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DAVID McKAY, Publisher


[No Publication Date. Preface dated 1912]

[The original book scanned for this electronic
work has an owner inscription of December 25th 1922]


ONCE upon a time the great mass of English people were unfree. They could not live where they chose, nor work for whom they pleased. Society in those feudal days was mainly divided into lords and peasants. The lords held the land from the king, and the peasants or villeins were looked upon as part of the soil, and had to cultivate it to support themselves and their masters. If John or Dick, thrall of a manor, did not like the way in which the lord or his steward treated him, he could not go to some other part of the country and get work under a kinder owner. If he tried to do this he was looked upon as a criminal, to be brought back and punished with the whip or the branding-iron, or cast into prison.

When the harvest was plenteous and his master was kind or careless, I do not think the peasant felt his serfdom to be so unbearable as at other times. When, however, hunger stalked through the land, and the villein and his family starved; or when the lord was of a stem or exacting nature, and the serf was called upon to do excessive labor, or was otherwise harshly treated, then, I think, the old Teutonic or Welsh blood in the English peasant grew hot, and he longed for freedom.

The silence and green peace of forest lands stood in those days along many a league where now the thick yellow corn grows, or the cows roam over the rich pastures, or even where today the bricky suburbs of towns straggle over the country. Such forests must have been places of terror and fascination for the poor villein who could see them from where he delved in his fields. In their quiet glades ran the king's deer, and in their dense thickets skulked the boar, creatures whose killing was reserved for the king and a few of his friends, the great nobles, and princes of the Church. A poor man, yeoman or peasant, found slaying one of the royal beasts of the forest was cruelly maimed as a punishment. Or if he was not caught, he ran and hid deep in the forest and became an outlaw, a "wolf's-head" as the term was, and then any one might slay him that could.

It was in such conditions that Robin Hood lived and did deeds of daring such as we read of in the ballads and traditions which have come down to us. Because his name is not to be found in the crabbed records of lawyers and such men, some people have doubted whether Robin Hood ever really existed. But I am sure that Robin was once very much alive. It may be that the unknown poets who made the ballads idealized him a little, that is, they described him as being more daring, more successful, more of a hero, perhaps, than he really was; but that is what poets and writers are always expected to do.

The ballads which we have about Robin Hood and his band of outlaws number about forty. The oldest are the best, because they are the most natural and exciting. The majority of the later poems are very poor; many are tiresome repetitions of one or two incidents, while others are rough, doggerel rhymes, without spirit or imagination.

In the tales which I have told in this book I have used a few of the best episodes related in the ballads; but I have also thought out other tales about Robin, and I have added incidents and events which have been invented so as to give a truthful picture of the times in which he lived.

Just as King Arthur was the hero of the knightly classes of England in feudal times, so Robin Hood was the hero or popular figure among men of the poorer sort. The serf and the yeomen were tied to their fields and their unvarying round of labor by the shackles of custom; any offence against the laws was visited with swift and harsh punishment. It was sweet, therefore, in hours of leisure, to hear songs about the bold outlaw, Robin Hood, who once had been as bound in set laws as they, but who had fled to the freedom of the forest, where, with cool daring and thrilling effrontery, he laughed to scorn the harsh forest laws of the king, and waged war upon all those rich lords and proud prelates who were the enemies of humble folk.

Nor are the virtues ascribed to Robin Hood by the makers of the ballads inferior to those which were said to be possessed by King Arthur. Certainly Robin was a robber, but his great redeeming features were gentleness and generosity. He was always good-humored and genial, and took a beating in good part. Noble in bearing, his courteous dignity lifted him high above the ordinary rough manners of his time. Then, too, he was religious, and had especial reverence for the Virgin Mary, and for her sake he treated all women with the greatest courtesy, and would not harm any who were in their company. Most of all, he was helpful to the poor, the hungry and the distressed, and if he robbed the rich, he gave liberally to humble folk.

Robin Hood, indeed, is as gallant and generous a hero as any to be found in English literature, and while delight in the greenwood, and love of wild things continue to glow in the hearts of healthy boys and girls, I am sure that tales of Robin Hood and his outlaws will always be welcome.