The Apostle and the Wild Ducks/Eulogy of Robin Hood

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The Apostle and the Wild Ducks by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Part IV. On Literature, Eulogy of Robin Hood

The notion that the historic past, and particularly the Middle Ages, was a mass of negligible darkness is pretty well gone by this time; and there are quite a large number of people engaged in collecting the original costumes, and the genuine ballads, and the authentic frying pans of the twelfth century. The only thing that I never can understand about these people is why instead of admiring the doings of these ages, they do not merely do them. If ever there does appear a valid instance of these ancient observances continuing in actual operation at the present day, the antiquarians simply faint in the street at the sight of it. For example, most of my aesthetic friends lie awake at night dreaming of the reinstitution of some beautiful pagan festival, and yet none of them (for I have tempted them all) can eat four helpings of Christmas pudding. Christmas, with its sausages and its stars, is the very historic thing that they are talking about, but they resent it merely because it is still alive.

Another and much stronger instance of this truth occurred to me the other day. I was walking down a small and ugly street and happened to be reading the first printed version of a ballad of Robin Hood. Raising my eyes (I had just knocked over a man selling matches) I found myself staring at a glaring stack of `penny dreadfuls' in a dirty paper shop. They were inscribed, `The Adventures of Robin Hood'. `Here,' I said, `I have at last an unbroken English tradition, known in the time of Edward I, known in the time of Mr Harmsworth.' And the more I compared the old ballad with the `penny dreadful', the more I saw their resemblance to each other. Both were traditional; both contained repetitions; both were multiplied endlessly; both were adventurous; both were popular; both were anonymous. In both cases the great bulk of the work was not interesting from a literary, but most interesting from an ethical and historic point of view. Both kinds of work were profoundly English; both were profoundly, and almost depressingly, moral. In one point only they differed; that the antiquarians and the aesthetes adore the one without any reason, and despise the other without any reason. Both stand as an everlasting protest of the human spirit against the modern idolatry of art; and in nothing more than in their most fascinating characteristic, their inordinate length. The modern world thinks short stories artistic, mistaking a weak digestion for a fine palate. So has arisen the preposterous paradox that the old spirit exhibited in the long books and the long ballads was not literary, because it liked to have so much literature. It is somewhat parallel to the equally strange assertion that religion was at enmity with life because it refused to believe in the finality and victory of death. Sceptics say that the saints were the foes of life because they desired life to last for ever. And pedants say that the old story-tellers were the foes of literature because they desired a book to last for ever.

In these Robin Hood ballads there is almost every bracing and popular element; there is one above all, the moral and melodramatic. We can all remember when we began first to feel that there was something pompous and ludicrous in the morals of the melodrama, began to feel uncomfortable when the heroine said, `Would you have me sell my child?' or when the burglar spared the infant because of the little ones at home. Then we read Kipling and the realists, and were refreshed and invigorated with their salt and stinging candour; we wept sacred tears when we read of a woman whose personal affection expressed itself not by saying, `How can I sell my own child?' but by saying, `Took for a common drunk. Gawd send they don't look at 'is boots.' Artistically we were quite right. The Kipling story, with its savage pleasantry and its colossal cynicism, is immeasurably superior in almost everything there is to the strained romantic melodrama; but it has one inferiority. It is not so like life. The Adelphi play gives a much more accurate version of the solemn, magnanimous, vainglorious pose which the average man really adopts in matters he thinks important. The poor do, indeed, employ a gross fantasy of speech (such as `Gawd send', etc.) when they wish to be satiric or frivolous; but that is simply their literature; slang is a kind of deliberate song. But when they are talking seriously they do talk pompously. A man has only to walk down the Battersea Highroad on a Saturday night to hear round him one universal chatter of such things as `How can I sell my own child?' And as for the burglar who thinks of the little ones at home, every evidence in life and the newspapers seems to support the hypothesis that criminals are sentimental, and I can readily believe in that burglar.

Now, these Robin Hood ballads, as I say, show among other things an amusing proof of this popularity, this antiquity, this intense realism of sentimental melodrama. Let me give an example. Mr W. S. Gilbert (perhaps the most brilliant Rationalist writer of the nineteenth century) made admirable fun in The Pirates of Penzance of the preposterous tradition of the generosity of freebooters. He represented the pirate as making it a rule to spare orphans, and being in consequence somewhat perplexed to find them apparently crossing the sea in shiploads. But when we look at these rude and bloody legends of a rude and bloody age, the ballads of Robin Hood, we find an altruism wilder than that of the Pirate of Penzance. The capering satire of the nineteenth century is positively less fantastic than the reality of the thirteenth. For while Mr Gilbert's pirate only marked off one class, that of orphans, the oldest ballad of Robin Hood (which I was reading in the street) depicts that hero as giving a whole catalogue of people who are not to be molested. And it is scarcely any exaggeration to say that the catalogue includes almost everyone whom it would occur to an outlaw to molest. No honest yeoman working his plot of land, no good farmer, no brave knight kind to his people, etc., etc., is to be touched by these discriminating bandits. What is the use of denouncing sentimentalism as something artificial and protected when we have it here plainly written in the black letter of a brutal and naked age? No, it is realism that is artificial and melodrama that is human. The slangy short stories are written by pale men in libraries; the melodramas are written by men of the people. The case of the people is very like the similar case of schoolboys. Stalky and Co. is undoubtedly a much more artistic creation than Eric or Little by Little. But Eric is immeasurably more like school life, and more like it precisely because it is crude, because it is precocious, because it is moral.

I may be carried away by an excessive patriotism (I hope I am), but I cannot help fancying that there is something about this egregious nobility in the old ballads that is peculiarly English. There is certainly in these Robin Hood tales an element which can only be described as a sort of stupid magnanimity, a certain kind of generosity which is quite distinct in its colour from the chivalry of France or the tenderness of Ireland. It consists in a great natural gusto in the recognition of opponents. The collected records of Robin Hood become perfectly monotonous at last, as they relate the number of people who vanquished the hero, and whom he warmly commended. There is, of course, a great deal of English vanity about these admissions; the implication is, `How splendid you must be, as you have conquered such a one as I'. But this self-satisfaction is an eternal English trait. The great English generosity is really in these ballads. There is nothing that Robin Hood seems to like so much as being knocked down by somebody, and getting up and telling him how fine a fellow he must be. It is useless for Mr Henley and such prophets of revenge to go back to our old English literature; they will not find what they want. Here are songs written by a rude people in an age of bludgeons and gibbets, here is the rawest and plainest utterance of primitive England, and if there be one truth that runs from one end of it to the other, it is `the policy of Majuba'.