Why We Still Love Robin Hood
Robin Hood’s story has been around since the Middle Ages, and has been spoofed, bowdlerized, copy-cat-ed, and reworked more times even than the story of King Arthur. Like Arthur, Robin Hood may or may not have existed in real life. Depending on which story you read, he may have done his best not to actually harm his victims, or he may have slaughtered them when he could. He may have been a dispossessed nobleman or a mere commoner. He may have loved King Richard, or he may have had a problem with all of the royalty and nobles of the day. But one theme consistently runs through all of the Robin Hood tales: he robbed from the rich, and he gave to the poor.
What is this fascination we have for Robin Hood, a character who, if he actually existed, was a criminal, a thief, and possibly something of a revolutionary? Do we love him in spite of all this, or because of it? I think a little of each, but as time goes on, it’s becoming more and more because of.
Some Robin Hoods Through The AgesClick thumbnail to view full-size
Robin Hood: Historical Figure(s)
We have no idea if there really was a guy called Robin Hood robbing people in Sherwood Forest during the reign of King Richard I. Many scholars have spent careers trying to prove or disprove Robin’s existence, or prove that their Robin Hood, and not the other fellow’s, is the real one. A strong candidate for the original historical Robin Hood is a fellow called Hereward (which doesn’t even sound like Robin Hood, for crying out loud), who fought a kind of medieval guerrilla war against William the Conqueror. But at least we can be reasonably sure that this Hereward guy actually existed, albeit about a hundred years too early.
Another possibility is a person called Robert Hode (which sounds about right), but he doesn’t show up until some time in the 14th century, that is, two hundred years too late to be the original one. And then there’s the first Robin Hood I encountered in my childhood reading: a person called Robert Fitzooth. In the book, he was represented as a Saxon yeoman unjustly persecuted by Normans, but who still loved Good King Richard. Never mind that the Fitz in Fitzooth is a dead giveaway that the name is a Norman one. It turns out that the Robert Fitzooth character was entirely made up by some guy in the 18th Century who never studied etymology.
This kind of fake scholarship makes it really hard for us to figure out if Robin is anything more than a legend. But according to several old records, a bunch of actual people claimed the name Robin Hood (or some variation thereon) for themselves when arrested for robbery. So, whether or not there was a real Robin Hood, there were many real people who called themselves Robin Hood, and that’s going to have to be good enough for me.
Here's the story of Hereward, Saxon freedom fighter and possible Robin Hood progenitor.
A History Channel exploration of the Robin Hood legend.
Robin Hood: Highway Robber
How the heck did Robin Hood become a hero? He waylaid people in the forest and took their stuff. There’s no two ways around this. He didn’t even do it honorably (assuming there’s an honorable way to do that) but rather attacked from ambush with lots of backup. (What do you think his merry men were doing? Singing and dancing?) Today, when someone takes stuff that isn’t theirs, we usually* hate them for it, even if what they were doing was legal, in the strictest sense. Witness the outrage at the various Wall Street execs who managed to pocket six- or seven-figure bonuses even after their companies failed and were bailed out by the government (with our money). That wunch of bankers didn’t steal their lavish bonuses as such, but there sure are a lot of people who don’t see a great deal of difference between their bonuses and outright theft.
This may be the key to one of the reasons we like Robin Hood in spite of all the thievery. He robbed from the rich. This is not to say that it’s okay to steal from somebody who won’t miss what you took; it’s not. But consider that the rich of Robin Hood’s day got that way by a route similar to that taken by those much-hated Wall Street execs. Like (most of) the modern bankers, the Robin-Hood-Era nobility were born into a class that gave them access to things like education and, unlike the bankers, access to things like swords, armor, and lackeys. Many of them used their superior knowledge of the law (not to mention their ability to alter the law to suit their purposes) in conjunction with their superior martial prowess (they called it “fort main” back in the day) to increase their wealth at the expense of the everyday folks.
Of course, today, we don’t get knights coming round to our village to confiscate the family cow for the baron’s feast. But we do get bankers who get the law changed so they can wreck the economy for everybody else, and instead of getting fired or prosecuted for securities fraud, the very government that’s meant to be preventing this sort of thing goes and gives them a great big reward. Meanwhile the rest of us, through little to no fault of our own, now own homes that are worth less than what we owe on them. Some of us have even lost jobs that were pretty secure before this whole financial crisis thing happened.
I bet if someone went round to those bankers’ apartments and stole a bunch of stuff—or even better, hacked into their accounts and made a bunch of money disappear into an offshore account—many of us regular folks would feel more than a little schadenfreude for the bankers. Even further, I bet that many of us wouldn’t want the FBI to try too hard to catch the culprit.
*One exception to this rule is the so-called Barefoot Bandit, a young man from the Pacific Northwest who spent a long time eluding police while allegedly stealing all kinds of expensive stuff (including an airplane or two!) from wealthy people in the region. His name is Colton Harries-Moore, and he is now in custody awaiting trial.
Mel Brooks' Men In Tights, with Spaceballs as a bonus.
Robin Hood: Ethnic Partisan
Robin was a Saxon. Pretty much all retellings agree on this, with a few notable exceptions. The most famous of these is the Kevin Costner movie, which is more about social class than about ethnicity. It only makes mention of racial tension at one moment: when the outlaws snub Robin’s companion Azeem because he’s a Moor. Then there’s the Robin of Sherwood series that the BBC produced back in the 1980s (which I’ve mentioned in another article), in which Robin Hood was two people (not at the same time!). The first one was a Saxon, Robin of Locksley. The second one, who put on the hood after Locksley’s ambiguous death, was a Norman, Robert of Huntingdon.
Oh, a bit of background: in 12th century England, the Normans were the haves; the Saxons were the have-nots. See, King William I was Duke of Normandy before he became “the Conqueror” back in 1066. William and his Norman (that is, French descendents of Scandinavian conquerors) knights invaded and took over England, which at the time was ruled by the Anglo-Saxons (descendents of German conquerors). Some generations earlier, the Angles and the Saxons (along with the Jutes and the Danes) had invaded and took a big chunk of Britain away from the Britons and other Celtic peoples, but that has more to do with the King Arthur stories than the Robin Hood ones. The point is that by 1066, the place we now know as England was full of people who spoke a West Germanic language called Old English (or Anglo-Saxon, if you prefer). The Normans, on the other hand, spoke a Romantic Language called Old French. (Well, they didn’t call them that at the time. When William started a-conquering, both languages were pretty new, linguistically speaking. Anyway.) By the end of the 12th century, the conquering was more or less over with, and the oppressing was well underway. To hear the Saxons tell it, the Normans were a bunch of jerks. They took over England at sword point and tortured, maimed, killed, and publicly displayed the severed body parts of anyone who resisted. If you were a Saxon noble, you had to go with the flow or lose your lands and possibly your life. If you were a Saxon serf, your lot was pretty much unchanged, except now the guys bossing you around didn’t speak your language, so it was harder to be obedient even if you wanted to. Some of the Saxons got pretty sick of it.
Most of the rich people in England by Robin Hood’s time were Normans, and those folks were the ones Robin robbed from. Most of the poor people were Saxons, and those were the people Robin gave to. Some of the stories say that Robin was a Saxon freeman who stood up to the Norman persecution of his fellow Saxons. Some say he was a dispossessed Saxon nobleman fighting to regain his status (and by extension, for the rights of Saxons in general). And one or two imply that he was a Norman nobleman who cared more about justice than about his own wealth and privilege.
This ethnic strife often gets downplayed—or outright ignored—in modern retellings. I’m not sure, but I imagine that the reason for this is that ethnic oppression in the US has pretty much always been flowing from White people to People of Color, and there’s really no way to make Robin’s fight for ethnic justice relevant to modern American audiences without making most White people pretty uncomfortable.
The Kevin Costner Robin Hood cuts the ethnic strife, adds a witch to advise the Sherrif, makes Will Scarlett Robin's illegitimate half-brother, and creates the character of Azeem, Robin's Moorish sidekick. On the upside, it's got an awesome overture, which has been stolen for at least one other feature film.
Robin Hood: Modern Metaphor
Let's set the Wayback Machine to 1955. Eisenhower is President. The second Red Scare was at its height. The Civil Rights Movement was just getting underway. Nuclear annihilation was on everyone’s mind. And The Adventures of Robin Hood was one of the most popular shows on television.
This series, filmed on location in England by Britain’s ITV, lasted for four seasons and 143 episodes. Much like a later series, Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, the 1955 Robin Hood took on the social issues of the day, from racial inequality to anti-Semitism to doomsday weapons (Really!) to poor treatment of soldiers returning from WWII and Korea. There were even episodes about McCarthyism, in one of which a highly placed abbot tries to bully Friar Tuck into confessing his relationship to Robin, and in another, Little John is offered a pardon in exchange for betraying the Merry Men.
This may seem surprising for a TV show that aired during an era when anti-communist paranoia was so prevalent. But considering who was making the show, the only surprising thing is that there wasn’t more Red Scare allegory in Sherwood. Hannah Weinstein, the Executive Producer, had already left the US, seeing that public sentiment was turning against her. When she started working on the Robin Hood project, she hired several writers who had been blacklisted in the US, and therefore could get no other work in their field. They wrote under pseudonyms so as not to draw the attention of the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
One has to think that the Real Robin Hood (if ever there was such a person) would approve of a bunch of blacklisted outlaws gaining fame and fortune under the noses of those who had unjustly persecuted them. As funny as that might be, though, the most delicious irony is this: at the time when almost everyone in America hated communism more than almost anything else, America's favorite TV show was about a guy who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor.
This is the TV series from 1955.
The Russel Crowe Robin Hood has Robin fighting for the rights of the downtrodden. The Magna Carta makes an appearance, as do some repurposed WWII-era landing craft left over from another feature. The director had more money than sense, it seems, and both believability and continuity suffer, but it sure looks pretty.