Robin Hood a rebel?
Well, you’d think so, wouldn’t you?
Living wild in the forest, taking from the rich for the benefit of the poor. Constantly battling the Sheriff of Nottingham, Gisborne and those other pillars of the Establishment?
Well, it may have all started out like that, but look again at so many of the films, books and television series of recent years. See the way that our Robin and his greenwood gang have been absorbed into the very “Establishment” they’re supposed to be fighting against…
Now, if this all sounds a bit political it sure is! No folk hero in the English tradition is quite so political as Robin Hood. King Arthur? A good guy but very definitely Establishment. Whereas Robin is famous for being an outsider.
He’s an outlaw, after all, in the full sense of that medieval word. Out-Law! Outside the law, a wolfshead. Outside the law’s protection. There for anyone to have a go at – and not just the supposed forces of law and order. Literally anyone…
Wolfsheads run contrary to the established order and the law of the land. That’s what they do. They are so opposed to the dominant ideology that they can no longer be within it. And like all rebellious outsiders the Establishment tries to deal with them in one of two ways.
They either exterminate them, like the hunted wolves they’re named after, or – and this is a very British tactic – absorb them back into the status quo.
And I’m afraid to say, in most interpretations of recent centuries, Robin and his chaps have – at the end of the day – packed their bags and left the greenwood and all of those ideals of freedom behind. Usually after the Sheriff or Gisborne or some other villain has been despatched.
You see it in endless films, don’t you?
Robin has no sooner plunged his sword into Gisborne’s chest when good old Richard the Lionheart rides on to the scene, back from captivity in Austria – and note that the Robin of these films has usually acted as an unofficial tax-collector to raise the ransom – to put everything right.
Robin gets the girl, Lionheart pardons Robin and the Merries, usually makes Robin a knight, sometimes an earl, and the outlawing days are well and truly over.
The wolf has been brought back into the pen!
And the poor and underprivileged of Sherwood? They rarely get a mention at this point. Surplus to requirements as long as Robin et al are back in the bosom of Society.
There are exceptions. I loved the “Robin of Sherwood” TV version where, at the end of Series One, Robin is pardoned by King Richard and becomes his pet, to the dismay of the rebellious Scarlet. Only during the course of time does the hooded man come to realise how he’s being used. Thankfully for fans, Robin returns to Sherwood for Series Two, battling all the old enemies and King John to boot.
Damned good stuff!
So how did Robin the Rebel come to be Robin the Tamed in all of these fictitious accounts?
More recently than you might think.
Look at the earliest ballads of Robin Hood. Robin in most of them is definitely portrayed as a folk hero, in much the way Dick Turpin was centuries later. He’s a criminal. And there’s not very much about helping the poor in any of them. He’s a bit of a rogue. But still definitely a wolfshead and an outsider.
This is the Robin that resonated across the medieval years, the outlaw who was admired by the earliest and largely illiterate first audiences. No mention of selling out there.
No that came later. The link between Robin and Richard the Lionheart appears most noticeably in the Forrester Manuscript dating from around 1670, which was probably the source of a ballad on the same subject that became popular a century later.
It’s the source of the sell-out that’s been so popular ever since. The Forrester manuscript (which emerged only in the 1990s) was undoubtedly the source of the Robin Hood/Richard the Lionheart link.
The Robin of the earliest ballads is very much portrayed as a yeoman, a freeman admittedly and not a serf.
Not noble enough for the growing and very pro-Establishment writers on the subject. The idea that the growing literate population should encounter such a rebel from the lower orders just had to be eclipsed.
So they made our Robin an Earl no less, usually the Earl of Huntingdon or his son.
Far better that the Establishment is taken on by one of their own. A temporary renegade who just sorts out some particularly nasty baddies before he returns to the safety of his own castle fireside.
How safe! How contained! A very temporary wolfshead.
It’s interesting to note that there is no mention of this elevation to the peerage in any of the early ballads. And not a reference to it before an Elizabethan playwright called Anthony Munday featured it in a play of 1598!
There’s a certain snobbishness creeping in here as well. The idea that a leader of men has to come from the Establishment. The very thought that a rebel with organisational skills should rise from the peasantry was clearly anathema to some of these later writers. They’ve clearly never met the British Army NCO’s (working-class lads to a man!) that I have.
I thought long and hard about this when planning my own Robin Hood Chronicles (Book One – “Loxley” is already out and three more are to come).
It took me all but a minute to dismiss the idea that my Robin would be a scion of the aristocracy. I wanted a real wolfshead, a rebel – and it was not easy to organise any sort of rebellion under the close control of those medieval overlords of the twelfth century.
My Robin has already failed to bring rebellion to his home in Loxley Chase. And so he’s travelled to Sherwood Forest to have another go. He’s not a serf of villein, admittedly. But a yeoman or freeman like the Robin of the earliest ballads.
His blood is red and definitely not blue.
I wanted to capture the very unorthodoxy of the earliest accounts. To present a hero – or rather anti-hero – who was very much a man of the people. Tough, violent, sometimes unscrupulous, willing to turn the tactics of the overlords against themselves.
A sort-of “Come to the greenwood and try and take me if you think you’re hard enough!”
In the next three books I look forward to dismissing the dumbing down of Robin Hood quite a bit more.
The Rebel Lives!
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