REVIEW: "Discovering Robin Hood" by Stephen Basdeo, 2021
Everybody knows the name ‘Robin Hood’, and everybody can tell you who he is and what he did. Even if these stories are different, with different escapades and different faces, we accept all the adventures of Robin Hood as one, big, bold story. But the name Joseph Ritson is not as well known. As Stephen Basdeo writes, Ritson deserves some credit for all the variations of Robin Hood that have been told for the last 200 years.
Basdeo’s new book Discovering Robin Hood: The Life of Joseph Ritson is an energetic biography of the man who shaped Robin’s public image in the most fundamental way since his medieval origins and Elizabethan makeover. Ritson’s 1795, two-volume printing of Robin Hood stories and songs old and new was prefaced with a biography of sorts, fermented in the centuries-long retelling of the Robin Hood story. This biography cemented many of the elements of the legend taken as read today, such as the fundamental robbing the rich to feed the poor. It is largely thanks to Ritson’s publication that the bold outlaw of great renown has survived in popular imaginations to entertain generations of audiences in the centuries since Ritson's death. Ritson's legacy in his own lifetime is evident. Later in life, he befriended Scottish author Walter Scott, famous for his influential medievalist novel Ivanhoe (1819), which features Robin as a Saxon freedom fighter. This influence, however, was taken from Ritson's own impression of the outlaw hero.
Yet Basdeo’s biography is not solely focused on Ritson’s relationship with Robin Hood. The book tracks Ritson’s humble origins in Stockton-on-Tees, Durham, where the bustling mercantile environment nurtured a remarkably ahead-of-his-time individual. A vegetarian, a Jacobite, an antiquary and a revolutionary, Ritson’s life (1752 -1803) reads as the hectic tumult of a man striving for truth in every element of life, and it is this quality which Basdeo truly brings out in Ritson.
Though a short biography, Basdeo paints a fully-formed portrait of the plainly honest Joseph Ritson. His vegetarianism was inspired by his utmost belief in the moral cruelty of humanity's eating animals "because humans themselves were animals", and Basdeo points to Ritson’s under-developed yet philosophical theory being published over 50 years before that of Charles Darwin. Ritson's career in law was balanced by his fair judgement, often taking the side of those who broke the laws he upheld if he felt it was right they did so. His loyalty to the Stuart line of would-be-monarchs – the Bonny Prince Charlie with the blood of Culloden on his hands – was drawn not from blind royal faith but a simple belief in adherence to right, with Ritson himself being somewhat of an atheist. The fire of his revolutionary beliefs, stoked by the French Revolution across the Channel, was borne of the same steadfast belief in truth, of humanity’s equity amongst itself. Even Ritson's humourously-pointless attempts to create a purer form of the English language was rooted in truth, wanting to avoid mistranslation and emphasise detail. Yet, as Basdeo also brings to the fore, Ritson’s honesty was often brutal.
With a reputation as a pedantic grump, Ritson was known in his academic career for fierce criticisms of his fellow publishers, as he pulled apart every inaccuracy in their interpretation or translation of ancient songs and languages. Despite his bluntness, he was not malicious in his assertions; as Basdeo writes, “whenever Ritson endeavoured to critique other scholars’ arguments, he often acknowledged, privately and publicly, that even if he disagreed with them, they still deserved respect”. His reputation appears to be borne out of others' frustration at Ritson's clarity of argument. Indeed, Basdeo includes the tale of a man so slighted by Ritson that he asked a friend to scrutinise Ritson’s efforts; after doing so, the friend concluded that Riston was right!
Despite his pedantry, Ritson's warmth is not neglected in Basdeo's biography. His charitable, if naïve, law practices, taking little to no money when assisting friends, demonstrates Ritson's soft spot for familiar faces and underdogs. His vegetarianism was often mocked by his contemporaries; the only [extant] portrait of Ritson from his lifetime rather unfairly includes his pet cat chained up to stop its 'cruel' hunting of mice! Ritson's near-foster parenthood to his nephew is woven throughout the book, highlighting his belief in the importance of a good education, and his flair for letter writing. As Basdeo notes, letter writing at this time was as taken for granted as texting is now, and so there is an abundance of correspondence surviving that tells us not only who Ritson was but, importantly, how he saw himself and the world around him, living as he did through an extraordinary period in European political history.
Basdeo’s biography brings the tail end of the eighteenth century to life, exploring through the extraordinary life of Joseph Ritson the political, philosophical, and literary landscape of the time. Readers will not only gain a visceral experience of city and town life in the eighteenth century, but will come away with a thorough understanding of the ways in which the various landscapes of a generation shapes both its popular culture and that of posterity. Punchy, thoughtful, and melancholic, Discovering Robin Hood is a much-overdue tribute to the man who re-gifted Robin Hood to the world, whose legacy of truth and humanity deserves to be widely known once again.
Discovering Robin Hood: The Life of Joseph Ritson – Gentleman, Scholar and Revolutionary is available from Pen & Sword Books from 31 March in the UK, and from 30 May in Australia and the US.