English Folk Heroines: Maid Marian

Olivia de Havilland in The Adventures of Robin Hood, 1938 Warner Bros. [Public domain]

Maid Marian  

Maid Marian, famous as the legendary girlfriend of Robin Hood, took on many roles and personas over the centuries, changing greatly with the times.  Although she is absent from the earliest known ballads of Robin Hood she later appear in many plays, ballads and stories. Her character and role varied greatly, sometimes appearing as a noblewoman at other times as a commoner or shepherdess.  From her early beginnings which can be found in folklore she evolves through literature from a simple medieval shepherdess and May Day Queen, to the girlfriend of the famous Robin Hood.

Folklore is dynamic and changes with the ages reflecting changes in attitude and circumstances by society. This can be seen in action with Maid Marian and how she became a folk heroine.  Over time she becomes a deeper, more complex character and much more than just the love interest of the famous Robin Hood and more than just an important character in someone else’s adventure.  It is in comparison to her and her character and traits that much of the morality of these stories comes out, making her an important ingredient to the overall plot, exposition and denouement of the story through the ages.  The overall impression is of a strong, independent lady in a relatively equal relationship with Robin. Her qualities of loyalty and compassion mixed with boldness make her a popular figure in the Robin Hood canon of literature providing a strong folkloric tradition.  There is also more than a hint of her dangerous side when she is found in a role of noble woman covertly undermining the patriarchal and ruling order by passing information on to Robin. The fact that she has male suitors in high society and chooses Robin rather than them underlines her independence of mind and action.

Marion and Robin in France

In the  pastourelle songs of France, Marian became Marion and she and Robin are found together but not in the way that we are familiar with.  In these songs Marion is a shepherdess who rejects the romantic attention of a knight to stay faithful to Robin who is a shepherd.  From this, Marion and Robin appeared in Jeu de Robin et Marion, a French play by Adam de la Halle in the later part of the 13th century. 

Later they became connected to spring festivals and traditions in both France and England to celebrate the passing of winter and welcome the new growth of spring.  These were often outside events enjoyed by the community with lots of feasting, singing, dancing, games and all sorts of fun activities and entertainment.

Marian as the May Queen

Maid Marian also has associations with the rustic figures of the May Queen and Lady May the personifications of May Day, springtime and summer connecting her with renewal, new growth, fertility and abundance.  With the figure of Robin Hood becoming increasingly popular appearing in plays, games and ballads especially during Whitsun, Robin and Marian eventually became integrated into new roles as the King and Queen of the May Day.  

The Virgin Mary

It was not Marian in the early works that was Robin’s important female interest but the Virgin Mary.  However, society changed and England became more protestant. With Marian’s strong associations to nature and fertility she complemented the forest environment and was a good partner for the outlaw of Sherwoos, eventually taking on the role of his lover.  However social attitudes modified her behaviour making her become much more modest, ladylike and virtuous rather than the lusty, rustic figure of fertility, vitality and renewal. 

As Marian  became more integrated in the Robin Hood stories her character, social status and circumstance change and evolve considerable.  She is not just a damsel in distress in need of rescue by some bold heroic male, she evolves into a much more complex character. Some of the tales portray her as a robust woman of action, her fighting expertise matching, or even surpassing male counterparts and even that of Robin in some stories.

At times when she is found within the stately and highly patriarchal confines of Norman society within Nottingham Castle she is the  secret rebel passing on information to Robin in Sherwood Forest. She can move between the two worlds of Norman and outlaw society while remaining true to her own values and personal beliefs and her love for Robin.

Nineteenth Century Marion

In the nineteenth century Marion loses much of her power becoming a highborn, chaste and delicate noblewoman of high birth and very much an archetype of the Victorian lady.  Her love story with Robin becomes central but she is now a supporting character to her lover rather than one in her own right. Perhaps to please Victorian audiences she and Robin are married by King Richard the Lionheart in St Mary’s Church in Edwinstowe making the story of Robin Hood and Maid Marion more romantic  and sanitized.

Modern Marian

From the early days to the present we can see how the changes in society and attitudes to women have evolved and expressed at different times through the ages. Her character and her role are reflections of those times and the attitudes that prevailed towards the male and female role models.  We have seen her evolve from the rustic mysticism of the May Queen to the archetypical lady of high society with a secret lover, to a more competent, confident and assertive female whose history in many ways reflects the lot of women through the ages. Marian stands out as one of the strongest female characters in folklore and literature and there is ample potential for further interesting developments in the modern age.   The potential for further development for her is also seen in modern times with the greater freeing of women from their traditional archetypes.

© 07/01/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright January 7th, 2020 zteve t evans

11 thoughts on “English Folk Heroines: Maid Marian

  1. Great post Zteve, Such a fascinating lady and Olivia de Havilland played the role of Maid Marion to perfection. I love these folk laws. You make them so interesting. Thank you.

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