Saturday, 14 July 2012

How Red Was Robin Hood?

Stephen Knight

This paper was written specially for a festschrift for my old friend, colleague and co-editor Sjoumen Mukherjee, of History at Sydney; in the company of his and his friends as co-authors I felt able to investigate something I had long reflected on and discussed at times with classes, but had never seemed the sort of debate that purely (if that is the word) academic contexts would never quite entertain -- namely just how radical is Robin Hood?


In the summer of 1990 Nottingham council chamber was invaded by poll-tax rioters wearing green felt hoods, both in homage to the local outlaw and also, according to someone who was there, as a highly practical way to conceal identity -- several of the rioters worked for the council.

But while the spirit of Robin Hood was animating this anti-Thatcher resistance, in another part of Britain Kevin Reynolds was shooting Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves in which the outlaw tradition validates American capitalist institutions from militarist technology (the arrow-nose camera), through liberal multiculturalism (a genuinely good black Muslim), to familial dramas (`Ah have a brother !') and insipid love songs (the theme tune was number one for fifteen weeks in the UK) -- not to mention representing Robin as an absentee aristocrat returning from foreigner-bashing to re-establish true lordship and a true peasantry to match.

The politics of Robin Hood are confusing, or multiple. It seems they have always been so. The earliest quasi-historical reference to the hero is in a Scottish verse chronicle by Andrew of Wyntoun: in about 1420, writing under the year 1293, he speaks of Robin Hood and Little John as `waythemen', forest outlaws, who are by many people `commendit gud'.[i] The date and the response strongly suggests Wyntoun sees them as English parallels to William Wallace, and implies the public approved their quasi-guerrilla stand against English royal law. But a little later Walter Bower, another Scots chronicler, writing in Latin in about 1440, tells how Robin insists on finishing mass before fighting off his enemies, like some conservative Catholic Francis Drake.

Over nearly six hundred years the myth of the good outlaw, typified by Robin Hood both in England itself and, thanks to imperial culture-transference in the nineteenth century, also around the world, can range across the political spectrum from distinctly disrupting on the left to just as vigorously validating positions on the right. But this is not a free variation. The contexts, the means of production, the audiences available, all participate in the political variety of the Robin Hood tradition, and to trace these movements and counter-movements is to identify a constant political battle for the control of this potent symbol of morally motivated physical resistance to the power of the state.


Robin Hood texts -- ballads and short plays -- survive from the very end of the fifteenth century onwards, but the tradition was certainly known before that and there are some fragments, jotted-down scraps of song and speech, that suggest the early Robin Hood was a distinctly threatening character. A Lincoln cathedral manuscript has a marginal jotting from the early fifteenth century that speaks in heavily stressed verse of a  heavily armed outlaw:

            Robin Hood in Scherewod stod
            Hodud and hathud, hosut and schod,
            Four and twunty arrous he bar in his hondus.[ii]

With hood, hat, hose and shoes, as well as substantial weaponry, this Robin seems much like the figure that some farm labourers identified with on a road in East Anglia in 1441 when, threatening to kill Sir Geoffrey Harsyk, they chanted `We aren Robynhodesmen, War, War, War.'[iii] In much the same spirit, in May 1497 a hundred men, led by Roger Marshall in the guise of Robin Hood, marched to release their friends from Walsall jail, according to the Star Chamber charges.[iv] In the next, Tudor, century, when town councils across Britain were cracking down on all kinds of earlier eccentricity and untidiness, from wise women to festive gatherings, in 1561 the people of Edinburgh, offended that their choice of Robin Hood had been arrested to stop their carnival, seized the Toll Booth, the old town jail, took the prisoners out and put the magistrates in.

Events of this kind mesh with Eric Hobsbawm's concept of Robin Hood as having been in his original formation an archetype of the social bandit -- a charismatic young man driven to resist oppressive authorities, joined by others, performing brave deeds, admired in wish-fulfilment by the ordinary people, and finally betrayed to death.[v] Almost every culture has such a figure, from Salvatore Giuliano in Sicily to the Water Margin bandits in China, Jesse James in America and Ned Kelly in Australia -- and there are many less well-known like Il Passatore in Emilia-Romagna, Foufillaz in Galicia. Such figures are not necessarily on the left: they can be nationalist bandits, like most of the anti-Austrian heroes that Hobsbawm discusses, and their interests can be hostile to those of the proletariat, like Billy the Kid. Indeed, while Hobsbawm feels that Robin Hood was a redistributor of wealth, in fact the early texts about the most violent and anti-state Robin say nothing about robbing the rich to give to the poor: reimbursing his own class fraction is as close as the social bandit Robin gets to fiscal revolution. Rodney Hilton, one of the distinguished British Marxist historians of the near past who had a strong interest in Robin Hood and his meaning, felt that the early outlaw ballads spoke the values of the 1381 `Peasants Revolt', but the narratives and the references of the texts do not sustain this view. Robin was not one of the names used in mythical support of the peasants, and J. C. Holt has noted that `Hob the Robber', one of those figures, is not a variant of the good outlaw's name.[vi]

Robin Hood's violence is not revolutionary. The most aggressive of the early ballads is `Robin Hood and the Monk' in which the hero is arrested by the sheriff when he goes to Nottingham to pray to our lady (a mildly unauthoritative form of religion).[vii] Little John and Much meet a monk on his way to get the king to approve Robin's execution; they kill him and, as a witness, his serving-boy; Little John masquerades as messenger to the king; returns to the sheriff, gets him drunk at dinner, kills the jailer and sets Robin free. But this guerrilla-style action is never against the king, and he in fact rather admires the outlaws at the end. Respecting king and, via Mary at least, religion, the early Robin Hood texts merely attack corrupt agents of an unchallenged system. The political radicality is local, not national. Richard Tardif has argued lucidly for these ballads as displaced images of liberty and self-management from tradesmen oppressed by newly developed urban structures.[viii]

This hero who vigorously resists local legal agencies was certainly popular and survived well past the medieval period: as the outlaw tradition is reconstructed in a market context in the seventeenth-century printed broadside ballads, some are quite violent, like `Robin Hood's Progress to Nottingham', apparently a prequel which explains how the hero is in the first instance outlawed. On his way to an archery tournament in Nottingham the young Robin meets fifteen foresters. They mock his capability with a bow and one bets him he cannot hit a stag at distance: he does; the man refuses to pay; Robin threatens him; he runs away; Robin kills him and his fourteen friends, then wounds the Nottingham citizens as they run to see what the alarm is about. The Ramboesque spirit of this ballad appealed greatly -- it is one of the most widely recorded -- but this bristling, local riot form of outlaw activity was by no means the only version of Robin Hoodery known in the period.

There were two other early versions of the hero: they both overlap with the social bandit, but have a very different politics. One was an obscure, because scantily recorded, version of the hero, which may well be his earliest formation in England. This is the `play-game' Robin Hood, referred to widely in Southern and Western England in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. He is the focus for a village festivity in May (not May Day but late May, usually Whit Sunday), where natural imagery is dominant, games and sports are enjoyed, as well as dancing and celebration -- these events are sometimes called a `Robin Hood Ale'. Money is usually collected for the community, apparently at times with some pressure, even menaces.[ix] The play-game Robin, it seems, primarily represents the community and celebrates its continuance. The only clear sign of resistance is in two plays, or scenes, preserved from c.1475 where Robin and his men are in action against the sheriff. It is thought these plays, recorded among the Paston papers, are a condensed script for play-game entertainments. There are two plays added to the Gest by William Copland in his edition of about 1560, but they do not involve Robin at all with the sheriff: they are robust encounters with the Potter and the Friar, and where the Potter ballad does involve, and humiliate, the sheriff, the play does not. So the evidence for an anti-authority Robin Hood in the evidently very popular play-games is thin indeed; although Alexandra Johnstone has recently identified a strong spirit of carnival, quite possibly including anti-authoritarian meanings, in the play games,[x] it is only in the ballads that Robin is clearly an outlaw and an enemy of the agents of the law.

In all this early material it seems that the essence of Robin Hood is that he is a natural figure -- realised among the beauty of early summer, never associated with autumn or winter -- and he also represents natural law, a version of ethics and equity which is evidently preferable to the new imposed structure, whether administered by sheriff, or abbot, or their deputies. From the village viewpoint in the play-games that is a coherent and communal position; from that of the urban tradesmen who, as Tardif argues, seem to have been the audience for the early ballads, there is a more organised and more violent tone of dissent involved. For Andrew of Wyntoun, Robin's resistance could involve the parallel to Scots nationalism; for Walter Bower, the church's rights against those of the state. It is a very flexible form of resistance, and it is rarely associated with any forms of socially organised revolt -- though there is a trace of Robin Hood's name being used as an alias or rallying point in Jack Cade's rebellion of 1451.[xi] Yet the resistance of town councils to Robin Hood festivities, and the widespread cultural containment of the tradition suggests that it was in fact, perhaps in unrecorded ways, associated with popular resistance. As England grew more aware of and more explicit about social conflict in the seventeenth century, Robin Hood was at times linked with serious resistance: Sir Robert Cecil called the Guy Fawkes conspirators `Robin Hoods' and Christopher Hill has noted that the hero's name was used on the parliamentary side in an election.[xii] The most striking, if deeply negative, testimony to a politically resistant Robin is the remarkable short play, Robin Hood and His Crew of Souldiers, played in Nottingham, on the day of Charles II's coronation in 1661, in which Robin and his men cave in to royal rhetoric - no fighting, no ambush, no sheriff-killing this time -they merely sing and dance in honour of the newly restored monarch.[xiii]

The need for the play seems to suggest there were political depths to the Robin Hood myth in the period that have not yet been traced textually -- and maybe never had written form, like the instincts of the Nottingham poll-tax rioters. What we do, however, have in literary form, apart from the debatable and variable politics of the early ballads and play-games already discussed, is the last of the early variations of the hero and his meaning, a major form of cultural containment of radical Robin Hood, the thoroughly conservative tradition of the gentrified outlaw.


Gentrification can be seen first stirring in the Historia Majoris Britanniae (1521) by John Major, a conservative of longer duration than the cricket-loving nobody who followed Thatcher. Yet another Scottish chronicler, Major was the first to date Robin in the fateful 1190s, though he made nothing of the Prince John connection. He did however admire the hero: while admitting he was a villain, he also called him `princeps' of thieves. The name has resurfaced as an image: it was used by Dumas in a novel's title,[xiv] and by Hollywood for the 1991 film starring Kevin Costner. But chroniclers after Major apparently read it as an aristocratic title, and Richard Grafton, an English-language chronicler, in 1569 first suggested that Robin had been an Earl who had been displaced by a mixture of his enemies and his own rash generosity, and so had become a noble outlaw. From here, via Grafton's imitators, Munday took up the conservativising theme.

But the conservative gentrifying move was not restricted to chroniclers: there are other instances of writers drawing Robin Hood's radical sting and using the myth against its own most dangerous possibilities. In George a Greene (perhaps by Robert Greene, and written by 1594), Robin is depicted as second in command to the bold Pindar of Wakefield, who resists a rebellion by the Earl of Kendall who is clearly figured as Robin Hood attacking -- in Kendall green of course -- the town of Wakefield in a manner analogous to Robin in the well-known ballad `Robin Hood and the Pindar of Wakefield'. In George Peele's Edward I, printed in 1593, Llywelyn, the last Welsh prince of Wales, is on the run from Edward I's imperial incursions, here presented as benignly as possible. For no very clear reason Llywelyn and his friends enact a Robin Hood play in which Edward and his ally Mortimer play the official roles opposing the outlaw - the text both recognises and euphemises the first colonial resistance to the English state.

So the politics of Robin Hood were already gentrified and his social-bandit-like activities are being contained before Anthony Munday influentially relocated the whole character as an earl in his own right in his 1598 play The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington, in 1598.

Gentrifying Robin Hood performed a dramatic ideological feat. By suddenly locating him in the 1190s and making him a displaced nobleman, resisting not the malign everyday agents of law itself but the malpractice of Prince John in seizing royal power, the process turned Robin right round from a populist resister of oppressive authority into a faithful supporter of true aristocratic authority and kingship, from social bandit to distressed gentleman. This newly ennobled Robin may enlist the people in his cause, and may reward them with charity, but both are fully hierarchical actions, and the end of the story is his restoration to full aristocratic power by direct donation of the king. This major change is neatly encapsulated in Munday's title. Not only is Robin now an earl: being in the forest is his downfall. The hero whose glory was to stand free and armed in the summer forest and threaten all-comers now feels humiliated to have to haunt the forest with a band of common men.

This move to full gentrification had great impact on the tradition. Most Robin Hood stories since then have either followed Munday's model or, with a deliberate and often radical posture, rejected it. Munday’s plays -- there was also The Death of Robert, Earle of Huntington, a morbid melodrama mostly given over to King John's pursuit of Marian, Lady Fitzwater, whom he finally drives to suicide -- had almost no dramatic impact: a recent rehearsed reading in Stratford may have been the first production for hundreds of years. But they had great impact on the tradition, generating a version where the hero was comfortably conservative, the kind of fellow that Elizabethan magnates could watch their companies perform, that Hollywood moguls could finance to caper across the world-wide screens. Munday, government spy as well as jobbing flatterer to the mercantile bourgeoisie, did his anti-radical work very well.

The lack of dramatic impact arises from a curious dialectic feature of the texts: in gentrifying Robin Hood, Munday and others (including Ben Jonson in his unfinished The Sad Shepherd, c.1636) have to discard the energetic anti-authoritarian action of the ballads, which were still very popular in the very same period. Genteel Robin Hood kills no sheriffs, humiliates no monks, never plays hangman to rescue his men from the gallows. He lurks about the forest moaning, with his lady - she is a new feature, as lords must have ladies along with the titles (or how will they hand down their titles?), as well as the land, tomb and epitaph which are also elements of this new gentrified fetishisation.[xv]

Ideologically powerful though the idea of Lord Robin is, and compelling as Hollywood has mostly found it, Lord Robin was not triumphant early on. The gentrified Robin was not found in anything compelling -- Jonson did not finish his inactive but verbally sharp masque-like play – and it only gave rise to feeble eighteenth-century ballad operas involving tenor Robin and soprano Marian with abductions and elderly suitors, many theatrical miles from radical outlawry. Much more potent, though still unrevolutionary, was the hero of the broadside ballads, standing solidly in his galligaskins as a contemporary military outlaw -- whatever that might mean in the mid-seventeenth century. His lively, frequently violent escapades were highly popular: it is true that his vigour was more oppressive now of the medieval Catholic church than the officers of royal law, and Martin Parker's 1632 ballad epic The True Tale of Robin Hood has a nervy conclusion noting that such troublesome activity is now a thing of the unregretted past, but overall the mid-seventeenth century Robin Hood seems to be thoroughly dual, capable of the anti-conservative action of the street ballads as well as the revanchist gentrification coming down from Munday and Jonson.

Of the two figures, social bandit and distressed gentleman, the bold active hero -- still respecting the king but now ignoring the Virgin Mary -- is much the stronger, rollicking through Lives and the ballad collections known as `garlands’, as well as reprinted broadsides and by the later eighteenth century appearing in the new genre of anthologies. The ballads were well-known in early America - Robin's resistance to the king presumably had special anti-colonial meaning, and were printed there as well as imported.  Thomas Percy judged seven of his eight Robin Hood ballads too damaged for appearance in his Reliques, but he may have also been put off by their tough directness about resistance to authority -- in the one he printed, `Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne' he changed Little John's impact on the sheriff in the last line from `Shot him through the head' to `shot him into the back-syde'. Thomas Evans, one of the many Welsh scholars to illuminate London publishing in the period, produced a fine collection of Old Ballads in 1777 with twenty-seven of the broadside ballads in place, but the apotheosis of anthologisation came a little later.

In 1795 Joseph Ritson published his Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs and Ballads Relative to the Celebrated English Outlaw. It offered almost all the texts -- he missed `Robin Hood and the Monk', still mouldering in manuscript in Cambridge, but he added all the other early ballads to Evans's collection, which (unnoticed by any commentators) he left in exactly Evans's order. That transmitted the social bandit past, but Ritson had some surprises in his introductory matter. He was a Jacobin who observed the revolutionary calendar, addressed his timid English colleagues as `Citizen' and even went so far as to be  vegetarian in the very heart of beef-eating John Bullism. To him Robin Hood meant something like a medieval Tom Paine. The `Life' that Ritson provided spoke vividly of the medieval period as a time of `titled ruffians and sainted idiots', neatly embracing all the English kings from William I to Henry VI, and idolising Robin as a hero of  `the common people...'[xvi]

Fine radical stuff. Yet very strangely -- or not, if you trace the course of the English Labour party-- Ritson was also wedded to the love of a lord, and if his political account of Robin was thoroughly radical, the biography he offered was thoroughly conservative. He accepted in total the gentrified elements that had been gathered since Major, guesses, inventions, fantasies and lunacies, and trotted them out at the high tide of biographism. His Robin, this leader of the populace against their oppressors, was descended from one Robert FitzOoth who came over with the conqueror; the crazy genealogy linking him to the niece of William I was invented by William Stukely, the Stamford antiquarian who had also proved to his own satisfaction the existence of a university in, of course, Stamford in the eighth century BC. To the works, well gathered, crisply edited, scholarly annotated, Ritson added a fanciful, erratic and conservative Life which was to dominate thinking about the hero for -- well, pretty much ever.

This was crucial. Ritson brought together for the first time the gentrified and the popular strands. The robust social bandit had all the good stories, but was increasingly marginal in a status-oriented culture; the displaced lord, an appealing enough topic, had been bereft of any theatrical or narrative interest: the eighteenth-century ballad opera authors struggled to find interesting material - there is even a comic scene in the 1730 Robin Hood: An Opera lifted from the fifteenth century Wakefield Second Shepherds' Play.[xvii] Ritson, though, re-equipped the socially acceptable Earl with a set of adventures that were truly entertaining, memorable, even politically meaningful. He only juxtaposed the two: he never interwove them. But his crucial collocation of the disparate strands of the tradition was too tempting to be ignored, and before long the tradition took on new life as in the nineteenth century the formerly separate elements of the Robin Hood tradition interwove to create the complex, politically labile, inherently conservative and possibly radical mix that we still have today.


Ritson's new position for the combined hero did not inspire any activity for a generation -- perhaps his own radicalism was too forbidding until revolutionary France was beaten, and his hostility to the church created enemies -- but when in a very active period around 1820 Robin Hood was reconstructed the figure gained three crucial features of what was for the most part to be a new conservatism. In Ivanhoe (published at the end of 1819) Sir Walter Scott gave the outlaw a clear national, indeed racial status: for the first time he was a Saxon hero resisting the Norman French, an appealing theme for the jingoistic times, and one rarely forgotten since. In Ivanhoe and in Thomas Love Peacock's Maid Marian (1822, though he started writing it in 1818 before reading Ivanhoe) Robin was also a distinctly masculine figure -- Scott made him symbolically hyper-phallic in splitting his enemy's arrow for the first time, and Peacock made him the devil-may-care lover of the beautiful but ultimately subservient Marian. The third element of the modernising of Robin Hood was a refocusing on the forest: what for the medieval ballads had been a place of security, an alternative world free of urban and royal power -- as it was for many real outlaws in the period -- became in the nineteenth century, and very forcefully in twentieth-century films, a place of retreat from unappealing modern civilisation: a pastoral outlaw was created, a theme partly glimpsed in the early gentrifiers, but never made dynamic.

Robin the rural English gentleman is a staple of the new tradition, as generated in the popular novel Robin Hood and Little John, or The Merry Men of Sherwood Forest by Pierce Egan the Younger (1840) and in Tennyson's much overlooked verse drama The Foresters (written by 1881 but not played until 1892 in America). The figure is inherently conservative, but it did not entirely dominate: the new Robin was created during a period of great political stress in England between the Napoleonic wars and the first reform bill, and while there is hardly a trace of interest in the outlaw among the Chartists and the heroes of Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class (there are a few contacts between Robin and the midlands Luddites[xviii]), the outlaw figure is still available as a displacement for some elements of contemporary resistance. In Keats's 1818 poem `Robin Hood: To a Friend' he imagines, if briefly, a revived Robin and Marian lamenting the contemporary oppression of tenants and the encroachment of the cash-nexus.[xix] In a more developed vein Leigh Hunt wrote a set of ballads which recreated the anti-authoritarian bandit in an occasionally theorised context, as when he imagines the return of tax money as a restitution of expropriated goods and labour value:

                        Well, ploughman there's a sheaf of yours
                                    Turn'd to yellow gold:
                        And, miller, there's your last year's rent,
                                    Twill wrap thee from the cold.[xx]

Robin could also represent forms of civil  democratic action, as in the novel Royston Gower (1838), where Thomas Miller, a basket-maker (later to work with G. M. W. Reynolds, Chartist, popular writer and founder of the long-lasting leftish Reynolds' News) made Robin, while Saxon, manly and definitely rural in the modern mode, seem more like an anti-aristocratic guerrilla, married as he was to a Saxon peasant girl, than the now usual liberal gentleman. G. P. R. James in Forest Days (1843) pursued a more upmarket line in making his Robin fight for Simon de Montfort, the alleged founder of the English parliament, a myth dear to liberals with a shaky grasp of history. But there is a sharper edge: at the end of the novel the king pardons the vile aristocrat who has been behind abduction and murder throughout, but Robin sends a black arrow through the villain's throat with the message: `Whom Kings spare, the Commons send to judgement.'[xxi] A social use of the tradition somewhat more programmatic than these resistance fancies is implicit in the reprinting by the radical The People's Journal in 1846 of the whole of the early sixteenth century Gest of Robin Hood, spread over two issues, clearly as a claim on the existence of an antique tradition of resistance to oppressive law, a way of validating present agitation.

These instances testify to the continuing possibility of reading Robin Hood as radical, to a greater or lesser degree, but the weight of the nineteenth-century tradition is towards the gentrification of the hero -- though a distinctly bourgeois gentrification, for now for the first time Robin's enemies are vicious aristocrats, not merely local legal bureaucrats. It should also be noted that Robin had a renewed -- or is it continued ? -- existence as a popular comic hero in pantomime and comic play, where the long-standing tradition of performance and comedy, to be seen in early plays and implied in the existence of the late medieval play-games, flourishes in now recorded form, and the comedy can have satiric moments: in Robin Hood and Richard Coeur de Lion of 1846 the Sheriff is a property developer, blighting Sherwood with red-brick houses. The nineteenth century also saw the continued reprinting, usually  from small provincial presses, of the chapbooks, garlands and Lives of the earlier period, representing usually a non-gentrified bandit hero, sometimes in distinctly comic and carnivalesque form. One chapbook has Robin dressed as a woman: a young lord takes him aside into the forest with sexual malpractice in mind, but is rapidly surprised and robbed. Something of this vigorous and popular spirit is communicated in the very influential Merry Adventures of Robin Hood by the American illustrator Howard Pyle who in 1883 published a set of stories aimed at children to act as setting for his own very fine William Morris style illustrations. While the stories are sentimentally medievalised, it is not a gentrified text. Pyle chose the chapbook tradition: Robin is not a lord and there is no Maid Marian. There is plenty of homosocial fun, verging on homosexual feeling, as well as a sense of democratic egalitarianism. Pyle transmitted the multiple masculine energies of the ballads into the American mainstream  -- and this where the thrust of Robin Hood in film was to occur.


The strongest genre in the twentieth century was visual and popular – but not therefore radical: film and television versions almost all celebrated Robin as a liberal gentleman, automatically taking over the leadership of the pre-existing outlaws, as by class right, and standing up for true aristocracy and kingship, validated by a sense of Saxon racial justice and a general aura of charity. There can be other political grace-notes: the 1922 film starring Douglas Fairbanks appears to validate American isolationism, as Robin returns from Crusade to rectify domestic wrongs; the 1938 film starring Errol Flynn clearly links Norman thugs with contemporary German social violence; the 1991 film starring Kevin Costner enacts international liberalism towards both American blacks and Arabs through the Little John-like new character Azeem. But the dominating ideology throughout all of these is liberal-conservative and that remains the pattern of recent feminised versions like Jennifer Roberson's Lady of the Forest (1993) or the 2001 Disney film Princess of Thieves, starring Keira Knightley as Robin's daughter. Though these in varying degrees radically empower the long-constrained female figures in the tradition, they do so in a context of aristocratic excitement, as ladies rather than women.

But the film continuation of the Romantic Robin Hood has not been the only one. The early twentieth century saw, in addition to the films, a rash of outlaw plays and poems mostly aimed at schools which were inherently Georgian, a mixture of homosociality, patriotism and occasional magic; while these can now be read as developing the inherently gay element of the Robin Hood tradition, they were not consciously radical. But clearly on the left was the ballad opera written by Michael Tippett for a benefit for the ironstone miners of North Yorkshire in 1933 - this has never been appeared in print or in performance since because Tippett reused the musical themes. Similar is the unpublished play written by Jack Lindsay for Unity Theatre, performed in 1938. There were novels that identified a radical Robin. Henry Gilbert in 1912 has an unlordly outlaw with a clear democratic spirit, and this was a very widely read book, much cut down into children’s versions as Robin played a part in the new English curriculum in schools – no doubt because he seemed in neither sexual nor political terms likely to upset any comfortable conservative apple-carts, the inherent threatening whisper of resistance having become obscured by gentrification, and in any case never very audible to those who construct curricula.

Geoffrey Trease's firmly Marxist novel Bows Against the Barons (1934) does survive as a one-off: his first children's book, it has a proletarian Robin addressing his men as `comrade', involves the outlaws in revolutionary action parallel to that of the 1381 Peasants' Revolt, and has a fine illustration of a popular assault on Nottingham castle in which are foregrounded two peasants waving a hammer and, of course, a sickle. A second edition of 1948 removed the `comrade' references and provided less political illustrations, indicating the elusive nature of any really radical Robin Hood activity in the present period, but even film and television have been able at times to remember that Robin sometimes dressed in red rather than Lincoln green. The television series The Adventures of Robin Hood, shown in 1956-8 in Britain and America, which starred Richard Greene as a returning soldier, for all the world like those ex-officers who won Labour seats in 1945 (I think of him as Squadron Leader Robin Hood). The series firmly represents the Normans as an oppressive class, and each episode focuses on righting some anti-democratic wrong. As is well-known, the series was largely written, at first at least, by black-listed Americans including Ring Lardner Jr and Ian McClellan Hunter, who had a clear idea of what modern sheriffs might be capable of. With this deep-seated resonance for those who hoped for new post-war world, as well as the sheer technical skill of the production, brilliantly surviving, even emphasised by its tiny budget, the series was enormously successful on both sides of the Atlantic -- thirty million viewers a week were claimed in Britain and the US and it showed around the world for many years, in many countries until the coming of colour television.

However, the largely conservative trend of Robin Hoodery continued with unremarkable B pictures - three from Hammer films between 1957 and 1962 and the full-length cartoon from Disney in 1973, in which Robin and Marian are winsome foxes, the sheriff is an ugly wolf and his supporters are large and notably African animals, an insidious form of American racism. But world politics had brought new forms of realism back to the screen: there were two basically unsuccessful leftish Robin Hoods: The Legend of Robin Hood starring David Warbeck was made (again by Hammer) as a television pilot but it was not taken up as a series and had a cinema release in 1973 as Wolfshead. This was a warts-and-all version with naturalistic costuming, weather, regional accents and radical plotting. The shock of realism, let alone radical politics, seemed too much for audiences, as is most strongly indicated by the failure at the box-office of Richard Lester's 1976 Robin and Marian, starring Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn. Robin is here an elderly, tough, grumpy peasant soldier, who parts company with King Richard on Crusade because of his brutality. There is a clear sixties-style radicalism running through the film, which may in part account for its relative failure at the box-office, though most commentators feel this is caused by realism: age, winter, provincial English accents appear along with distaste for authority, and, for the only time in film -- and very rarely in print either -- Robin and Marian die at the end. Whatever its politics, youthfulness, summer, some form of gaiety, must be part of the outlaw myth.

That was certainly observed in a later very successful television series which did pay some attention to radical themes. Robin of Sherwood, shown by Harlech Television from 1984, starred Michael Praed as a student radical type of Robin Hood, all long dark hair, cutting edge profile and unfocused enthusiasm. The series started with a flashback to the Norman destruction of his village -- a My Lai moment --  because his father was leader of a rebellion against the Normans. But Robin's anti-authoritarian activities are never so organised as revolt, and Richard Carpenter, who has also written scripts for children's television and adventures like Dick Turpin  and The Scarlet Pimpernel, adds romance -- in part in the beautiful summer forest settings, but also in that Robin is selected as the resistant hero by Herne the Hunter, appearing from his misty cave brandishing his fine stag horns. Through Herne’s powers, Robin's death (when Praed wanted to leave the series) we were led to a new Robin, the silver-haired Jason Connery.

Palliated as it was by magic and beauty, not to mention Clannad's Celtic electronic folk soundtrack, Robin of Sherwood did maintain a certain level of radicalism in the narrative: Robin remains a peasant; hostilities are clearly class-based; Will Scarlet, played powerfully by the young Ray Winstone, has a distinct football terrace tone and has killed Normans for the rape-murder of his wife; there is also a consistent representation of the oppression of ordinary people that clearly relates to the growing brutalities of the Thatcher regime. Both in its success and its restrictions Robin of Sherwood characterises the possibilities and  the limitations of the mainstream Robin Hood tradition for radical representation. Points can be made, even in unlikely contexts -- the other 1991 film, Robin Hood, starring Patrick Bergin and Uma Thurman, while basically combining carnival with melodrama, offers what seem some dark comments about Thatcherism and has the first definably feminist Marian, no doubt because it was rewritten by the radical British playwright John McGrath.

Coherently radical accounts of the outlaw's activities are rare and fugitive, in the present as much as the past, but the post 9/11 mood has certainly darkened the attitudes of recent Robin Hood materials. The British television series starting in 2006 was aimed at the young, with its lightly stubbled Robin and its distinctly boyish Marian, and according to a source on the production definitely made it, as the American advertising was led by merchants of make-up and trainers (lords of the 10-14 age bracket), but it also had a firmly negative approach to war in the Middle East here presented by the Crusade, and the authorities at home wavered between ludicrous (the sheriff) and uncertain (Sir Guy, who was my source says, shaped as eye candy for the mothers, with substantial success: this is a neat reversal of the way Christian Slater was deployed in the 1991 film to entice those young ladies who would find Costner a little, well, senior for their taste.). But the television series at least had some juvenile fun: the 2011 film starring Russell Crowe was a thoroughly sombre affair.

Early on it was planned to respond fully to the post 9/11 situation by recognising that in the modern world agents of law have special status and so Robin was going to be the sheriff – then he became a moonlighting sheriff, and finally emerged just a dull version of himself. There is a more distant connection which survives – back to the nineteenth-century liberalism of the idea that Robin was connected with liberal institutions such as Magna Carta and – an even further stretch – the notion that Simon de Montfort (the younger and somewhat less revolting) was involved in the establishment of a mid thirteenth century parliament. We get to that sort of woolly precedentism by the end of the film, though any sense of actual politic sis lightened, if only ironically, by some anti-French manoeuvres. But the overall tone like that of Crowe’s acting is deeply sombre, including the remarkable feat of making Cate Blanchett seem almost unattractive.

This is curious, because I believe it is possible to argue that the tradition has periods of intense activity when government is widely recognised to be oppressive. The 1980s in Britain and America are a clear case; the 1820s in Britain also; probably the late seventeenth century after the Restoration, and also the period leading up to the Civil War. I suspect the late Elizabethan period is another instance. There may be others, including the period around 1500 when the texts are first recorded and, conceivably, the troubled later fourteenth century when many feel that the stories were first formed. However clear or vague their definition, these are all periods when there is a lot of activity not only in major production but also in the cultural undergrowth, periods when Robin Hood is unusually alive. But the impact of the texts in such periods is not primarily or systematically political -- if they have any political thrust it may merely be Utopian, a fantasy of freedom that locates itself more in an aura of liberty and alternative communality than in purposive planning for reform or revolution.

Utopian dreams, however, have a role to play in politics. What seems to come out of a consideration of Robin Hood's radical status is that it is, and has been, always there: from the start, and to the present, there is a sense that bad authority should be resisted, however euphemised or contained that message might be. There also seems to be a potential -- sometimes deeply buried -- capacity  for the tradition to take on a politically potent edge. There have been a whole series of manoeuvres which have made that less possible in the world of publishing, drama production and most notably film-making, but also it would seem in the quest for major success with audiences. Too realistic a version, too radical an account of dealing with oppression, does not succeed on a large front. The systems of cultural production and reception can themselves operate like sheriffs. 

But the social bandit is an elusive figure, and the Robin Hood tradition takes many forms. The underlying myth that oppression can be resisted, that arrows can strike from nowhere, is one that accords ill with conservative ideology; there are no Robin Hood texts in the high canon of English Literature, itself a sign of rude political health. The power of the outlaw tradition to be politically resistant has for long -- perhaps always -- been under consistent containment, from gentrification and other forms of trivialisation, all deflecting, appropriating, concealing, ignoring, but never quite destroying, the radical potential of the myth of the good outlaw. Twenty four arrows is a lot of fire power.


[i]. The text of Andrew's comment, and those by other early chroniclers, can be found in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales, ed. Stephen Knight and Thomas Ohlgren, second ed. (University of Western Michigan Press, Kalamazoo, 2000).

[ii]. The text is edited in Modern Language Notes, 43 (1948), 509, and discussed in Douglas Gray's essay, `The Robin Hood Poems' Poetica 18 (1984) 1-19, reprinted in Robin Hood: Anthology of Scholarship and Criticism, ed. S.Knight (Brewer, Cambridge, 1999), pp. 3-32, see pp.13-14. There are some editing difficulties with this fragment: the text reads `four and thunti': it s more likely that the original was `twunti' not `thurti': thirty four would be a very odd number to cite.

[iii]. This was first identified by the Australian historian Philippa Madden in her 1985 Oxford D.Phil. thesis; the first published reference is in Colin Richmond, `An Outlaw and Some Peasants: The Possible Significance of the Robin Hood Tradition' Nottingham Medieval Studies 37 (1993), 90-101; reprinted in Robin Hood: Anthology of Scholarship and Criticism, ed. Knight, pp. 363-76, see p.376.
[iv]. For details see J.C.Holt, Robin Hood, second edition (Thames and Hudson, London, 1989), pp.147-9.
[v]. See  Eric Hobsbawm, Bandits,  second edition (Pelican, London, 1985).
[vi]. See Holt, Robin Hood, p.157.
[vii]. The fullest source for the Robin Hood ballads is F. J. Child's English and Scottish Popular Ballads, ten vols. (Barker, Boston, 1869-92), reprinted in five vols. (Dover, New York, 1965): Child prints all the available ballads in variant texts. A selection of the most important ballads can be found in R. B. Dobson and J.Taylor, ed., Rymes of Robyn Hood second ed. (Sutton, Stroud, 1997) and in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales, ed. Knight and Ohlgren.
[viii]. Richard Tardif `The "Mistery" of Robin Hood: A New Social Context for the Texts,' in Words and Worlds: the Social Role of Verbal Culture, ed. S.Knight and S.Mukherjee (Sydney Association for Studies in Society and Culture, Sydney, 1983), pp.130-45.
[ix]. These games are described and discussed in Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw (Blackwell, Oxford, 1994), pp.99-115 and Jeffrey L. Singman, Robin Hood: The Shaping of a Legend (Greenwood, Westport, 1998).
[x]. Alexandra F. Johnstone, `The Robin Hood of the Records,' in Playing Robin Hood: The Legend as Performance in Five Centuries, ed. Lois J. Potter (University of Delaware Press, Newark, 1998), pp.27-44.
[xi]. See I. M. W. Harvey, Jack Cade's Rebellion (Clarendon, Oxford, 1991), p.65.
[xii]. Cecil's comment is noted by Holt, p.170; Christopher Hill, `Robin Hood' in Liberty Against the Law (Lane, London, 1996), pp.71-82; reprinted in Robin Hood: Anthology of Scholarship and Criticism, ed. Knight, pp.285-95, see p.290. 
[xiii]. For the text of this play see Rymes of Robyn Hood, ed. R.B.Dobson and J.Taylor and Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales, ed. Knight and Ohlgren.
[xiv]. Alexandre Dumas, Robin Hood, prince des voleurs (Levy, Paris, 1872).
[xv]. For a discussion of these phenomena see Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (Cornell, Cornell University Press, 2003), section 2.
[xvi]. Joseph Ritson, ed., Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs and Ballads Relative to the Celebrated English Outlaw, two vols. (Egerton and Johnson, London, 1795), pp.xi-xii.
[xvii]. For a discussion see Knight, Robin Hood: a Complete Study, pp.148-9.
[xviii]. See Brian Bailey, The Luddite Rebellion (Sutton, Stroud, 1998), pp. 20, 31 and 69.
[xix]. See the discussion in Nicholas Roe, John Keats and the Culture of Dissent (Clarendon, Oxford, 1997), pp.146-55.
[xx]. Hunt's poems were published in November 1820 in The Indicator, and then reprinted in Stories in Verse (Routledge, London, 1852); for a discussion see Knight, Robin Hood, 167-70.
[xxi]. G.P.R.James, Forest Days three vols. (Saunders and Otley, London, 1843), III. p.302.

1 comment:

  1. This is not so much a defence of Walt Disney’s Robin Hood (1973) but an attempt at redressing a one-sided analysis. At first glance your statement that this cartoon was a continuation of a conservative trend of unremarkable B pictures seems correct. Disney being synonymous with conservative and the recycling of material, most noticeably from The Jungle Book, confirming its ‘B’ status. However, leaving aside the vultures Nutsy and Trigger, the sheriff’s (long)bow wielding posse appear to be stoats or weasels. It is only with the appearance of the royal caravan that we see large and notably African animals – ie rhinos, hippos, elephants and crocodiles. Is this a form of racism? Possibly – insidious implying that the audience will not consciously perceive it – but I disagree. It seems only logical that African animals would be in the train of the royal lions! The contrast of animals from the African savannah to those of the Anglo-American farmyard and woodland seems more of a reflection of the Norman/Saxon divide. And yes the Norman/Saxon angle can be racist and nationalistic but most retellings, and this one is no different, end with the two races coming together – usually symbolized by Robin and Marian’s marriage. Although in this case how a fox (Marian) is related to a lion (Richard I –“I’ll have an outlaw for an in-law”) I’ve yet to discover. Your concluding remarks that the radical potential of the Robin Hood myth being (in this case seriously) contained but never quite destroyed can be applied to this version. The radicalness that comes through seems an echo of sentiments from the first American revolution (otherwise known as the War of Independence) in the constant references to “taxes are bad” and (once) from the young rabbit, Skippy, “Death to tyrants!”