Tradition labels Robin Hood not only as an outlaw but a rebel as well. In most of the tales, whether they be novels, films or television, Robin takes to the greenwood to fight for the poor and oppressed. And comes into immediate conflict with figures of authority, such as the Sheriff of Nottingham, Sir Guy of Gisborne, Prince (actually Count) John of Mortain, various corrupt abbots and nobles etc.
We can all picture the scenes where Robin takes from the rich and gives to the poor and….
Wait a moment, let’s wind back to the original ballads.
In most of them Robin is certainly a hedge thief of extraordinary talent, supported by just a few of the crew we now think of as the Merry Men. He certainly combats people in power, but the ballads are less clear about what he does with the loot.
But he’s an exciting lad and you can quite understand why Robin has always been so popular with the poor and oppressed. The other essential British myth – King Arthur – gives us a noble figure too. A king who, with his knights of the round table, fights injustice in much the same way. But do you notice that the underclass scarcely gets a look in?
That’s why Robin Hood has survived as an anti-authority character. The poor and oppressed can identify with the idea of someone so anti-establishment triumphing over the medieval status quo.
And people who favour social justice still do today. Note the Robin Hood Tax Campaign that in its own way wants to take from the rich and give to the poor.
If the Robin of the ballads wasn’t quite that noble, it doesn’t matter. The British people – and I suspect a lot of folk in countries undiscovered in Robin’s time – love someone who cocks a snook at authority.
Robin Hood, if you accept the myth that has grown up, rather than the original ballads, is probably the most dangerous character in literature and popular culture.
The ballads undoubtedly began as oral accounts in a largely illiterate age. What was eventually written down is probably just one version of many, hence the various kings and locations mentioned within.
But what is clear is that the ballads were regarded as both popular and subversive from the very beginning. The written down surviving versions are only part of the story. The myth of Robin Hood, what most people know, expands and alters to cater to popular tastes.
Think of Robin Hood and we generally have two versions: a lower-born Robin of Loxley, and a Robin Hood (usually the Earl of Huntingdon or his son) who comes from the aristocracy but develops a social conscience. The television series “Robin of Sherwood” actually gave us both versions.
Now in the early ballads there is no hint of Robin of Huntingdon. He is a much later invention. And I wonder why?
Robin of Huntingdon, the noble who rides to the aid of the poor?
Could it be that his creator loved the stories but rather frowned on the idea of such a rebellious figure coming from the lower orders? Or maybe thought that the said lower orders weren’t capable of running a rebellious campaign? Or thought the tales might encourage people to rise up against their masters and start a bit of wealth redistribution?
Well, perhaps, though we will never know.
What I always find interesting in many of the later versions is that Robin Hood often sells out.
We all know the scene: having seen off numerous villains Robin Hood meets Richard the Lionheart and gets a pardon and the girl. In the Erroll Flynn film version he also gets a knighthood, a peerage and is given control over the peasants of Sherwood.
No one explains just how all of this helps the poor and oppressed of the forest…
In the TV “Robin of Sherwood”, the writer Richard Carpenter was cannier. His Robin of Loxley is dazzled by Lionheart and almost submits to his control, but eventually sees that the king can’t be trusted and that he won’t deliver the social justice that has been so bitterly fought for.
Medieval peasants would have cheered at Robin’s enlightenment. They may have had to obey and, in reality, had little chance of rising up in rebellion, but they were undoubtedly subversive in the few ways available – such as listening to oral ballads about Robin Hood. It was one of the few ways they could strike back.
When writing my own Robin Hood novels, I had to make a conscious choice about the background of my Robin. A man of the people or an aristocrat with a social conscience.
I decided on a fighter who has come from a poorer background. If he’s not quite a villein he’s not from the nobility either. My Robin might thieve but he’s essentially a rebel, seeking long-term solutions to social injustice. Robin finds that he has to make uneasy alliances in order to further his cause.
In the books I’ve been trying to get back to the spirit of the original ballads but, like all Robin Hood authors since, rejigging the tales to my own tastes without sacrificing the tradition.
The worst of it all is we now know – if Robin Hood ever existed as a rebellious historical figure – that he failed. We still live with poverty and injustice.
Time for Robin Hood to come back out of the greenwood…