It is one of the oldest surviving tales of Robin Hood, printed between 1492 and 1534, but shows every sign of having been put together from several already existing tales. John Holt believes A Gest of Robyn Hode was written in approximately 1450. It is a lengthy tale, consisting of eight fyttes. It is a ballad written in Middle English.
It is also a type of “The Good Outlaw” tale, in which the hero of the story is an outlaw who commits actual crimes, but the outlaw is still supported by the people. The hero in the tale has to challenge a corrupt system, which has committed wrongs against the hero, his family, and his friends. As the outlaw, the individual has to depict certain characteristics, such as loyalty, courage, and cleverness, as well as be a victim of a corrupt legal or political system. However, the outlaw committing the crimes shows he can outwit his opponent and show his moral integrity, but he cannot commit crimes for the sake of committing crimes.
A Gest of Robyn Hode is a premier example of romanticizing the outlaw using Arthurian romance, in order to illustrate the corruption of the law. As John Taylor writes, “The targets of Robin Hood’s criticism are the justices of the forest and the common law, against whom grievances could have been felt by more than one section of the medieval community.” It is believed the tale was performed by minstrels, since the tale contains a narrative voice addressing the audience on several occasions. The audience is believed to have been from the Third Class, who would have jobs as yeomen, apprentices, merchants, journeymen, laborers, and small proprietors.
Most scholars believe the tale to be a compilation of stories creating a heroic ballad using previous tales, such as The Legend of Eustace Monk, a forest renegade who was also an outlawed nobleman and a trickster. Although the tale is thought to have been written in the fifteenth century, it is believed the content of the tale dates to the time of Edward III between the 1330s and 1340s.
The text is unique, in that it provides details relating to the 13th century, such as legal, social, and military structures, but it also includes allusions to medieval geography and locations known during the fifteenth century. There are disagreements to whether Robyn Hode was a yeoman or a man from the lower gentry class. However, most experts believe the narrative does not focus on social class. Likewise, there was an outlaw from Berkshire, in 1262, which had the alias, “Robehod.” There was also a ship in Aberdeen in 1438, which was called “Robene Hude.” The first instance of the poem of Robyn Hode is seen in William Langland’s Piers Plowman written in 1377.
The knight pretends that he still has not acquired the gold and pleads with the abbot for mercy. The abbot insists, and the knight reveals his deception and pays him, telling him that had he shown leniency the knight would have rewarded him. Afterwards, the knight saves money to repay Robin, and also gets a hundred bows, with arrows fletched with peacock feathers. One day, while watching a wrestling match, he saw a yeoman who was winning the fight but because he was a stranger, was likely to be killed, and so he saved him.
One day, Little John went to an archery contest and won. The sheriff took him into his service, after he got leave from the knight. One day, he woke late and wanted to eat. The steward, the bottler, and finally the cook tried to stop him, because it was not meal time. The cook put up a good fight, and Little John proposed that he should come to the forest and join the band. He agreed and fed Little John. They plundered the house and went to Robin. There, Little John tricked the sheriff to coming to Robin. Robin only permitted him to leave when he had sworn to do them no harm.
Robin again refused to eat unless he has a guest. The men caught a monk from St. Mary's Abbey, who claimed after the feast to have only twenty marks. He was carrying eight hundred pounds, and Robin claimed it: St. Mary has sent him it. The knight arrives. He explained that he is late because he saved the yeoman at the wrestling; Robin told him that whoever helped a yeoman was his friend, and refused to accept repayment. When the knight gave him the bows, Robin paid him half the eight hundred pounds.
The sheriff held an archery contest. All the band showed well, but Robin won. The sheriff tried to seize him. They escaped to the castle of Sir Richard at the Lee, the knight (who first is named at this point), and the sheriff could not break in. He complained to the king, who insisted he must catch him. The sheriff took Sir Richard prisoner, and his lady went to Robin for help. They staged a rescue.
The king came to take Robin and was outraged by the damage to his deer. He promised Sir Richard's land to whoever killed the knight, and was told that no one could hold the land while Robin Hood was at large. After months, he was persuaded to disguise himself and some men as monks, and by that means, get Robin to take them. Robin captured them and took half of their forty pounds. The "abbot" handed him an invitation from the king, to dine at Nottingham. For that, Robin said he would dine with them. After the meal, they set up an archery contest, and whoever failed had to suffer a blow. Robin failed, and had the abbot deliver the blow. The king knocked him down and revealed himself. Robin, his men, and Sir Richard all knelt.
The king took Robin to court, but Robin longed for the forest and returned home. A prioress finally killed him, at the instigation of her lover Roger, by bleeding him.
Howard Pyle and other retellers of the Robin Hood stories have included many of them. The king's visit is, in fact, in virtually every version that purports to tell the entire story.
The archery contest is a standard in filmed adaptions of the legends. The Sheriff usually sees through Robin's disguise, leading to a fight scene between his men and the outlaws (who are hidden in the crowd). Examples include:
In later versions of the story, Robin sometimes wins by splitting an opponent's arrow down the middle. Other versions of the archery contests do not include the fight; often, as in Robin Hood and the Golden Arrow, the disguises succeed in fooling the sheriff. Still further divergences have appeared. In Walt Disney's live-action The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men, Robin and his father win such a contest, but as Prince John staged it to find archers for his service and both of them refuse, Prince John tries to have them killed; his father dies, and Robin is outlawed for defending himself. In Robin Hood's Progress to Nottingham, Robin is going to a shooting contest when he has the conflict that leads to his being outlawed?
Elements of the Gest appear in many episodes of the 1955 The Adventures of Robin Hood TV Series. Most notable are "The Knight Who Came to Dinner" (featuring Sir Richard's debt to an abbot) and "The Challenge" (with features not only the archery contest but the outlaws taking refuge in Sir Richard's castle).
"Herne's Son", an episode of the Robin of Sherwood TV series, also has Sir Richard in debt to the Abbot of St. Mary's.
Many elements of the Gest, including the knight's debt, form a major part of the Robin McKinley novel, The Outlaws of Sherwood.