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The earliest medieval Robin Hood stories gave him no female companion. Maid Marian was originally a character in May Games festivities (held during May and early June, most commonly around Whitsun) and is sometimes associated with the Queen or Lady of May of May Day. Indeed, Marian remained associated with such celebrations long after the fashion of Robin Hood had faded again. She became associated with Robin Hood in this context, as Robin Hood became a central figure in May Day, associated as he was with the forest and archery. Both Robin and Marian were certainly associated with May Day festivities in England (as was Friar Tuck); these were originally two distinct types of performance — Alexander Barclay, writing in c.1500, refers to "some merry fytte of Maid Marian or else of Robin Hood" — but the characters were brought together.
The Marian of the May Games is likely derived from the French tradition of a shepherdess named Marion and her shepherd lover Robin (not Robin Hood). The best known example of this tradition is Adam de la Halle's Le Jeu de Robin et Marion, circa 1283.
Marian did not immediately gain the unquestioned role as Robin's love; in "Robin Hood's Birth, Breeding, Valor, and Marriage", his sweetheart is "Clorinda the Queen of the Shepherdesses". Clorinda survives in some later stories as an alias of Marian.
In narrative terms, Maid Marian was first attached to Robin Hood in the late sixteenth century as Robin was gentrified and given a virginal maid to pine after. Her biography and character have been highly variable over the centuries. Marian's role was not entirely virginal in the early days; in 1592, Thomas Nashe described the Marian of the later May Games as being played by a male actor named Martin, and there are hints in the play of Robin Hood and the Friar that the female character in these plays had become a lewd parody. Robin was originally called Ryder.
In an Elizabethan play, Anthony Munday made her a pseudonym of Matilda Fitzwalter, the historical daughter of Robert Fitzwalter, who had to flee England because of an attempt to assassinate King John. This was legendarily attributed to King John's attempts to seduce Matilda. The ballad of Robin Hood and Maid Marian which dates at least to the 17th century presents a more active Marion who disguises herself as a page and (unrecognised) holds her own against Robin himself in a sword fight.
In the Victorian era she reverted to her previous role as the dainty maid. This highborn woman appears in many movies, under various characters: in 1938's The Adventures of Robin Hood, she is a courageous and loyal woman (played by Olivia de Havilland), and a ward of the court, an orphaned noblewoman under the protection of King Richard. Although always ladylike, her initial antagonism to Robin springs not from aristocratic disdain but out of an aversion to robbery; however, in The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men (1952), she, despite being a lady-in-waiting to Eleanor of Aquitaine during the Crusades, is in reality a mischievous tomboy capable of fleeing boldly to the countryside disguised as a boy. In the Kevin Costner epic Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, she is a maternal cousin to the sovereign, while in the BBC TV Show adaption of 2006, she is the daughter of the former Sheriff and was betrothed to Robin prior to his leaving for the Holy Land. Elsa Watson's and Theresa Tomlinson's novels, which are told from Marian's point of view, portray Marian as a high-born Norman girl escaping entrapment in an arranged marriage. With the aid of her nurse, she runs away to Sherwood Forest, where she becomes acquainted with Robin Hood and his men.
With the rise of modern feminism in the 20th century, the character has often been depicted as an adventurer again, sometimes as a crack archer herself. In modern times, a common ending for Robin Hood stories became that he married Maid Marian and left the woods for a civilised, aristocratic life.
There have been several books based on the fictional character:
- Maid Marian — 1822 novel by Thomas Love Peacock
- Maid Marian — 2004 novel by Elsa Watson
- Lady of the Forest; novel by Jennifer Roberson
- Lady of Sherwood; novel by Jennifer Roberson
- The Forestwife (and its sequels, although she's only the main character in the first); young adult novel by Theresa Tomlinson.
- The Outlaws of Sherwood, novel by Robin McKinley (depicts Marian as a crack-shot archer)
- Maid Marian appears in a chapter of T.H. White's The Sword in the Stone, the first book in The Once and Future King. Wart (the young King Arthur) and his step brother Kay meet her and Robin when they go into the forest for an adventure and set out with the outlaws to rescue people Morgan le Fey kidnapped. When they meet her, it is quickly made apparent that Marian is strong and capable in battle and the narrator mentions that she could walk or even wiggle on her stomach like a snake faster than the boys could follow.
- The "Robin & Marian Mysteries" by Clayton Emery, appearing in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and elsewhere, feature the outlaw husband-wife team as amateur detectives solving bizarre murders.
- Hawksmaid: The untold story of Robin Hood and Maid Marian by Kathryn Lastry
- Scarlet by A.C. Gaughen (2012)
She is also a minor character in Angus Donald's Outlaw Chronicles based on the life of Alan-A-Dale and his exploits with Robin Hood. In the series she is known as Marie-Anne, Countess Of Locksley, and love interest of Robin Hood, who in the novel is formally known as Robert Odo.
- Maid Marian was played first by Bernadette O'Farrell, and then by Patricia Driscoll in the 1955 series The Adventures of Robin Hood.
- Maid Marian was featured in the 1966 animated series Rocket Robin Hood, a science fiction version of the Robin Hood story.
- In the HTV show Robin of Sherwood (1984–86), Marian was played by Judi Trott, and after meeting and falling in love with Robin (of Locksley, played by Michael Praed), lived with him and the other outlaws in Sherwood Forest. After Robin's death, she was wooed by Robin's successor as Herne's Son and leader of the outlaws, Robert of Huntingdon (played by Jason Connery), but was ultimately unable to requite his love.
- Maid Marian was the lead character in Tony Robinson's 1989 BBC children's comedy Maid Marian and her Merry Men. In the show, Marian, played by Kate Lonergan, was portrayed as the real leader of the Merry Men, whilst Robin was a vain coward who was mistakenly believed to be the leader by King John and the Sheriff of Nottingham.
- In the 1990 Japanese anime series Robin Hood no Daibōken, Maid Marian (as Marian Lancaster) was voiced by Naoko Matsui. Sometimes referred to as Mary Anne.
- In the 1991 TV movie Robin Hood she is played by Uma Thurman.
- In the 1997 TV show The New Adventures of Robin Hood, she was played by Anna Galvin, and then by Barbara Griffin. She lives with Robin, Little John and Friar Tuck in the Sherwood forest.
- In the 2000 film Blackadder: Back & Forth, Maid Marian is portrayed by supermodel Kate Moss.
- In the BBC's 2006 version Robin Hood, Lucy Griffiths plays the role of Lady Marian, as opposed to Maid Marian. In this version of the tale, she is daughter of a previous Sheriff of Nottingham and the love interest of Robin. Beautiful and quick of mind, Marian is headstrong and feisty. She is involved in a love triangle, with Sir Guy of Gisbourne and Robin as her suitors.
- In the 1922 movie Robin Hood, Marian was played by Enid Bennett.
- In the celebrated 1938 movie The Adventures of Robin Hood, Maid Marian, as already noted, was portrayed by Olivia de Havilland.
- In the 1952 movie The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men, Maid Marian is played by Joan Rice.
- In the 1973 Disney's animated version of Robin Hood, Maid Marian is an anthropomorphic vixen voiced by Monica Evans, with Nancy Adams doing her singing voice.
- In the 1976 movie, Robin and Marian, Lady Marian is played by Audrey Hepburn.
- In the 1991 movie, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Maid Marian is played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. In this version, her surname is given as Dubois, a reference to the French name of Robin Hood, Robin des Bois.
- In the 1993 movie Robin Hood: Men in Tights, Maid Marian is played by Amy Yasbeck.
- In the 2001 Disney movie Princess of Thieves, Robin Hood and Maid Marian are the parents of a daughter, the eponymous 'princess' played by Keira Knightley.
- In the 2010 Ridley Scott movie Robin Hood, Lady Marian is a widow played by Cate Blanchett. In this version, her surname is given as Loxley.
- In the 2011 German 3D movie Robin Hood - Ghosts of Sherwood, Maid Marian is played by Grey DeLisle.
- Squeeze's song, "Pulling Mussels (From The Shell)", contains the line; "Maid Marian on her, tip toed feet...".
- Folk artist Will Stratton's song "Robin and Marian" on his album No Wonder offers a modern-day political interpretation of the story of Robin Hood and Maid Marian.
- Knight, Stephen (2003) Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography. University of Cornell Press.
- J. C. Holt (1982). Robin Hood. Thames & Hudson. p. 37. ISBN 0-500-27541-6 [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK].
- Knight. Robin Hood. pp. 11-12.
- Ronald Hutton. The Stations of the Sun. p. 274. ISBN 0-19-288045-4 [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK]
- Richards. Swordsmen of the Screen, p. 190
- Ronald Hutton. The Stations of the Sun, pp. 270-271.
- J. C. Holt. Robin Hood, p. 165.
- Allen W. Wright. "A Beginner's Guide to Robin Hood".
- Additional discussion of the story of Matilda and how it changed to Maid Marion is available in Thomson, Richard (1829). An Historical Essay on the Magna Charta of King John: To which are Added the Great Charter in Latin and English. London: J. Major and R. Jennings. pp. 505–507.
- (The naming of Marian as 'Fitzwalter' would not have been historically correct. Robert Fitzwalter was named so, because his father's name was Walter: "fitz" meaning "son of". Marian would have been called "daughter of Robert" filia Roberti, after her father.)
- Allen W. Wright, The Search for the Real Robin Hood
- Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, 1888. 
- Jeffrey Richards, Swordsmen of the Screen: From Douglas Fairbanks to Michael York, p 200, Routledge & Kegan Paul, Lond, Henly and Boston, 1988
- Jeffrey Richards, Swordsmen of the Screen: From Douglas Fairbanks to Michael York, p 201, Routledge & Kegan Paul, Lond, Henly and Boston, 1988