The Betrayal of an English Hero

On the Disappearance and Modern Misunderstanding of Robin Hood

How long has it been since you’ve thought about Robin Hood? He’s not around as much as he used to be; an odd absence for him and the venerable set of characters and stories that orbit him. Robin and his Merry Men seem underrepresented in modern media. The few big Robin Hood films made recently have flopped. And where is he on television, in video games, in the cultural consciousness? The great outlaw has vanished into the depths of Sherwood, while Nottingham’s forces are at their strongest.

I know there are some small-scale adaptations, like 2019’s Sherwood (YouTube Premium) and 2021’s Hood: Outlaws and Legends (Multi-Platform Game), but chances are you just heard about them for the first time.

Robin Hood’s absence is odd because his presence has been taken for granted since the Middle Ages. Later, he was the subject of tremendously popular books like Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819) and Pyle’s Merry Adventures of Robin Hood (1883). He made the jump to film with characteristic élan in Robin Hood (1922), starring Douglass Fairbanks and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) starring Errol Flynn. The former is a classic silent era film; the latter is often included among the greatest films ever made. Robin was regularly in film and books until the 1990s. Then the films dried up and the books were only written for children.

The disappearance of Robin Hood can be stated simply. In the last few decades, writers keep making one or two mistakes when writing Robin Hood. First, they take a grim, gritty, realistic approach to the tone of the story and characters. Second, they interpret Robin’s outlaw status to make him transgressive in a way that is opposed to the medieval social order itself. These approaches are not compatible with Robin Hood as he exists in his archetypal form. They violate the valid expectations people have for a Robin Hood story.

In fact, they directly contradict two fundamental elements of Robin Hood. First, Robin Hood is a lighthearted hero whose personal reward for his actions is having fun. Second, Robin Hood is a defender of the traditional medieval social order against a transgressive nobility. The first point should be obvious. Robin Hood leads the Merry Men. As Pyle’s classic introduction says:

“Not only Robin himself but all the band were outlaws and dwelled apart from other men, yet they were beloved by the country people round about, for no one ever came to jolly Robin for help in time of need and went away again with an empty fist.”

The second point needs a bit more explanation. It’s not the social order itself that Robin Hood opposes, but the burden of men who abuse their high station. Thus, Robin’s allegiances with Friar Tuck, the good man of the Church, and with whichever good king the story uses (often Richard Lionheart). In the symbolic, associative world of writing, Robin’s ties to Church and Crown simply do not bear interpretation as a revolution against the social order itself. It is the abuse or absence of the social order he fights, not its use or presence.

It’s important to note that in these tales, it’s the common people who support the medieval social order and the nobility and their lackeys who distort it. G.K. Chesterton spoke about this peculiar pattern in What Is Wrong With The World (1910):

“The real power of the English aristocrats has lain in exactly the opposite of tradition. The simple key to the power of our upper classes is this: that they have always kept carefully on the side of what is called Progress. They have always been up to date, and this comes quite easy to an aristocracy. For the aristocracy are the supreme instances of that frame of mind of which we spoke just now. Novelty is to them a luxury verging on a necessity. They, above all, are so bored with the past and with the present, that they gape, with a horrible hunger, for the future.”

These seemingly-trivial new approaches to Robin Hood are critical writing errors. They contradict some of the most foundational elements of a Robin Hood story. When you make your Robin Hood story dour and grim, you obviate the role he has in combating the sorrow that comes from the failure of the nobility to meet its obligations to the people. That’s why Robin always engaged in fun, in contests, in jokes at the expense of the overly earnest. The humour is essential to depict and understand the setting and social dynamics of the story.

When you oppose Robin Hood to the social order itself, you turn him into a mere revolutionary, instead of a defender. Which makes little sense, given his association with the twin bastions of the old order, the Church and the Crown. There is nothing revolutionary about Robin Hood — he is among the most reactionary characters going. But because Chesterton’s point about nobility and novelty is little understood, ideologues perform sleight of hand to reinterpret him as a Marxist class hero. You are left with a story that not only doesn’t make internal sense, but also doesn’t meet expectations for a story about Robin Hood. Nothing about it sings, so the movie flops and nobody reads the book.

You’ll recognize these as broader trends. Robin Hood is just an early casualty, being particularly and directly degraded by these approaches. Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood (2010) received tepid reviews and anemic ticket sales. Robin Hood (2018) lost money just on its production budget alone. That movie was so bad that major critics said “Arriving just in time to win a place among the year’s worst films, Robin Hood robs you of two hours,” and “Jamie Foxx must have lost a bet.” And those films are, respectively, excellent examples of the two approaches I identify.

It’s true that the very earliest Robin Hood stories don’t show the character in exactly the light I’m describing; they tend toward an untranslatable medieval fantasy that casts Robin as more of a brutal outlaw. However, what I’m talking about here is the character archetype as refined over time and as exists in the imaginative space. Those roots are present even in the earliest Robin stories, they just take some squinting to see through the medieval imagery. The jump between the Robin of Robin Hood and the Monk (1450) and the Robin of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819) is one of focus, while the jump between the Robin of Ivanhoe and Robin Hood (2018) is one of category.

That category jump isn’t an accident. It’s not just a mistake in writing. Nothing I’m arguing here is especially secret or hard to notice. Even a mediocre writer would recognize the basic dynamics of a Robin Hood story very quickly. It’s an ideological move. It’s the attempt to rewrite Robin Hood to support a particular ideological position by discrediting the ideals of the past that resulted in a good and stable society, and to justify its own ideal of revolution against a patriarchal hierarchy.

This kind of ideological colonization works. A story or concept, once introduced to a cycle, becomes difficult to excise and colors future perception of the story, even when not done for ideological reasons. Consider, for example, the sore thumb element of Guinevere’s infidelity with Lancelot in the Arthurian cycle. That story comes from a story called Lancelot, Knight of the Cart, by Chretien de Troyes (1177). It was commissioned by a noblewoman named Marie de Champagne. She specifically requested the adultery element. In fact, it was really written by de Troyes’ clerk after de Troyes declined due to the adulterous subject matter. But that plot point is still included frequently in Arthurian stories, nearly a thousand years later.

Of course, a cycle of a story can grow and shift over time. I’m not demanding that Robin Hood remains true to its earliest roots. I’m demanding it remain true to itself, to its essential nature. Consider how our courts develop law. Judges are empowered to interpret the laws they apply in light of each new situation, setting precedent as they go. But the wise judge hesitates to reverse a precedent already set. And no judge may apply a statute so as to negate itself. The body of law grows and shifts by ramifying and refining, not contradicting.

You can see how this allows the character to shift and develop. For example, Robin Hood could be written as a man who struggles internally with the same woes that beset the common folk, but who consciously forces himself into the image of merriment to provide the avatar they need. Or a Robin Hood whose impetuosity and love of fun occasionally leads him to make poor decisions, even decisions that prejudice the good of the common folk. Neither of these approaches negates Robin’s essential lighthearted characteristic but both present a layered and conflicted character.

Distinguishing why I’d allow some changes and not others according to neutral principles isn’t that important. These changes are wrong because they are propaganda efforts in the wrong direction. Thankfully, the disappearance of Robin Hood in response to these changes is better than a fully-recontextualized Robin Hood, because it shows that its true and good essence still forms people’s expectations for a Robin Hood story.

I’d like to see a real Robin Hood story again. One with Robin as the lighthearted leader of a band of merry outlaws, and with Little John as his solid and overprotective heart friend. A story that shows the loyalty of his band and their commitment to the joy of a fair and humble life, in opposition to elites who do not live up to their high station. A story that shows true love, expressed in chivalry through brave deeds and gentle words. A story of courage, daring, honour, compassion, and joy, with the wind in bright banners. A story to show us how to keep our spirits high while we work for the return of the good king.

Alexander Palacio is a writer of adventurous science fiction and fantasy.

Cover photo: Basil Rathbone and Errol Flynn in “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938)

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