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Maid Marian is a literary character commonly written as the love interest of Robin Hood. Throughout the years, the personality and circumstances of her character have changed to fit social ideas of women. Although Maid Marian was not part of the original tales of Robin Hood, she has become an integral part of the legend in modern retellings.
The first recorded Robin Hood stories, which date back to the late 14th century, make no mention of Maid Marian. The Robin Hood legends were often acted out as plays in celebration of May Day in England. Originally, separate plays were held in which the main character was the May Queen or Lady of May. Eventually, the two performances merged, changing the May Queen’s name to Marian and making Robin her lover.
As the May Day festivals were heavily linked to new life and the fertility of spring, the May Queen was a lusty figure, akin to Bacchus or Dionysus in Greek and Roman traditions. As Maid Marian entered into literature, she was portrayed quite differently. As a maiden, she was a model of virtue and chastity.
The literary Maid Marian has no fixed background or origins. Adapters of the Robin Hood tales have made her into whatever best fit their stories. In some tales, she is Norman nobility, a fragile and perfect lady. Other early tales claim Marian is an orphaned Saxon, or half-Saxon, half-Norman. Critics suggest that the origins of Marian changed to fit the times. In the Victorian era, Marian was most usually seen as a virtuous Norman aristocrat. In modern times she is generally less high-born and more active.
Similarly, Marian’s character has no set basis. Early film versions, such as the 1938 Robin Hood, prefer to show Maid Marian as a demure maiden, but many of the early tales contradict this interpretation. In The Ballad of Robin Hood and Maid Marion, a tale that dates back to at least the 17th century, Marian dresses as a boy and ventures into Sherwood forest. Robin, not recognizing her, attacks and they do battle for several hours. Most modern film and television versions of Robin Hood prefer a hardy Marian who is frequently a competent archer and outlaw. In the BBC television series Robin Hood, Marian balances her life of the nobility with her own missions of robbery and justice.
Robin Hood’s romance with Maid Marian has been interpreted in various ways over the years. In the 1938 film, Robin and Marian meet and fall in love as he robs her party. In Robin McKinley’s book, The Outlaws of Sherwood, Marian has known and loved Robin since they were children. Generally, modern retellings of Robin Hood end with Robin and Maid Marian marrying after King Richard the Lionhearted pardons Robin’s outlawry.
Marian, however, was not Robin’s first literary love interest. In Robin Hood’s Birth, Breeding, Valor, and Marriage, his girlfriend is Clorinda, a shepherdess. To keep Maid Marian in the story, most modern versions omit this tale, or claim that Clorinda was merely an alias of the wily Marian.