Why we need Robin Hood…
So how did it happen?
How did a medieval character who may or may not have existed, come to live so much in our consciousness that we can say his name – Robin Hood – to almost anyone else in the world and they’ll almost certainly know who you mean?
When you think about it it’s incredible.
Robin Hood has this power because he is one of the two essential British myths, the other being King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. There are lots of other characters who’ve made their way out of legend and into the real world, but Robin and Arthur have the edge. And as far as I’m concerned, Robin Hood has the edge. Arthur is grand, but to me he’s a bit too much “Establishment”, a real authority figure. He is, after all, a king. A good one the tales suggest but still a king.
But as for Robin, well, he appeals to the naughtier side of our souls. He’s an outlaw, and a rebel. A fighter against the very Establishment and sense of authority that the likes of King Arthur uphold. He robs from the rich and gives to the poor. Note that! He redistributes wealth, and for me that makes his activities rather political. Not for nothing do we now have a Robin Hood Tax Campaign, which aims to do much the same, albeit without the aid of a quiver full of arrows.
Now, on an interesting historical note, the original medieval ballads make very little mention of this redistribution of property. Robin Hood is an outlaw, a wolfshead, beyond the protection of the law as well as its hunted fugitive. He can also be more than a little cruel, unpleasant and bloodthirsty.
But no matter! Devotees have loved it and lapped it up from the days of the oral ballads; added and amended to by subsequent readers, writers and printers over generations. Putting in their own political viewpoints. Making Robin the sword-carrier of rebellious England.
Robin Hood, in truth, was from the very start the creation of mass media. From the medieval peasant relating the tales by the fireside to the minstrels (who could be quite a subversive bunch – not for nothing is the outlaw Alan a-Dale a singer of ballads) to the first printers of old tales. A political agenda is being pushed forward here. Let’s remember that the vast majority of the English were politically powerless until very recent times. The few determined the fates of the many. We see this in the mention of Robin in Langland’s “Piers Plowman”.
The Peasant’s Revolt during the reign of Richard II might be slightly misnamed, because quite wide sections of society took part. But of one thing we can be sure, they would have all heard of Robin Hood. Or more likely Robin Hoods plural.
The historical records by that time suggest there were rather a lot of them: Robinhoods, Robert Hoods, Robb hoods and so on. The figure plucked from myth had now found a kind of reality. Documents show robbers and outlaws appearing all over the country either with the actual name or some variation of it. Such was the power of the Robin Hood brand that people were adopting the name, either as a title or a badge of honour, in all parts of the land.
This explains why you can locate Robin Hood in so many parts of England. Because the name had become descriptive. Go out on the rob (and note how close that word is to Robin), be made wolfshead, take up the cause of the poor and desperate against the rich and powerful, and you too could find yourself appearing in the historical rolls as Robin Hood.
The English have a long tradition of rebellion and dissent, whether it be active revolt or more covert mumblings against the powers that be. And every rebel needs a role model. If you look at the history of these matters, right up to the Victorian Chartists you will find the spirit of Robin Hood being invoked. Interesting, that so many tales of Robin Hood were published even during the staider decades of Victoria’s reign. Spreading the word, inciting the spirit. The tale thus being spread around the world.
England’s Robin is now as big in the United States, Australia and almost everywhere else as he is here. And the films of Hollywood, with Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn fanned the flames. And interesting that the first television series to really succeed “The Adventures of Robin Hood” with Richard Greene was mostly written by leftist American writers who had escaped the clutches of Senator Joseph McCarthy.
There are the two basic traditions of Robin Hood; one that he is Robin of Loxley, a man of the people, and the other that he is the Earl of Huntingdon, or his son, who decided to up sticks and head for the forest as the people’s liberator. When I was writing my novel “Loxley” I determined that Robin Hood should be a man of the people. English rebels are, in my book, quite capable of being led by one of their own. They don’t need the help of a member of the aristocracy.
The Huntingdon line in all this was originally, I think, either a pun on the word “hunting”, or a deliberate attempt by some later writer to bring a more rebellious version of the myth under some kind of authoritarian control. A Robin Hood who is an earl is almost a contradiction in terms.
And there is that other line of tradition of Robin Hood – the green man in the forest. Forests were pretty big places in medieval England, not just the refuges of wolfsheads but lands of legend and adventure. Possible locations for that little bit of English paganism that has never quite gone away. The figure of the green man, like Robin himself, can be discovered in so many parts of England. Just look up at the roof bosses of our churches and cathedrals.
I thought it interesting that Richard Carpenter brought back these elements to the legend when he created his 1980s television series “Robin of Sherwood”. Richard Carpenter’s very clever melding of the historical and the mythic produced a Robin Hood retelling that struck a chord in many a soul. If we could bring a medieval peasant forward in time to see “Robin of Sherwood” I haven’t the slightest doubt that he would understand exactly what Carpenter meant to do.
I have been rather obsessive about Robin Hood since I can first remember. I grew up with the Richard Greene version on television, read the tales, played the games in my own greenwood, learned to fire a bow and fight with swords. Some part of all this led to a life that has been spent very much in the outdoors. I even lived rough in a forest for a year. And all the time I was determined to add my own contribution to the Robin Hood canon.
So this year I wrote my novel “Loxley” the first in what will be a tetralogy of books retelling my own version of what I’m calling “The Chronicles of Robin Hood.” And, yes, I’ve used the medieval ballads as an inspiration, but not been a slave to them. I’ve played around with some of the old yarns and characters, in the same way that writers have all the way from the old minstrels to Richard Carpenter. It’s what you do.
So do we need Robin Hood at all?
You bet we do! For as long as we believe in this potent myth, we will refuse to just accept a dominant ideology that suggests that the few should prosper at the expense of the many. We will always uphold the Robin Hood tradition that the poor and desperate are not there to be trampled upon, but rather championed. That the world should be a fairer and more compassionate place.
That is the spirit of Robin Hood brought to life, from the moment some passing minstrel first composed a ballad about him. It is the great cause that every writer of Robin Hood tales tries to perpetuate for the well-being of every successive generation.
Robin Hood will continue to live for generations to come because of the overwhelming desire of people to be free.
The legend lives on. For nothing is ever forgotten.
Loxley – The Chronicles of Robin Hood by John Bainbridge is now available in paperback and on Kindle, Kobo and Nook eBooks. Just click on the link below for more information, or you can read the first chapter for free by clicking on the page link above.