Our man in tights

In "Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography," author Stephen Knight explains why the 700-year-old prince of thieves is still our hero.

By Allen Barra

Published July 23, 2003 8:00AM (EDT)

Robin Hood and King Arthur, the two great parallel myths of British folklore, got their literary start about the same time. Arthur's legend attracted the high-art crowd, while Robin's story first came together in the form of 12th and 13th century ballads and folk plays. Whether the two men existed or not, their images are still very much with us. But of the two, Arthur, the founder of the state, looks to the past and is forever fixed in time, while Robin Hood, the outlaw and eternal "trickster," is still evolving, having long ago transcended his national and historical origins. In the words of Stephen Knight, author of "Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography," Robin has always been "what the teller and the audiences needed him to be at the time of the telling."

The folks who wrote and listened to the early ballads of Bold Robin apparently wanted a yeoman (the precise meaning of the term has been much debated, but all are in agreement that it does not mean an earl or knight or any form of aristocrat), a Saxon outlaw with no particular grudge toward the ruling Normans (that would come later) who robbed the rich, kept the money, and all the while respected his king. William Langland, author of the gloomy 14th century moral tract "Piers Plowman," didn't approve of him or of people who wasted time reading tales about him: "I kan [know] noght parfitly my Paternoster ... But I kan rymes of Robyn hood ..." says a slothful priest in Langland's satire who can't memorize the Lord's Prayer but who can quote verbatim from medieval England's equivalent of X-Men comics.

According to Knight, a professor of English at Cardiff University, by 1600 there were at least 200 known references to Robin Hood, almost all stressing Robin's boldness and resistance to authority but as yet lacking a Maid Marian or a Friar Tuck (though Little John is around, not always as a sidekick but sometimes as an equal). Once the basics of the story were established, Robin began to acquire new companions, got himself involved in contemporary controversies, and became a wonderfully serviceable symbol for whatever social or intellectual currents happened to be sweeping through England in a given century. (Given the right circumstances, Robin could be a perfectly suitable hero for either the left -- in one story or ballad he is redistributing wealth by robbing the rich and giving to the poor -- or for the right, rebelling against corrupt central authority and high taxes.)

Knight's book isn't an academic study of the origins of the Robin Hood legends such as the excellent "Robin Hood" by J.C. Holt, whose scholarship Knight is generally content to rely on. Knight more or less accepts the notion that there were several real historical personages whose misdeeds coalesced into the folk hero (or antihero, if you will) who would come to be known as Robin Hood. As Knight phrases it, "When the myth goes through periods of dynamic activity, it may indeed operate as a safety valve, as the reflex of genuine political resistance to oppression."

It's safe to say, however, that Knight's interest is less in the historical origins of Robin Hood per se than in the mythic one that built to a point in the 18th century where "a myth had become biography." Prior to then, few "serious" authors dealt with Robin, an exception being Ben Jonson (who unfortunately never completed his Robin Hood play, "The Sad Shepherd"). By the end of the Restoration, "Robin is beginning to mean something new: he is becoming consciously a figure of the past, whose value is in part that of a distant and possibly better period. The bold yeoman operated in an unspecified here and now; Earl Robert, while clearly set in the past, was, like Shakespeare's historical figures, primarily a medium for contemporary concerns."

And by the end of the 18th century, says Knight, "Robin Hood became a new man, and one who is still with us." Unlike other medieval heroes "who did not struggle free of the setting amber of antiquity, Robin, as ever, escaped to illuminate another day, another part of the sociocultural forest, with his multiple contradictory and essentially volatile set of values."

Thomas Love Peacock and the "massively influential" Sir Walter Scott (first in "Rob Roy," in which he recast a real-life Scottish-rebel outlaw in the mold of Robin Hood, and then later, in "Ivanhoe") helped propel Robin Hood all the way to Hollywood, where he lives to this day, both as serious and comic hero -- though viewers who sat through both Kevin Costner's "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" and Mel Brooks' "Robin Hood: Men in Tights" might be hard put to decide which is the comic version. My own personal favorite is John Cleese's stuffed-shirt Robin in "Time Bandits": "Hello, I'm Hood."

(How, by the way, did Robin Hood become associated with tights? They were "originally deployed so that nineteenth-century actresses playing Robin could show their legs.")

Knight has added one important new link to the chain of fact and fiction that has come together under the name of Robin Hood, namely the uncanny resemblance between early Robin Hood stories and the true-life story of William Wallace. Mel Gibson's "Braveheart" has reinforced the idea of Wallace as a modern-day Spartacus, but in fact, as English scholar Maurice Keen noted in his groundbreaking 1961 study "The Outlaws of Medieval Legend," Wallace spent more time as a bow-and-arrow toting forest outlaw, hunting deer and robbing arrogant Englishmen, than he did leading armies in formal combat. Knight points out that the stories about how Wallace first became an outlaw are strikingly similar to the same stories told about Robin Hood a short time later.

Both, he concludes, "Are provoked to outlawry by legal violence, both command substantial numbers of well-disciplined men ... In the transition from small-time yeoman defender of local rights to major threat to national law and order, Robin appears to be in part remodeled in the form of Wallace."

Curiously, Knight fails to make one other obvious connection between the two. Knight credits Sir Walter Scott (in "Ivanhoe") with giving us Robin Hood (or Robin of Locksley, as he is identified) as "social bandit" and ancestor of the self-conscious rebels of 19th century literature. Is it not only possible but likely that Scott modeled his Robin on one of his country's two national heroes, William Wallace, and his noble Richard the Lionheart on Scotland's other founding father, Robert the Bruce?

John Keats, Leigh Hunt, Peacock and Scott all "reconstructed both the mythic biography of Robin Hood and the outlaw tradition itself ... The noble bandit now came to symbolize values central to the nineteenth and even twentieth centuries -- especially ideals of national identity, masculine vigor, and natural value." Knight writes, "To study Robin Hood is to study over 500 years of the development of modern concepts of heroism, art, politics, and the self ... Robin Hood is always there."

I can hardly wait for the next century and the updated version of "Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography." Too bad it won't arrive in time to inspire a remake of "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" starring Colin Farrell.

Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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