The Role of Maid Marian in Robin Hood

It is hard to evaluate and study the mythic character of Robin Hood without considering his significant other, the fair Maid Marian. Though Marian does not appear in the original legend, by the sixteenth century she becomes an essential part of the tale. One common theory suggests that Marian appeared because the Robin Hood character was rising in class stature: “[T]he first time a role of substance for a lady emerges in the outlaw myth is when its hero has become a lord, and so needs a lady, both as part of his gracious style of living and to provide the continuation of the landed line”(Knight, 59). Marian plays more significant a role than lady of the house, however. Two major works that have lent an identity to Marian are Thomas Love Peacock’s 1822 novella Maid Marian and the ballad Robin Hood and Maid Marian. In these two pieces of literature Marian appears as both a strong intellectual role model for women and an overlooked, sexualized subordinate to her male peers. This dichotomy draws questions about the possible biases that may have affected the myth until modern times and about the type of feminist hero that Marian has the potential to embody.In Peacock’s Maid Marian, the title character “is drawn from Peacock’s ideal of womanhood, and she owes more to her author than to the legends” (Knight, 61). Peacock was influenced by Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women and “came to believe that female intelligence should be defended against its contemporary depreciation” (Barczeweski, 192). His Marian “represents vigor and activity” and shows “unquenchable energy” and determination in both body and mind (Ibid.,151). She refuses “to be constrained by male authority,” (Ibid., 192), disobeying her father to spend time with the merry men in the forest. While a “decidedly ungenteel heroine,” (Ibid., 190), Peacock’s Maid Marian is not so unfeminine as to challenge gender assumptions. Marian’s sport of choice is a good example of how Peacock strikes a balance between the unconventional and socially appropriate. Marian excels at archery, which requires great skill but not large muscles, physical contact, or mannish clothing. She can be unwomanly, in other words, but only to a point.One reason Marian must come across as sufficiently feminine is that her purpose, in some analyses, is purely sexual. She may exist as a character solely to affirm Robin Hood’s heterosexuality and sexual prowess: “With Marian as his lady, Robin is both a lord and, in an undemonstrative way, a lover” (Knight, 61). Peacock depicts Marian as a strong, independent woman but demeans those qualities by blatantly sexualizing her. As “one of the young romantics,” Peacock’s “sensual personalization and male viewpoint is clear” (Ibid., 120). Nearly all the novel’s male characters are sexually interested in Marian: “[T]he text makes it clear that no red blooded male could resist [her]” (Ibid., 120). Peacock undoubtedly collected a great deal of his narrative action from the ballad Robin Hood and Maid Marian, as “The eighteenth-century ballad… is the primary source of [Marian’s] frequent appearance in many subsequent versions of the legend” (Lux, 191). This is an action-packed ballad in which Marian’s “disguise, cross-dressing, and revelation become the means of defining the female hero’s identity”(Lux, 192). Her appearance in this ballad is one of the first, as “women remain largely on the periphery of the earliest Robin Hood ballads and tales” (Hahn, 151). Some critics believe there was simply “no place for [women] in the context of the tales” (Holt, 37) and have argued that this particular ballad is just “an ‘extreme and implausible attempt’ to combine Robin the lover and the fighter” (Knight and Ohlgren, 493).If this is the case, Marian is simply being used as a sexual tool to affirm Robin’s masculinity; indeed, the ballad seems to sexualize her. It begins by describing Marian’s physical attributes: “For favour and face, and beauty most rare/…For Marian then was praised of all men/ That did in the country dwell”(Knight and Ohlgren, 494). Marian’s beauty and her interactions with Robin are prominent: “With kisses sweet their red lips meet,/ For shee and the earl did agree;/ In every place, they kindly imbrace,/ With love and sweet unity” (Knight and Ohlgren, 494). Marian is also portrayed as weak: “And Marian, poor soul, was troubled in mind, For absence of mind,/ for the absence of her friend;/ With finger in eye, shee often did cry” (Knight and Ohlgren, 494-495).The Marian of this ballad is not simply a sexual and weak presence, however: “We notice first that even when Marian is little more than a beautiful plot device she is usually not only brave and loyal but also attempts to claim agency to herself” (Hahn, 152). Marian may first appear as a weak, sexual prop, but she soon comes into her own: “She drest her self like a page/…With quiver and bow, sword buckler, and all/ Thus armed was Marian most bold”(Knight and Ohlgren, 495). Marian goes on to sword fight Robin Hood and even draws blood. She is strong. She excels in archery and fits in with the merry men of the forest quite well. It must be noted that Marian cannot only play sports with the boys, she can think with them too: “She also takes a leading role in the government of Robin Hood’s Commonwealth, debating issues and offering her opinion on an equal basis with the merry men” (Barczewski, 190). Marian’s role is dichotomous: “It is striking that as a noble, beautiful, loved woman enters the outlaw tradition, the play realizes her opposite, a sexually aggressive, deceptive, dangerous harridan. The lovely woman it seems, calls up her other, the witch” (Knight, 61). No matter how much power this woman is given, it seems she is constantly contradicted by her negative counterpart: “This pattern of a witch-like ‘false Marian’ recurs with surprising–depressing–regularity, right into modern films, and indicates a strong undercurrent of male gender anxiety in the tradition” (Knight, 61). When a false Marian is not physically present, she is created by the dichotomy within Marian’s own character. Marian herself becomes the good, pure woman and the evil, sexual woman all at the same time. Maid Marian is essentially two women. She is the intelligent hero that can fight with the boys and she is the sexual object of desire for the boys to look at. She can use her sexual prowess as a means of power, but this is nonetheless a demonstrative process. She has evolved with Robin Hood through the gentrification process in which she was a major factor. Marian may not be as deep-rooted in the myth as Robin Hood, but she has become a vital character in the legend: “By the end of the nineteenth century…maid Marian’s status as a feminine (and possibly feminist) heroine was beginning to alter perceptions of her character” (Barczeweski, 197). Marian is a female who has “open[ed] the possibility for female readers to identify the hero within themselves, and enhance[ed] the potential for them to explore, and to liberate, that hero”(Lux, 196). In Peacock’s Maid Marian and the ballad Robin Hood and Maid Marian, we see both a powerless and powerful woman whose role in this legend is fascinating in its own right.

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