Robin Hood, a thief and a witch-hunt: Books read

ROBIN HOOD by JC Holt is a dry but good guide to how folklore and storytelling turned a possibly real yeoman outlaw from Barnstable in England into, variously, the nemesis of Nottingham (probably that it was a bigger town so it got more attention), lover of Maid Marian (something added late in the legend, after Robin was added to various May rituals), defender of Richard I, champion of Saxons against Norman oppression, renegade nobleman and of course, the man who robs the rich to give to the poor (while Robin is generous in his earlier stories, it’s not his primary trait).

Holt’s detailed look at the ballads about Robin and a handful of other references shows the difficulties of establishing anything factual about Robin Hood or even proving there’s a fact to establish. I also liked his comment that Robin models the principles his social betters fall short on — where clergymen are venal and materialistic, he’s devout, where nobles are greedy, he’s generous and so on. This doesn’t look at modern film versions of the myth which added other twists, like Robin being a Crusades veteran (an element introduced in Douglas Fairbanks’ 1922 version).

THIEF LORD by Cornelia Funke is a listless children’s fantasy (with only minimal fantasy for much of the story) about a gang of kid thieves in Venice and their eponymous leader, who in the story’s best idea turns out to be a fraud, a rich kid whose supposed daring thefts are just swiping stuff from his parents. Forgettable.

THE WITCHES: Salem, 1692 by Stacy Schiff, is an exhaustively detailed history of the Salem witch trials, showing a mix of personal feuds (Thomas Putnam, whose daughters kicked things off, had a heated history with the families his daughters initially accused), greed (the county sheriff scooped up witches’ property, sometimes before they were convicted), celebrity (being stars of the show offering the “bewitched” girls a welcome alternative to the drudgery and religious seriousness of daily life) and of course superstition led to the conviction and hanging of multiple innocent people despite saner voices warning against it (though many sane voices flinched from suggesting the judges had made any mistakes).  A good portrayal of a community obsessed by religion, terrified of the Native-occupied wilderness it faced and scarred by multiple tragedies (a lot of dead men in the French and Indian War, for instance). However the sheer amount of detail was a deal-breaker for some readers and Schiff annoyingly presents some supernatural stuff, such as broomstick flights, as if she’s reporting a real event.

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