Monday, May 25, 2015

Robin Hood

I hate to have to be the one to break it to you.  Robin Hood wasn't real.  As in the case of King Arthur, there may well have been a real person (named Robert) to whom later stories were attached, but he didn't do the things attributed to him in tales of Robin Hood.

That doesn't mean they aren't good stories!  The stories are set in fictionalized version of the last decade of the twelfth century, when Richard the Lionheart was king of England.  But he was mostly off on Crusade or rampaging around France, so his younger brother John and his mother essentially ran the country.  Because John, who succeeded Richard as king, was considered both then and now as a very bad king (the barons forced him to sign Magna Carta, and you will notice there's never been a King John II), he made a good adversary.

In the stories, the outlaw Robin Hood (usually described as an unjustly outlawed lord) lives in Sherwood Forest with his merry men and one woman, Maid Marian (okay, this seems a bit odd, but we won't worry about it now).  One of the merry men is Friar Tuck, apparently a Dominican friar who has either run away from or been expelled from his religious order.  (The fact that the Dominicans were not founded until 1215, well after the stories are supposed to take place, doesn't detract from the stories.)

There isn't much left of Sherwood Forest these days but a few trees, but that hasn't kept the locals from making it into a tourist attraction.  Robin Hood and his band, who were especially skilled in archery, constantly outwitted John's henchman, the wicked sheriff of Nottingham.



This statue of Robin Hood is now in Nottingham.

The first appearance of references to Robin Hood took place a good two centuries after the time of Richard the Lionheart, and the earliest ballads telling stories of him are from the end of the Middle Ages, so clearly the people writing the stories had other kings and other issues in mind than Richard and John.  It was certainly safer to criticize the government by composing ballads about bad rulers of long ago than to criticize the current ones openly.

When you think about it, it's interesting that the outlaws get to be the heroes.  They are said to "take from the rich and give to the poor," proving they are not greedy bandits, but the stories are definitely subversive--unlike the King Arthur stories, about a properly constituted and beloved ruler.

Americans love outlaws.  Our country began in rebellion against the English crown, so Robin Hood is a natural hero.  Star Wars, with the brave rebels and the evil Empire, is in the same mold.  Movies, TV shows, and even commercials show daring outlaws eluding the forces of law and order.  (And then we wonder why young men flee from the police and get shot at, rather than meekly surrendering.)

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