Start looking for Robin Hood and you find him everywhere. There are Robin Hood novels and Robin Hood films, Robin Hood comics and Robin Hood computer games. He can be found in TV series, operas, musicals, pantomimes, graphic novels, cartoons and comedy shows. There is hardly any artistic medium in which he hasn’t been represented.
He is at the heart of a tourist industry in Nottinghamshire, the county which claims him as its own, and he even has an airport named after him. Because of this great fame, we assume we know who Robin Hood was. Ask the man and woman in the street about him and a composite picture of the outlaw will soon start to emerge.
But go back to the medieval ballads in which Robin Hood first appeared and you find that very little of the popular concept of the greenwood hero is true. In the ballads, the earliest of which date back to the middle of the fifteenth century, he isn’t a gentleman fallen on hard times. He hasn’t been forced into outlawry by his loyalty to Richard the Lionheart. He has never fought with the king in the Crusades. He doesn’t even live in the time of Richard the Lionheart.
The king in the ballads, if he is mentioned at all, is called Edward. Robin is happy enough to rob the rich but he doesn’t appear to have any particular desire to hand over his spoils to the poor. He’s actually a violent and aggressive man who has no qualms about, say, mutilating a dead man’s face with his knife. The goodies in the stories aren’t stalwart Saxons and the baddies nasty Normans. There is no hint of any ethnic confrontation between Saxon and Norman whatsoever. Robin doesn’t have a Sherwood romance with a lovely lady named Marian. In fact, he rarely has any lovely lady friend at all. Maid Marian is conspicuous by her absence from the earliest ballads. So too is Friar Tuck.
The Robin Hood stories that are familiar to us today haven’t always been with us. They have developed over centuries. My book, Robin Hood: Myth, History and Culture, charts that development as it unfolded in print and on screen. Robin was first turned from yeoman into nobleman in two plays by Anthony Munday, a contemporary of Shakespeare. In the Romantic era he was reinvented by Sir Walter Scott as a Saxon champion in the struggle against the Normans. During the nineteenth century, he emerged as a hero in children’s literature.
More recently he has been portrayed as everything from proto-socialist man of the people to anarchist thug. In the cinema he put in an appearance as early as 1908 and Douglas Fairbanks and then Errol Flynn turned him into the hero of Hollywood swashbucklers. More recently, Kevin Costner and Russell Crowe have provided their own very different interpretations of the character. On the small screen, Robin has been the hero of half-a-dozen TV shows from the 1950s series starring Richard Greene, which used many writers blacklisted by Hollywood, via the well-remembered Robin of Sherwood in the 1980s to the recent BBC series. As the twenty-first century marches through its second decade, he is still very much with us. He is the subject of graphic novels and computer games. New films are in the offing. Robin Hood is an archetypal hero who, it seems, can never die.
Robin Hood by Nick Rennison is out now, published by Pocket Essentials.