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Matter of the Greenwood: Maid Marian - Evolution

In the second part of my piece on Marian, I investigate how her legend has evolved down to the present day.

Image: Bernadette O'Farrell as Marian in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1955-60).

We've already looked at the possible origins of Maid Marian, in the May Games, the dramatic tradition, and just maybe history. But how did the character develop from these disparate roots to the well established Marian of today?

There have been attempts to argue that the unnamed, unspeaking woman who appears at the end of the early sixteenth century short play Robin Hood and the Friar is meant to be the May Games' Marian, but there seems little ground for this. The character is clearly partnered with Tuck, not Robin, and plays no role in the action. Though a mid century pageant did feature Marian as one of Robin's principal followers, her earliest appearance in surviving Robin Hood literature is in an anonymous play of c. 1590, George a-Greene, The Pinner of Wakefield.

George and his fight with Robin Hood had been the subject of the ballad The Jolly Pinner of Wakefield as early as 1557, but Marian, always absent from the early ballads, had not appeared. The play is made up of five or six loosely connected stories, possibly deriving from a ballad cycle about the pinner of which only the "crossover" with the subsequently more popular outlaw ballads has survived. In the dramatic version of the Jolly Pinner story, the vain and envious Marian becomes the instigator of the two men's quarrel. “I hear no songs but all of George-a-Greene,” she complains. “Bettris, his fair leman, passeth me: / And this, my Robin, galls my very soul.” Robin is inclined to let the matter slide, but she persuades him to challenge George. He, Scarlet, and Much (replacing Little John in the ballad: John and Tuck are mentioned but do not appear) fight George in turn, and are beaten: but when the pinner learns their identities, he welcomes them into his house.

This is an unheroic beginning for Marian. She is presented more admirably by Anthony Munday and his collaborator Henry Chettle in the diptych The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon and The Death of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon (1598), in which, as previously discussed, she is identified with Matilda Fitzwalter, the victim of King John's lust. Despite the title, the second play kills off Robin in the first act and devotes the rest of its running time to Matilda's story. She is no longer called Marian, and none of the other outlaws (save Tuck in his role as Chorus) appears after Act One.

(The never-performed Tragedy of King John and Matilda (anonymous, printed in 1651 but probably dating to the late 1620s) is an adaptation of Michael Drayton’s Matilda, also influenced by this play. When the Tragedy was reprinted in 1827, a correspondent to The Table Book objected to its references to Matilda’s virginity, asserting that everybody knew Matilda Fitzwalter had been the wife of Robin Hood! This is a remarkable instance of both the tenacity and the mutability of the legend, given that Munday’s plays are entirely responsible for this notion, and Munday’s Matilda does indeed die a maid. The Matilda of the later play does in fact refer in passing to the death of “my betrothed Earl Robert Huntingdon”.)

Probably the most lasting influence of Death on the legend is the notion of Marian, whether before or after Robin’s decease, becoming a nun. It has probably helped that this was, in legend at least, the eventual fate both of Queen Guenevere and of Torfrida, the wife of Hereward the Wake. The Marians who take the veil in Robin and Marian (1976), Robin of Sherwood (1984-86), and other modern adaptations, had their origins here. (The former actually conflates Marian with the Prioress of Kirklees, having her poison her wounded lover so as to release him from a world without a place for him: but this unconvincing denouement was not copied.)

Although the Fitzwalter identification had been inspired by Michael Drayton, he did not take it up when he touched on the Robin Hood legend himself in 1622, in the second part of Poly-Olbion, his massive verse topography of England and Wales. Instead, he created an independent wood-nymph,

“… which wheresoe’er she came,

Was sovereign of the woods, chief lady of the game;

Her clothes tucked to her knee, and dainty braided hair,

With bow and quiver armed, she wandered here and there

Amongst the forests wild: Diana never knew

Such pleasures, nor such harts as Marian slew.”

This quasi-mythic Marian perhaps harks back to her role as Queen of the May, still preserved in dances and madrigals at this time; certainly his depiction of the male outlaws is much less elfin.

The Marian of Ben Jonson's unfinished fairy fantasy / anti-Puritan satire The Sad Shepherd (1637) would also be a bold huntress and the established partner of Robin; the dramatic tradition took this latter role for granted - but the character remained apparently unknown to the balladeers. As late as 1660, the anonymous ballad Robin Hood's Birth, Breeding, Valour and Marriage (probably written for festivities to celebrate Charles II's restoration) could marry its hero off to Clorinda, Queen of the Shepherds. Like Drayton's and Jonson's Marian, Clorinda is a huntress and a dead shot with the bow; the popularity of this work would cause her to recur as Robin's consort in plays, chapbooks, and ballad-operas, up until Joseph Ritson's ballad collection Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads Now Extant Relative to the Celebrated English Outlaw reintroduced Marian to the public in 1795. Even post-Ritson, "Clorinda" occasionally crops up as a pseudonym for the disguised Marian; it took a long time for her to be quite forgotten.

It was only a few years after the creation of Clorinda, however, that the stage Marian made her only surviving appearance in the ballad tradition. Robin Hood and Maid Marian would remain one of the most obscure ballads, unnoticed by collectors until Ritson republished it; whether or not it derives from a lost folk-play along the lines of Robin Hood and the Friar is something unlikely ever to be proven.

This ballad presents a martial Marian, ranging the woods in male attire to find her outlawed lover, “with quiver and bow, sword, buckler, and all”. She meets the disguised Robin: they do not recognise one another, and fall to fighting. Only after a duel of an hour’s duration, in which each has drawn blood on the other, does Robin own himself beaten and call on his antagonist (as in so many other “Robin Hood meets his match” ballads) to join his band; Marian recognises his voice, and there is a joyful reunion. Scenes based loosely on this ballad occur in a 1955 episode of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1955-60), Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), and an early episode of the 2006-09 BBC series Robin Hood - with varying degrees of consistency with their surroundings.

Ritson brought Marian back to notice, but she is still conspicuous by her absence from, say, Walter Scott's Ivanhoe (though Thackeray would later insert her into his parody Rebecca and Rowena (1850)). In 1822, however, she became a true protagonist for the first time, in Thomas Love Peacock's novel Maid Marian. While Scott had drafted his Robin of Locksley into a latter-day chivalric romance, Peacock – who seldom wrote a word without his tongue partly in his cheek – was turning a more satirical eye on the legend. In name, his Marian is Matilda Fitzwalter: but in fact Robin and she are Peacock's own creations, a Lord and Lady of Misrule whose role – despite the veneer of Ricardian legitimism (and it is worth noting that this Robin is outlawed not by corrupt regents but by King Henry II) – is to turn authority on its head.

Against their mischief and the amused observations of Peacock’s Tuck, Friar Michael of Rubygill, are ranged the forces of pomposity. Matilda / Marian’s self-absorbed wooer Sir Ralph de Montfaucon (a revival of the love triangle which always seems to come to the fore when Marian is a major character), the incompetent Sheriff, and the perpetually outfoxed Prince John, are risible rather than threatening, though the book’s best comic character is the heroine’s blustering father Baron Fitzwalter, who continually contradicts everyone and everything.

Peacock mixes ballad material (though not, oddly, Robin Hood and Maid Marian) with Munday's lustful Prince, and a sizeable amount of his own imagination. Such scenes as the interruption of the central couple’s wedding by their enemies, and the dance at Gamwell Hall (though probably inspired by the entertainment there in Robin Hood’s Birth, Breeding, Valour and Marriage), and such themes as the Friar’s pre-outlawry friendship and continuing tenderness for Marian, all used by later writers, were originated here. The enormous popularity of the stage adaptation, by James Robinson Planché and George Bishop, no doubt helped enshrine these themes in the popular mind.

However, Peacock’s Marian herself was not copied by his immediate successors. She is the huntress and fighter of The Sad Shepherd and Robin Hood and Maid Marian, handy with a longbow and with unbounded courage. Friar Michael at one point praises her to his colleague Peter:

“‘Has she not beauty, grace, wit, sense, discretion, dexterity, learning, and valour?’

“‘Learning!’ exclaimed the little friar. ‘What has a woman to do with learning? And valour! Whoever heard a woman commended for valour? Meekness and mildness… and humility, and obedience to her husband, and faith in her confessor… these are female virtues.’”

Unfortunately, the Victorian era would agree with Friar Peter. Pierce Egan's massively influential serial Robin Hood and Little John (1838-40) made her a shrinking violet who never says or does anything of the remotest interest or gives any hint of what Robin sees in her. (The wildly inconsistently written Maude Lindsey, who begins Egan's story by flirting with every male in sight, falls desperately in love with Robin within about an hour of meeting him, pines for him silently for six years, then suddenly decides to marry the simple-minded Will Scarlet, nevertheless manages to appear a more attractive marital prospect.)

Egan would set the template for nearly a century. Subsequent writers would continue to give us an altogether passive Marian. Those who did glance at Peacock and similar sources often produced a confused and inconsistent take on the character. Joachim Hayward Stocqueler, whose 1849 novel Maid Marian: The Forest Queen was explicitly intended as a companion piece to Egan's book, gives us a bold Marian who can fight a wild boar single-handed, and is more than capable of leading the outlaws in Robin's absence, yet intermittently becomes either utterly helpless or woefully gullible as the plot demands. Inconsistency of this kind would long remain a feature of works which gave Marian any agency at all, notably including Tennyson's 1881 play The Foresters; it has not entirely disappeared yet. (Think of Prince of Thieves, in which Marian's entirely out-of-place introduction sees her don armour to attack Robin for no apparent reason, before showing absolutely no fighting abilities for the rest of the film; or the 2006 BBC series, in which Marian has defended the people as the superhero-esque Night Watchman in Robin's absence, but in which her very independence is increasingly often precisely what gets her into trouble, from which Robin has to rescue her.)

Howard Pyle's Merry Adventures of Robin Hood (1883) simply leaves the heroine entirely out of its boyish world; pantomimes seized every opportunity to put her in male costume and show off their lead actress' legs, but rarely gave her much to actually do. There are a few exceptions, but it is not until the latter half of the twentieth century that a Marian in Peacock’s mould becomes the norm again.

Various small changes to the character over the years did stick. Stocqueler, always careless about names, had occasionally confused his Matilda's real name and pseudonym, and called her "Marian Fitzwalter"; in Reginald de Koven's operetta Robin Hood (1890), the surname was finally completely divorced from identification with Matilda, and has remained so ever since. J. Walker McSpadden's mostly uninspired imitation of Pyle (Robin Hood, 1904) made her a servant and confidant of Eleanor of Aquitaine, a commonly repeated theme in the twentieth century. But it was on the screen, large and small, that the modern Marian would emerge.

As early as Allen Dwan's flawed but lavish Robin Hood (1922), we get a Marian (Enid Bennett) of strong will (who has to cure Robin's outright fear of women). But far more formative was Michael Curtiz' dazzling 1938 swashbuckler The Adventures of Robin Hood. This brought together the same hugely talented partnership that had made the pirate epic Captain Blood three years earlier: director Curtiz, composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and stars Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, and Basil Rathbone. It is almost certainly no coincidence, therefore, that the character of Marian closely mirrors that of Arabella Bishop, the role de Havilland had played in Captain Blood. This film begat a succession of haughty, initially hostile Marians whom Robin must slowly win round, all of them much like Arabella and sundry other heroines created by Captain Blood author Rafael Sabatini, but not much like any pre-Adventures Marian.

It's difficult to say if any work since has added anything as new and lasting to the character. A lot of what looks original in later works actually reaches back to Peacock, the ballads, and even Munday. The 1950s ITV Adventures probably did more than any other work to restore a truly active Marian (Bernadette O'Farrell 1955-57, Patricia Driscoll 1957-60) to the public consciousness: she fences, hunts, wrestles, wears male clothing far more often than a dress, and can consistently outshoot and outride any man except Robin. Robin and Marian likewise reached back for a half-forgotten trope, and restored Marian-the-nun (though Marian-the-poisoner did not catch on). Robin of Sherwood drew on both, while children's teatime comedy series Maid Marian and Her Merry Men (1989-94) took the heroic Marian to perhaps her logical conclusion, making her the real leader of the gang and Robin a useless fool. The character is still being played with and reinvented for every new generation, just as much as Robin himself: and no doubt she will continue to evolve.

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