good things of the year are gathered in great store. Brown ale lies ripening in the cellar, hams and bacon hang in the smoke-shed, and crabs are stowed away in the straw for roasting in the winter time, when the north wind piles the snow in drifts around the gables and the fire crackles warm upon the hearth.”
To my ears, the Robin Hood stories sounded almost like the King James Bible which I read privately at home and heard expounded in church. But these lusty tales, so far from reinforcing my customary guilt, released me from it, at least for the time being. For if Robin and his merry men (the stories often call them “gay”) could plunder the rich and distribute money to the poor, quaff pottles of good October brewing while feasting on the king’s poached venison, make a perpetual fool of that vile Sheriff of Nottingham, take tremendous risks and endure the consequences, and do all of this in the King’s own English — well, it helped tilt my sombre religion a bit more toward the centre. Robin’s adventures made injustice and mindless laws vulnerable, and turned them to the higher advantage of a free life with plenty of humour thrown in to boot.
Look at the overblown curses! When Robin first encounters the seven-foot John Little on a log bridge — the foe who would shortly become his right-hand man, Littlejohn — he at once challenges him to a duel: “By the bright brow of Saint Aelfrida, I will show thee right good Nottingham play with a clothyard shaft betwixt thy ribs.” The opponent replies, “I will tan thy hide till it be as many colours as a beggar’s cloak.” And Robin retorts, “Thou pratest like an ass, for I could send this shaft clean through thy proud heart before a curtal friar say grace over a roast goose at Michaelmastide” — a threat longer in the utterance than the friar’s own prayer.
There was Wat the Tinker, Midge the Miller, and a Tanner named Arthur a Bland — how they fought with Robin and hurled maledictions back and forth before being inveigled into joining his band. “By the lusty yew bow of good Saint Withold; by the pewter platter of Saint Dunstan; by the white hand of the holy Lady of the fountain, I have a right round piece of mind to crack thy knave’s pate.” All those bruisings, beatings, and bemauling of pates, the bombastic oaths to prick some rogue’s skin until it was as full of holes as a slashed doublet.
The foul Sheriff of Nottingham reasons within himself concerning the famous Sherwood outlaw, news of whom has reached even to the spires and towers of great London Town, “I must either take him captive or have wrath visited on my head from his most gracious Majesty” (sitting in my fifth-grade desk while the teacher read this, I tried not to think about the God who was far more majestic and wrathful even than old King Henry).
Most of all, I think I relished the account of Robin’s first meeting with the Friar of Fountain Abbey. The burly Tuck with his shaven crown sits under a tree beside the river consuming a great loaf of bread, ever and anon pulling at an equally great flask of Malmsey, and talking so loudly to himself that Robin nearly dies laughing as he finally bursts from the covert where he has hidden to spy. Tuck bellows at him, “Come forth, thou limb of evil and I will carve thee into as fine pudding-meat as e’er a wife in Yorkshire cooked of a Sunday,” and from beneath his friar’s garb draws “a great broadsword full as stout as Robin’s.”
If you want to know how Friar Tuck out-tricked the renowned Trickster of Nottingham, you can read the book for yourself. As for me, I already knew back in the fifth grade that I had no chance of ever being yeoman, sheriff, knight, baron, or abbot. But a squat mendicant enjoying his picnic beside a river, well, who could tell . . . ?
Ratzlaff is the author of three books of literary non-fiction published by Thistledown Press: The Crow Who Tampered With Time (2002), Backwater Mystic Blues (2006), and Bindy’s Moon (2015); and editor of Seeing it Through, an anthology of seniors’ writings published by READ Saskatoon. Formerly a minister, counsellor and university instructor, he now makes his living as a writer in Saskatoon.