It is no exaggeration to say that the story of Bevis is probably the most adapted heroic adventure story in English literature. Only the stories of King Arthur and of Robin Hood show comparable adaptations through time, and of these the closest affinity is probably between Bevis and Arthur.
Although the Arthurian material was originally Welsh, it was introduced into France and subsequently rewritten by Chretien de Troyes before being reimported into England by writers such as Marie de France and many other minstrels and storytellers. Throughout the centuries stories of Arthur and his renowned knights became the material of generations of writers, appearing in splendid form in the 16th century in Spenser’s Faerie Queene and in the 19th century in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. In the 20th and 21st centuries Arthurian legend found new expression in films and TV productions.
The Robin Hood legend never achieved the elite status of the Arthurian material, but that was always the point. Robin Hood was always the symbol of resistance against foreign oppression. Some of the earliest versions of Robin Hood are political ballads of the 15th century. The latest adaptations are not immediately engaged with modern politics but continually echo the theme of the resistance of oppressed ordinary people under a charismatic leader against institutional thuggery.
The common link across the centuries is the way each adaptation of the Arthurian and Robin Hood stories is an expression the dominant social, cultural and aesthetic ideology of each time.The same may be said of the adaptations of the Bevis story, even in their most bizarre forms. It seems that Bevis was originally a French tale which came to England as part of the repertory of the minstrels who followed their Norman lords after the Conquest. It was adapted into the new combined language of Anglo-Norman before being translated into Middle English and substantially enlarged. Bevis continued to be a culturally significant hero emerging in many adaptations and appropriations throughout the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries across the south coast of England and much further afield, throughout Europe, where it was translated and underwent further adaptations.
Probably its latest flourish is the series of carvings on the Church of St Peter, Curdridge. These manifestations of Victorian medievalism are not without controversy over the interpretations placed on them, but they are a reminder of the importance the story of Bevis was known to have as a medieval adventure and as a marker of location, because adaptations of the Bevis story had long had associations with places all along the south coast. Its emergence in Victorian England fitted with the century’s backward-looking celebration of all things medieval, which itself had political point, although this has never again reached the radical momentum it finds in the 14th century hugely ‘Englished’ story in the Auchinleck manuscript.