The Victorian era was one of tremendous, rapid paced change in nearly every aspect of life. The speed of travel, the size of cities, the role of women, and the theory of evolution; it must have felt to some as if their world was tearing apart. While many were excited about the possibilities and promises of the future, others longed for simpler times. A renewed interest in Medieval literature, art, and music swept the nation.
King Arthur was once again at the top of the charts as it were. In 1834 when the Houses of Parliament were rebuilt following a fire, extensive fresco works were put in depicting the Arthurian imagery of Sir Thomas Malory. Queen Victoria’s Poet Laureate Lord Alfred Tennyson was the first man in England to be made a baron on the strength of his literary contributions. As poet laureate he composed “Idylls of the King”, a serially published collection of poems on central and peripheral characters of Arthurian legend, which was tremendously popular.
Welsh and English literary communities battled over ownership of Arthur legends throughout the nineteenth century. One rising idea in England was that of Teutonism, a belief in a broader Germanic race including Anglo-Saxons and destined for supremacy. Tennysons “Idylls” erased Arthur’s Celtic roots. By promoting English versions of the story as official literary cannon, Queen Victoria oversaw a shift from a national inclusive British identity to a more racialized English one.
Robin Hood also experienced a revival in popularity and new editions. Again the stories spoke to different audiences. At a time of fading Empire, Robin Hood seemed to warn of the follies in engaging in foreign wars and it’s local focus appealed to “English first” attitudes. Maid Marian was also an appealing character to young women chafing against social restrictions; she was free and daring and good with a bow, without social penalty. Contrasted with the doomed women in Arthurian legend, she looked like fun.
Robin Hood is a story for the underclasses, thwarting law enforcement and gender norms at frequent intervals. (Robin dressed in costumes to deceive his enemies, often dressing as a woman.) The clergy is most often portrayed as corrupt and self-serving. It spoke to those excited by change. Arthur is a story for traditionalists, for conservatives and the upper classes. God and Crown rule all. These are the stories England tells itself.