In the year of Our Lord 1191 when Richard, the Lion-Heart, set forth to drive the infidels from the Holy Land, he gave the Regency of his Kingdom to his trusted friend, Longchamps, instead of to his treacherous brother, Prince John. Bitterly resentful, John hoped for some disaster to befall Richard so that he, with the help of the Norman barons, might seize the throne for himself. And then on a luckless day for the Saxons…
From the opening titles of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
Merry Men: [singing] We’re men / We’re men in tights / We roam around the forest looking for fights / We’re men / We’re men in tights / We rob from the rich and give to the poor / That’s right! / We may look like sissies / But watch what you say / Or else we’ll put out your lights / We’re men / We’re men in tights / Always on guard / Defending the people’s rights / We’re men / Manly men! / We’re men in tights / Yes! / We roam around the forest looking for fights / We’re men / We’re men in tights / We rob from the rich and give to the poor / That’s right! / We may look like pansies / But don’t get us wrong / Or else we’ll put out your lights / We’re men / We’re men in tights / *Tight tights* / Always on guard / Defending the people’s rights / When you’re in a fix / Just call for the men in tights / We’re butch! From Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993)
Whatever people think Robin Hood is, Robin Hood is. Thomas Hahn
May has seen the release of the latest version of the Robin Hood legend starring Russell Crowe. I haven’t had the chance to see it yet but I have to admit that I have my doubts. My first reservation comes from what director Ridley Scott has said about the film and in particular his claims about its historical authenticity. Why can’t he just say that it’s an action movie? In a previous post about historical fiction I referred to a complaint by a historian about how a director would claim that everything on the set was an exact reproduction of the particular period but the characters would then open their mouths and say things that no one of that period would have come out with. There is a tendency to project our worldview onto these characters. In this film Robin is used as a critic of the atrocities of the crusades. I doubt that such moral qualms about violence against Muslims were felt in those days. And we learn that Robin Hood wasn’t just this outlaw who stole from the rich to give to the poor; he was also one of the key players in drafting the foundational document for civil liberties in the English-speaking world, the Magna Carta. In fact, the document that King John was forced to accept was prepared by the barons. But I have another complaint; I fear that all the romance, magic and joy are disappearing from movies. My benchmark is the 1938 classic with Errol Flynn prancing around in those tights. What a glorious celebration of the golden age of Hollywood that film was.
What can we say about the real Robin Hood? Dressed in his traditional Lincoln green, Robin’s habitat was Sherwood Forrest, the wild wood, a place where a totally different code of honour operates. It is simply not possible to locate the historical Robin Hood with any certainty. There are many potential candidates for the inspiration behind Robin Hood. One of them lived in the thirteenth century, a man called Robert Hod, whose lands were confiscated when he failed to show up for a court appearance, thus making him an outlaw. It was a perilous existence; if they were caught they would be hanged without trial. The first descriptions of Robin Hood portray him more as a kind of loveable rogue. It was only later that the idea of a man fighting tyranny became popular.
What draws me and many other people to Robin Hood is his Protean nature. As the Thomas Hahn quote above says he can be anything you want him to be. Thus Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm sees Robin Hood within the tradition of the social bandit, aided by the downtrodden peasants. These bandits were admired, protected and helped by the ordinary people because of the way they flouted authority and defended the interests of the folk masses against their elite oppressors. However he can also be claimed by those on the opposite side of the political spectrum. Thus Tea party supporters emphasise the anti-tax strand. I found a piece from the free-market Austrian economists at the Ludwig von Mises Institute:
As so much in legends, the historical truth isn’t what matters. Instead it is the legendary deeds of Robin Hood that excite us. The man who challenged the state, who dared to take what the rotten government claimed to own, the man who not only did these deeds himself, but also recruited others to help him and in doing so, gained the trust and affection of his people. It’s a legend that will never lose its appeal.
But there are many other unanswered questions about this legendary figure. Was he gay? An academic Stephen Knight from the University of Wales outed Robin Hood in a paper with the suggestive title “The Forest Queen”. Knight based his case on certain 14th-century ballads, the earliest known accounts of the hero’s deeds. He cites the homoerotic imagery of arrows, quivers, and swords. For Knight Maid Marian never existed and was only added to cover up the activities of Robin and his Merry men. It has caused heated debate. I think that to argue about the sexual orientation of a character from folklore is the modern equivalent to the medieval debate about how many angels could sit on the head of a pin?
And Robin Hood is still present today and not only at the cinema. He has the honour of having the airport at Doncaster named after him. In 2007, the University of Nottingham offered an MA course on the subject of Robin Hood. And in an ironic twist he even has a tax named after him .I am referring to the new tax on banks being proposed which is popularly known as The Robin Hood tax. Robin Hood and King Arthur are undoubtedly England’s most enduring legendary figures. In fact, they go beyond England’s borders – they belong to the world.