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Matter of the Greenwood: The Silver Arrow

One of the most famous stories about Robin Hood, featured in almost every adaptation (at least, until recently), is that his enemies attempted to trap him by offering a silver (or golden) arrow as the prize in an archery tournament, knowing that he would be unable to resist showing off his prowess with the bow. This he does in extraordinary style: when another archer scores a perfect bullseye, the outlaw actually manages to hit the end of his arrow and split it into splinters. He duly wins the arrow and fights his way out of the trap. My own introduction to the legend, as a child in the 1980s, was through a retelling of this story from Ladybird Series 740 (Classics, Legends, Arthur and Fables) (1978), which wasn’t even Ladybird’s first treatment of the story: Series 549 (Robin Hood Adventures) had launched with The Silver Arrow in 1954. But let’s look a little more closely at how the story originated and evolved.

The first thing to consider is the plausibility of the archery contest itself. While such competitions have probably taken place for as long as the bow has been used, they are much less characteristic of the period traditionally associated with Robin Hood than with the later Middle Ages. From the mid fourteenth to the mid sixteenth century, the bow was England’s national weapon, decisive in many of her battles, and archery tournaments were frequent, high profile, and prestigious, even kings sometimes taking part. (Henry VIII in particular was a keen and able archer.) A competition organised by a county sheriff, open to strangers, and offering a rich prize seems to belong more to this period than to the twelfth or thirteenth century, when the bow was of less significance. Carola Oman, in Robin Hood, Prince of Outlaws (1949), alludes to this, making the contest an innovation in the late 1310s. This is, however, a matter of probability, not possibility: there is no reason to think that such a contest couldn’t have taken place in the High Middle Ages.

The story is attested as far back as the Little Gest of Robin Hood. The Gest was probably compiled from earlier ballads in the reign of another archer-king, Edward IV: but it is thought that the majority of the material it contains, including much of the fifth fytte, which contains the silver arrow story, existed by about 1430. It is actually the second such contest in the poem: in the third fytte, Little John in his “Reynold Greenleaf” disguise had infiltrated the Sheriff’s service by winning a similar competition.

The basic story is the familiar one: the tournament and prize are all part of the Sheriff’s plan to lure Robin out of hiding; Robin comes disguised, wins (though without splitting the arrow), claims his prize, then has to flee an ambush by the Sheriff’s soldiers. As they flee, Little John is wounded, and Robin and Much forced to carry him – an episode, which, as we’ve already seen, derives from the earlier outlaw romance of Fouke le Fitz Waryn. They take shelter at the castle of Sir Richard at the Lee, a character who will be receiving his own article in due course.

Archery competitions crop up in a few early ballads. In Robin Hood and the Potter, Robin’s victory (again in disguise) echoes John’s in the third fytte of the Gest, and similarly echoes an episode in Fouke which does not involve archery at all. The teenaged, not-yet-outlawed Robin of Robin Hood’s Progress to Nottingham (c. 1590?) is on his way to one at the beginning of the ballad. But the next one which appears to have contributed to the silver arrow mythos was Robin Hood and Queen Catherine.

For much of its history this was known only through a corrupt, barely coherent version. It was only in 1993 that the Forresters Manuscript, dating to about 1670, was discovered, and a more complete version of Queen Catherine found. An unusually literary ballad, influenced by Anthony Munday and Martin Parker, it was written in the South of England around the 1630s, though an earlier version may have existed. England had at that point had four Queens Consort called Catherine, three of them married to Henry VIII; the only earlier one, Catherine of Valois, had married Henry V in 1420, by which time the Robin Hood legend was already established. The only version of the ballad which names the King calls him Henry, but this is unhelpful. Some modern adaptors have turned the royal couple into Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. As mentioned above, Henry VIII was a champion archer: he was also somewhat obsessed with Robin Hood, liking to play the outlaw’s role in masquerades, including one famous occasion in 1511 when he used the disguise to play a prank on his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, who almost certainly inspired the name of the ballad Queen.

After robbing the King’s messengers, Robin gives his booty to the Queen, for unstated reasons. She proposes to her husband that they hold an archery competition, laying a heavy wager, then dispatches her page Patrington with a ring to summon Robin Hood to London. Arriving eventually at an inn in Nottingham, Patrington finds Robin and asks him to shoot for the Queen in the forthcoming contest.

Little John, “Midge” (an alternative name for Much, though some later writers such as Paul Creswick separate them into two characters), and Scathelock go with him to London in disguise: “But Rennet Brown shall stay behind, / And look to Barnsdale”. (Brown is otherwise unknown.) The Queen welcomes them, and they head to Finsbury for the shooting. The King’s bow-bearer Tempest (or Tepus in some versions) measures out the marks and exchanges jibes with Little John. The Queen calls for two Privy Councillors to join the betting on her side, and the King, apparently eager to draw in as many strands of the Robin Hood legend as possible, nominates Sir Richard Lee and the Bishop of Hereford (the latter’s first known appearance in a Robin Hood tale).

The shooting looks likely to be a draw, but eventually the outlaws win; in the Forresters version, this includes the first known instance of “splitting the arrow”, when, after Tempest has shot well, “Then shot Loxley for our queen, / And clove his arrow in three.” However, this incident was omitted from all printed versions of the ballad, and until its rediscovery was thought to have been invented by Sir Walter Scott in Ivanhoe (1819). Scott could not have known the manuscript, but clearly knew the ballad: he must have come across it either in another, now lost, manuscript, or via oral transmission which he failed to record.

The Queen then begs safe-conducts for her archers, and the King gives them, before being informed to his chagrin of their real identities; the Bishop, recalling that he has been robbed and forced to say Mass by the outlaws, objects, but Robin good-naturedly returns half his money. One version ends with the King pardoning Robin and restoring him to the Earldom of Huntingdon, but most end with the outlaws departing, Little John grumbling about Robin’s generosity to the Bishop.

In Queen Catherine, the contest is not a trap and the only prize is cash. A few decades later, however, another literary ballad, Robin Hood and the Golden Arrow, retold the story from the Gest, but adding more detail and changing the arrow from silver to gold. Its alternative ending suggests there may have been lost sources as well: Robin bears away his prize without incident, only afterwards returning to shoot a letter into the city on the point of an arrow informing the Sheriff of how he has tricked him.

After Ivanhoe, the story soon became a commonplace of the Robin Hood mythos. James Fenimore Cooper paid tribute to the splitting of the arrow in The Last of the Mohicans (1826), when Hawk-eye actually manages to shoot the very bullet-hole left in a target by his competitor. Reginald De Koven’s 1890 operetta and the 1938 Errol Flynn movie both prominently included scenes based on this story; after the Flynn film, it became almost obligatory to offer some new spin on it. In Disney’s The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men (1952), it is Robin’s own arrow that is split, by his father Hugh Fitzooth. In a 1960 episode of Peabody’s Improbable History, the Sheriff competes, while Prince John hides inside the target, running to and fro to avoid Robin’s arrows and let the Sheriff’s hit – a notion copied by Disney for their animated Robin Hood in 1973. The 1983 Black Adder episode “The Black Seal” sets up the champion archer Three-Fingered Pete as if to split the arrow, only for him to shoot his opponent dead instead. In Simon Hawke’s 1984 novel The Ivanhoe Gambit, a time traveller impersonating Robin uses a guided missile to split the arrow, the latter conceit also being used by Mel Brookes for Robin Hood: Men In Tights in 1993.

In real life, such a feat as splitting the arrow would probably require a guided missile. A number of adaptations have given Robin supernatural help in this scene. Notably, Robin Hood and the Sorcerer (1983) – the teleplay which served as a pilot for the classic series Robin of Sherwood – uses its fantastical elements to make sense of plot strands which are harder to swallow in more traditional versions: Robin has to risk his life for the silver arrow because it is sacred to Herne the Hunter, wins it by Herne’s intervention, and later uses it to slay the titular sorcerer, Simon de Bellême. (The 2009 graphic novel Outlaw: The Legend of Robin Hood, by Tony Lee, Sam Hart, and Artur Fujita, transfers Bellême’s death on the arrow’s point to Guy of Gisburne.) In a 1995 episode of the Catalan cartoon series Las Tres bessones, again featuring time travel, the entire contest is organised by a witch in an attempt to get Robin captured.

By now, the story has become so overused that it is often omitted. It is difficult to think what fresh use could be made of it: but no doubt it will persist.

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