Turn of the screw

The Dilettante Society: Maid Marian

9 September 15 words: The Dilettante Society
"In many legends she is a woman of action, and even an outlaw with fighting skills that occasionally eclipse Robin himself"
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illustration: Christine Dilks
Lady in waiting, damsel in distress, unlikely warrior, outlaw informant, romantic interest – Maid Marian is a complex lady whose story has been deeply obscured through countless retellings. In fact, she has been seen throughout Western European mythology long before her entrance into the adventures of Robin Hood. As medieval shepherdess, ancient goddess, and May Day Queen, Marian is found in folklore, literature and legend of the past two millennia as more of a female archetype than mere side character in someone else’s story, making her a most diverse lady indeed.


In the strange and serendipitous way that folklore evolves, the etymology of the name Marian itself is steeped with religious connotations, and we see her in various guises across European theology. A blend of the Latin name Mary, meaning ‘star of the sea’, and the Hebrew name Ann, the medieval derivative Marian is strongly associated with the legend of the ‘merrymaid’, or mermaid as we now know her. Marian, an ancient virgin sea goddess, was known for seducing ‘merriners’ (mariners) and also bears much resemblance to the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite, who too was said to be ‘born from the ocean’. A similar character appears in the tale of St Mary of Egypt, who sold her body to sailors while on her pilgrimage to the holy land, and was later renowned for her visions of the Virgin Mary.

Fast forward to the eleventh century. While the Crusades raged in an attempt to abolish mystic and monotheistic beliefs and enforce Christianity, the tales of these holy women enjoyed an unlikely renaissance. As their stories were spread across Europe, they captured the public imagination. In England, the people became so fascinated that many began covertly practising ‘Mary-worship’ under the cult of ‘Mary-Gipsy’, which would eventually lead to the moniker ‘Merry England’.

Meanwhile, across the pond in France, the character of Marion was already cavorting with her Robin, although not quite as we know them. Popular medieval French pastourelle songs told about a shepherdess named Marion who shunned the affections of a knight to remain loyal to her shepherd lover, Robin. After this well-known folk tale was developed into the first known secular french play Jeu de Robin et Marion in the late thirteenth century, the couple gradually began to be associated with spring festivities, not only in France but England also. These celebrations were marked with dancing, feasts and general frivolities in which communities gathered together outside to rejoice in the passing of the long, often more solitary winter months.

Marian became entangled within a longstanding tradition of the May Queen or Lady May, a robust and somewhat lusty figure, symbolic of abundance, new life and the fertility of spring. In a fitting extension of her rich mythological past and links to Aphrodite, she became a cultural expression of divine femininity. Meanwhile, Robin Hood Games, folk plays based on the outlaw’s already well-known escapades, were becoming increasingly popular as part of Whitsun festivities, and eventually the two performances merged with Robin and Marian united as the King and Queen of May Day.

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illustration: Christine Dilks

In the early ballads of Robin Hood, Marian is remarkably absent and, before she was introduced as his lover, it was the Virgin Mary who was the significant female relationship for Robin. As England became increasingly Protestant, Robin’s devotion to the Virgin Mary was replaced by his attraction to Marian. With her associations to nature, Marian was a natural match for the outlaw of Sherwood Forest, although social attitudes towards women ensured her character would change dramatically, transforming her from a symbol of lusty fertility to a demure maiden and a model of virtue.

Once Marian was embraced into the stories of Robin Hood, accounts of her background, social status and character vary dramatically. Despite at times conforming to the clichéd damsel in distress in need of rescue from unwanted suitors, Marian is often portrayed as a far more complex character. In many legends she is a woman of action, an outlaw with fighting skills that occasionally eclipse Robin himself. When her character remains in the sheltered confines of Nottingham Castle, away from the action she sometimes acts as an informant, courageous and loyal to both her personal beliefs and to her love of Robin. Contrary to a time when women were often forced into unwanted marriages, she remains an unmarried maiden, and despite her unconventional lifestyle throughout the stories, she was always depicted as a woman of honour.

Unfortunately, throughout the nineteenth century, a rather degraded version of Marian emerged, lacking the strength and power of her previous incarnations and rich symbolic legacy. Relegated to a dainty, chaste and highborn maiden, she became defined almost completely by her relationship to Robin. Their tale became a respectable Victorian love story, complete with a happy ending when the pair were married in St Mary’s Church, Edwinstowe, by King Richard Lionheart. This idyllic narrative sanitised the story for Victorian audiences by allowing Robin and Marian to take on a civilised life and put their rebellious past aside.

With the advent of film in the twentieth century, the character of Marian has again been rewritten many times, her heroic potential increasing alongside the progression of the women’s rights movement. The popular eighties television series Maid Marian and her Merry Men saw her as the unlikely leader of the gang, with Robin as her haphazard companion, while in 1991’s Prince of Thieves she fought as well as any man could, despite ultimately needing rescue. The latest offering of Robin Hood films from director Ridley Scott sees Maid Marian as refreshingly independent, strong and astute. Finally breaking free from the shackles of the traditional damsel in distress stereotype, she is given a competent backstory as a woman fighting for the rights of her people.

Maid Marian’s story is a perfect illustration of how elements of traditional folklore are merged, appropriated and amended to suit the current times. As an archetype used to express ideals of femininity, her status and strength has wavered, reflecting social attitudes towards women over an extensive period of time.

From seductive sea goddess, mystical May queen, and courageous warrior, through to dainty maiden and back again, she’s got a hell of a reputation behind her. We are now getting closer to representing a Marian of strength, depth and potential, who is a testament to her character’s rich legacy. Let’s ensure our modern Marian is a local icon to be proud of.

The Dilettante Society Meeting, Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, Monday 14 September, 7.30pm, free. All welcome – the more the merrier.

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