American illustrator Howard Pyle (1857-1911) was fascinated with Medieval and Renaissance history and costuming. He wrote and illustrated a number of original works set in Medieval Europe and England, and adapted classic ballads to narratives for young readers. The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, of Great Renown, in Nottinghamshire is an example of the latter. Throughout this work, Pyle strove to maintain an historic aesthetic in both, visual depictions and the language used to weave the tale.
His insistence on depicting historic dress as authentically as possible in his illustrations led him to collect period costumes, costume books, and historic manuscripts for reference (“Howard Pyle”). His models and students would pose in the costumes, especially when depicting intense action such as the fight scene between Little John and the Cook.
Pyle’s illustrations and decorative designs for this tale are done in a linear style reminiscent of traditional woodblock prints. He uses lines of varying thickness to differentiate between objects and he indicates mass through the artistic techniques of cross-hatching and placing lines parallel to each other, as seen on the curved lines that circle Robin Hood’s leg in the illustration “Robin and the Tinker at the Blue Boar Inn.”
This Medieval and Renaissance aesthetic can also be seen in the hand-lettered titles for each of the full-page illustrations. The text is meant to mimic the impression of 16th century typeface, going so far as to include the medial S — the letter that looks like an F without its crossbar.
Most strikingly, Pyle endeavors to recreate the feel of Medieval or Renaissance England in the language he uses for the characters’ speech. “Thou,” “dost,” and “thee” among other expressions are liberally used throughout the book. For example, in the story “Robin Hood Aideth a Sorrowful Knight,” Robin says to Little John:
Here is a fair day, Little John, and one that we can ill waste in idleness. Choose such men as thou dost need, and go thou east while I will wend to the west, and see that each of us bringeth back some goodly guest to dine this day beneath the greenwood tree.
To which Little John replies, “Marry … thy bidding fitteth my liking like haft to blade. I’ll bring thee back a guest this day, or come not back mine own self.”
Pyle’s modern reconstruction of Old English attempts to give authenticity to his retelling of Robin Hood through yet another level of aesthetic historicism.
His artistic interpretation of “Merrie Old England” is akin to the modern day Renaissance Festival, where you will surely find a lady dressed as an Elizabethan duchess linking arms with a Knights Templar, Robin Hood chatting with Shakespeare, and a young maiden pulling her little fairy child in a Radio Flyer wagon decorated with a silk flower garland. Like the costuming and setting of your local Renaissance Festival, the visuals and language used by Pyle simultaneously feel authentic because of their dependence on historical references and are fantastic interpretations of Medieval and Renaissance history. Both are meant to transport the reader-participate into a realm where historical accuracy is not as important as the story, itself.
As you plan for your next trip to your local Shire, let Howard Pyle be your guide through a world where Robin Hood and Little John once again escape the Sheriff’s grasp under the watchful eye Queen Elizabeth. Welcome to the Shire, one and all!
“Howard Pyle,” Illustration History, https://www.illustrationhistory.org/artists/howard-pyle. Accessed 7/31/19.