If we seek in the preceding age for a native production corresponding in any way to the realistic novel, we shall find it only in works that do not belong to literature, in the popular fictions, glorifying heroes of the soil, and derived in many cases from the old ballads, as romances of a higher order had been derived from the medieval epic. The best read novels before Defoe were the stories of George a Green and of Thomas of Reading, of Robin Hood and of Friar Bacon. These rude chap-books, manufactured for a lower audience than those who revelled in the romance, were the work of mere journeymen of letters, who had no direct influence on the development of fiction, although they doubtless had an indirect one, in maintaining and stimulating the taste for sensational stories, and the practice of making novels out of the gestes of popular heroes and eminent criminals. Thomas Deloney, ballad writer and author of Thomas of Reading, the 'Learned Antiquary' who turned into prose the gist of several well-known ballads of Robin Hood, and Richard Johnson, author or compiler of Tom a Lincoln, with many anonymous retailers of cherished legends, were Defoe's immediate forerunners in a way that Lodge, Green and Nash, or even Mrs. Behn, could not claim to be.
Yet there is no Realism in these rough-and-ready effusions; the figures of Robin Hood, Little John, and their fellows are simply marionettes; for any effect of life they are to have, the writers trust to the familiarity of their readers with the figures of tradition. With this object, paying no heed to chronology, they associate their heroes indiscriminately with any historical names that cling to the popular memory. Robin Hood is boldly stated to have been outlawed by Henry VIII, and to have won the favour of Queen Katherine by his archery, the names of a king and queen so familiar to an Elizabethan audience being obviously adopted by the 'Learned Antiquary' for catchpenny reasons. Of portraiture, of either character or manners, there is hardly a trace. And it is strange how the old ballad spirit has entirely evaporated in its degenerate offspring, giving way to something closely akin to the appetite for crude sensation, to that indifference to true heroism, that worship of brute force and successful trickery, which distinguish the productions of our modern press of the baser sort. Robin Hood ceases even to be a sportsman, and the taste, (or the lack of it) shown by the author of Tom a Lincoln would disgust any decent-minded reader. This steady degradation of sentiment renders it only too certain that a large proportion of Defoe's readers were captivated rather by the accounts of Roxana's brilliant career in the world of gallantry, Colonel Jack's successes as a thief about town, and Captain Singleton's piratical enterprises, than by the history of their pangs of contrition, especially as Defoe's keen interest in the monetary affairs of his characters laid special stress on the profits to be gained in these lines of business.