Legends of the Isles:
Robin Hood & King Arthur

(Acorn, 1998)

For my money, this volume is the best one in the Legends of the Isles series. That's largely due to the subject matter, of course, yet the presentation of each story is of really great quality. The primary focus is not on the legends of these men, two of the most heralded heroes in history and literature; rather, it is a search for the history behind the legends, an attempt to answer the question of whether Robin Hood and King Arthur actually existed.

I had always thought of Robin Hood as complete fiction, so it was quite fascinating to learn that parts of his story may have a basis in fact. First, the presentation lays out the legend (including Robin Hood's ultimate death by poisoning, which was a part of the story I had never heard), then it searches the pages of history to find the first accounts of this legendary 12th-century hero in the form of mediaeval ballads, which differ significantly from the eventual legend (Robin Hood was a yeoman, not a lord, and he didn't live in Sherwood Forest).

Putting all of the pieces together as we progress up the timeline, we get a likely suspect in the form of Robert Hode of West Yorkshire, a petty thief in the right place and time to be the historical Robin Hood. One of the sheriffs in that same era was a man who served as sheriff in Yorkshire before coming to Nottingham -- if he sought Hode in Yorkshire, then encountered him again at Nottingham, that could explain his great zeal for capturing this outlaw. The video also claims some evidence for a real Littlejohn -- an old burial slab by a grave that, when exhumed in 1784, is said to have contained bones of an extremely tall man. There was no Maid Marian in the earliest tales, but Friar Tuck may have been based on a man known to live a few centuries after Robin Hood's day and age. Interestingly enough, there is an ancient hollow tree in Sherwood Forest -- but, even at the ripe old age of 600, it could not possibly have been the tree in the legend. Tracing Robin Hood to his death at Kyrkesly (although earlier versions of the story differ in describing the manner of his death), we learn that a gravestone was reportedly found in 1584 within arrow's distance of the room in which he supposedly died.

Anything about King Arthur is fascinating. His is arguably the greatest legend ever told. After summarizing that legend, the video dives right into looking for any historical antecedents. As it turns out, there was a man who led the Britons in a desperate yet overwhelming victory over the Saxon invaders. A 5th-century monk describes this event without naming the leader, but a 9th-century document does identify him by the Latin name of Artorus. Archaeologists have discovered many sites rebuilt during that era, indicating that this Artorus did usher in a period of peace after driving off the Saxon invaders. The legend of King Arthur began to develop in the 12th century, after Geoffrey of Monmouth (the most inventive historian ever to live) wrote of him in his History of the Kings of Britain. That's about as far as we get in this video; other than Malory (and briefly, at that), none of the other most well-known accounts of Arthur's story are referred to.

As for Guinevere, there is little to indicate whether such a queen existed or not. Lancelot, interestingly enough, was an invention of the French, namely medieval French authors. Excalibur was probably taken from an Irish folk tale, we are told. The video concludes with a look at Arthur's death and the possible location of Avalon. Many have long speculated that Avalon is now in fact Glastonbury Tor, and we learn that this site was actually an island in the 6th century. A historical tidbit I was unaware of was the fact that a stone slab identifying Arthur's burial site (and a grave containing the skeletons of a man and woman) was discovered there in 1191, but there is ample reason to question the validity of this claim.

Both documentaries on this video are exceedingly interesting to watch. There is a problem here, though -- we are, for the most part, taken down solitary roads in our historical quest for both Robin and Arthur. This is particularly significant in the case of Arthur, for there are numerous theories about his origins, death and possible historical identity that aren't even mentioned in this relatively short video. You get the impression that the theories explored herein are the most prominent theories out there, and I do not believe that is necessarily true at all.

As long as you realize you're examining a hand-picked selection of possibilities, though, this volume of Legends of the Isles makes for fascinating viewing.

by Daniel Jolley
27 May 2006

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