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The Robin Hood we know today

b&w illustration from howard pyle's robin hood book

Close your eyes and think of what the character Robin Hood looks like. Chances are good whatever you envision will be indebted to 19th century artist Howard Pyle of Wilmington, DE. Pyle was one of the first artists to illustrate/write a book about Robin Hood’s adventures with a children’s audience in mind—’The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood (1883)’.  

Pyle maintains a perky tone throughout the book and often addresses the reader directly while describing Robin Hood’s adventures, sprinkling humor throughout. Pyle’s version of Robin Hood was one of the first that described the character as truly heroic, seeking to fix all the injustices around him. His portrayal contrasts with the Robin Hood of the ballads, where the protagonist is an out-and-out crook, whose crimes are motivated by personal gain rather than politics or a desire to help others.

Howard Pyle at his easel

Howard Pyle’s Robin Hood book has been republished numerous times since its release in various configurations: his original text and illustrations together; as a text without illustrations; Pyle’s text with illustrations by another artist; and sometimes his illustrations accompanying another text altogether. The net effect of the various versions is the same: Howard Pyle helped move the Robin Hood legend out of the realm of penny dreadfuls and into the realm of respected children’s books.

Despite having written one of the classic novels of all time, Pyle was such an accomplished artist that it’s most accurate to cite him as an illustrator first and an author second. His meticulous draftsmanship set the standard for generations of illustrators after him.

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